(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 22, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
"Petunias are my favorite flower!" my cousin Amy exclaimed last summer. "I have to have petunias in my garden every year." She went on to describe how petunias consistently survived every adverse condition, out-blooming anything else she planted. She's right, and I think too many gardeners dismiss petunias as old fashioned and rather ho-hum.
Last year, I took a closer look at the petunias I came across, and I got excited about the range of colors and forms I discovered. Many of the new hybrids will drop their spent blooms for summer-long color with no need for deadheading. That they're tough as nails is definitely another bonus!
WAVES of color result from the spreading habit of many hybrid petunias. ‘Purple Wave' (more a bright magenta than a purple color) was the first of this type. Now you'll find ‘Wave', ‘Cascade', ‘Avalanche', and other series. A single plant used as a ground cover will carpet several square feet with summer-long blooms. They'll trail a yard or more from hanging baskets, too.
PINWHEELS and other multi-colored patterns are especially eye catching, with their candy-colored stars and swirls of bright color. Look for varieties with brightly colored throats and contrasting veining. Scanning down the thumbnail images on the petunia list in PlantFiles will give you an idea of the multitude of color combinations available.
RUFFLED edges dress up large-flowering hybrids such as the ‘Ultra' and ‘Frillytunia' series. Broad picotee edges add a fresh, crisp look to the blooms of some varieties (see ‘Blue Frost'). These are definitely not your grandmother's petunias. Their huge, brightly colored blossoms will stop traffic!
DOUBLE blooms add another dimension to petunias' potential. Last spring, I started seeds for ‘Double Cascade Blue', and it showed off beautifully along my deck railing. The frilly double blooms were a new look (for me), and although I'm not generally a fan of petunia scent, I enjoyed this one - sweet, like a bowl full of jelly beans.
MINIATURE petunias such as ‘Supertunia Mini' hybrids add more delicate color to containers and hanging baskets. You might also consider the small, petunia-like blooms of Million Bells (Calibrachoa) or Little Bells (Nolana) Try them on their own for a more delicate, overflowing container or use them as a "filler" or "spiller" in a larger container with a bolder plant as the "thriller."
Petunias add pizzaz to nearly any sunny spot, from garden borders to containers of all sizes. Their splashes of color work against green, dark, or colorful variegated foliage. Elegant white petunias can brighten any planting combo. I like to combine petunias with more delicate flowers such as sweet alyssum or blue lobelia, but they're also wonderful on their own.
The new hybrids have made petunias a more popular choice at garden centers, and you may be able to find a variety of colors and forms offered locally. The best way of ensuring you have exactly the varieties you're longing for this spring, however, is to start them from seed.
Petunia seeds are tiny, so expensive hybrid seeds often come in pelleted form to make them easier to handle. Sometimes, pellets get crushed, so don't panic if you get a packet of little crumbles. Simply sow everything in the packet across a row of your seed starting tray, and then transplant the little seedlings once they have at least four leaves.
See my "Seed Starting 101" series of articles for information on starting seeds inside. I usually start petunias at least 8 weeks before I plan to plant them out. If you want blooming plants in 4 inch pots to set out, then start them 12 weeks ahead. This year, I've ordered seeds for ‘Rambling Burgundy Chrome' and ‘Double Cascade Mix' hybrid petunias, and I can't wait to see them in bloom!
When you're flipping through seed catalogs this winter, don't skip from "pentas" to "plectranthus." Take a good look at the petunia varieties being offered. Whether you try an old favorite or a snazzy new hybrid, let petunias add some sturdy flower power to your gardens and containers this summer!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.