Troubleshooting Annuals

Many of us depend heavily on the long lasting blooms of our annuals to carry the weight of the garden's color while our perennials come and go. Although usually much less troublesome than their perennial counterparts, annuals can suffer from a garden variety of maladies. If your annual display of annuals isn't working out like you planned, read on for some clues as to what might have happened.

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Problem: Poor Germination

You planted some seeds hoping to create a perfect border of color, but now that your seedlings are up, all that you see are huge gaps and weeds growing where your flowers are supposed to be. What happened?

Possible Causes:

Soil disturbances caused by rain, water or animals; stolen seeds, old seeds; dry or infertile soil; over-zealous thinning.

Solutions:

You can't control the weather, but you can control the spray nozzle on your garden hose. Avoid strong jets of water when your planting to prevent seeds from being washed away and do your best to keep cats, birds and other small critters from scratching your beds and running off with your seeds. It may be tempting to plant the left-over seeds you bought last year, but don't. As time marches on, their chances of germinating greatly diminish. If it's been a while since you added some high-quality organic matter to your soil, it's time. Infertile soil, along with inadequate moisture can result in spotty germination. Lastly, thin your new seedlings in stages. Trying to save time by doing it all at once leaves the remaining seedlings more vulnerable to being lost to animals, insects and disease.

Problem: A Lot of Leaves & Few Flowers

A lot of annuals have great foliage, but that's not much of a consolation if you planted them for their flowers. An over-abundance of foliage accompanied by a lack of flowers is usually the result of improper cultivation practices.

Possible Causes:

The wrong fertilizer; not deadheading; dry soil.

Solutions:

Flowers love to feed on fertilizer, but they can be picky eaters. If you apply fertilizer, use one that is lower in nitrogen (encourages foliage) and higher in phosphorous and potassium. Keep plants deadheaded after the first flush to keep them flowering and prevent them from going to seed. Flowers need water, so keep the soil around your annuals consistently moist (not wet). As plants mature, apply mulch around their base to hold in moisture and hold down competing weeds.

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Problem: Disappointing Flowers

Nothing brings color to a gray winter day like a seed catalog full of vibrant summer flowers. After spending hours mulling over your selection, you're confident you've ordered the perfect seeds and plants. Unfortunately, now that your flowers are blooming, you don't see anything in your garden nearly as spectacular as the pictures in the catalog.

Possible Causes:

Natural variation in seeds; wet weather; different growing conditions.

Solutions:

Every seed packet contains a certain amount of natural variation in terms of color. This is especially true with dark colored flowers. At the end of the season, collect and save your own annual seeds and weed out those that fell short of your color expectations. The flowers you see in catalogs are grown under the ideal light, soil and moisture conditions in a greenhouse. Then at the height of their color, they are photographed by professional photographers, who stage the plants and use lighting and processing techniques to enhance color. Wet weather and variations in your soil and light conditions all play a role when it comes to influencing the final color of your flowers. All you can do is try and create conditions that are as close to perfect as possible.

Problem: Leggy, Straggly Plants

Possible Causes:

Too much competition; inappropriate cultivars; low light.

Solutions:

Pinch the tips of bedding plants back (or one to two inches on bigger plants) to encourage a fuller shape. Most annuals need a lot of sun. Make sure yours are getting the proper amount of light or choose a more suitable plant for that location. Space plants far enough apart to ensure they don't have to compete for light, moisture and nutrients.

Problem: Damaged Foliage

Possible Causes:

Insects or weather damage.

Solutions:

Once again, you can't control the weather, but you can work to identify insect pests and take proper measures to control them. Inspect your plants daily and look for tiny silvery flea beetles (they jump when disturbed), slugs and aphids-three of the most common culprits. Try dislodging the pests with a garden hose (be careful not to damage flowers) or treat the plants with the appropriate organic insecticide.

Problem: Plant's Leaves Turning Black & Dying

Nursery-grown bedding plants are tender. Popping them in the ground too early can cause severe (and sometimes fatal) injuries. So can exposure to chemicals.

Possible Causes:

Frost or cold damage; chemical burns.

Solutions:

Make sure you delay planting tender plants until danger of frost has passed in your area. If cold temperatures are in the forecast, cover plants to protect them from frost damage. It's also a good idea to harden off nursery plants for a few days in an area of dappled sunlight before planting them. When applying non-selective weed killers (organic or synthetic) help protect nearby ornamentals by holding up piece of cardboard in front of them to shield them from chemical drift.

About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at http://www.sustainable-media.com

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