Blooming Fantastic: How to Maintain Healthy Flowerbeds
There’s no better way to enliven your property than with colorful flowerbeds. Flowering plants are especially effective when planted alongside a foundation wall, fence line, patio, front porch, retaining wall, or pathway. Flowerbeds often contain three types of plants: perennials, which bloom each year for several years; annuals that bloom, seed and die all in a single season; and biennials, which bloom after two years and then die. You don’t have to be a botanist to realize that perennials require less tending than annuals, which must be dug up and replaced every year.
Annuals are often rotated throughout the growing season. For example, many gardeners plant early-blooming annuals in the spring, which fade and die around Labor Day, and then replace them with other annuals that will last until the first frost. In warmer regions, you can often plant a third time for producing flowers late into winter.
There isn’t a single approach to flowerbed maintenance; there are simply too many different varieties of flowering plants. But here are some general rules that can be applied to nearly any flowerbed.
Fertilizing—Besides water and sun, flowering plants need fertilizer to produce healthy, colorful blossoms. Every high-quality plant food contains a mixture of three essential nutrients: nitrogen for healthy growth of vibrant green leaves and stems, and phosphorus and potassium, which stimulate root growth and flower production.
Serious gardeners use different fertilizers to feed various plants. However, you can often get excellent results using an all-purpose plant food. As a general rule, apply fertilizer before periods of rapid growth or flowering. Granular fertilizers are best used when preparing the flowerbed in the spring and fall. Liquid fertilizers can be applied after planting.
Many experienced flower gardeners recommend using a “balanced” fertilizer; that is, one containing equal percentages of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, such as a 10-10-10 blend. If you apply a fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen, a common mistake, the plants will have great looking leaves, but will produce fewer flowers.
Mulching—Is there a more benign material on the planet than mulch? Even so, a layer of mulch can reduce the amount of time spent tending flowerbeds more than anything else. Mulch serves four purposes: it deters weed growth, retains moisture, insulates the soil against drastic temperature changes, and creates an overall neater appearance.
Mulch comes in many forms, including shredded bark, wood chips, pebbles and cocoa-bean husks. Spread fine mulch, such as pebbles or husks, to a depth of 2 or 3 in. Coarser mulch, such as bark or wood chips, should be spread at least 3 or 4 in. deep. After application, pull the mulch a couple of inches away from each plant to allow fresh air to reach the base of the plant.
Note, too, that recycled mulch is now available in many communities. Made from partially composted green waste, recycled mulch keeps valuable organic matter out of landfills. And it’s cheaper than commercial mulch. Mulch is commonly available in 2- and 3-cu.-ft. bags, or in bulk from garden shops. To determine how many bags of mulch you need for your garden, consider this: A 2-cu.-ft. bag covers approximately 6 sq. ft. when spread 4 in. deep. A 3-cu.-ft. bag of mulch covers 9 sq. ft. at the same depth.
Deadheading—To encourage flowering plants to continue to bloom throughout the season, it’s important to pinch off the flowers once they begin to fade. This practice, which is known as deadheading, will not only make your garden look neater, it’ll also extend the growing season and produce healthier plants. Note that some plants, such as begonias and impatiens, don't need deadheading, so plant them to save time in the garden.
Finally, many flowerbeds fail because plants are placed too close together. Every plant has a recommended spacing requirement that takes into account future growth. Planting too many flowers in one area, results in stunted growth, fewer blossoms and a maintenance nightmare. To find the recommended spacing for your flowers, look up each species in a plant encyclopedia or call a local garden shop.
An effective solution to overcrowding is to use dwarf species, which can be placed closer together than taller versions of the same plant. For example, the popular and colorful annual snapdragon must be planted 14 to 16 in. apart. However, dwarf variety snapdragons can be spaced as close together as 8 in. Happy planting!