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HowStuffWorks Answers Your Gardening Questions

Commonly Asked Gardening Questions
Zinnias add a pop of color to a garden.
Zinnias add a pop of color to a garden.

Commonly asked gardening questions frequently focus on how best to cultivate a garden. When should you plant? Where should you plant? And how should you plant? We've answered your commonly asked gardening questions to help you cultivate a lovely garden, so smile. Things are looking rosy.

Q: I have several large patio containers of trees and shrubs growing with mixed annuals. How do I overwinter these containers?

A: Remove the annuals from the containers at the end of the season. Move the containers to a location protected from the warming sun and winter wind. Insulate the soil with mulch -- compost, bark, or leaves -- and make sure the containers receive adequate water during dry spells. Try planting some spring flowering bulbs in place of the annuals to enjoy some early season color.

Q: I have trouble growing flowers in my shade garden. Are there any colorful shade-tolerant plants that I can use?

A: Aside from using perennials with some bloom, and contrasting color and texture, a few annuals will thrive in the shade given proper moisture and nutrients. The most shade-tolerant annuals that add color all season are coleus (grown for colorful foliage), wax begonias, and impatiens, which are available in a host of colors. Depending on the depth of shade, still other annuals, such as ageratum, sapphire flower, caladiums, and sweet alyssum, may be successful.

Q: When can I safely plant annuals in the spring?

A: From your local Extension Office, find out the date of your area's average last frost. After that date, planting should be safe; but remember, this date is an average and you can expect a later frost some years. When you purchase annuals, condition them to the sunlight, wind, and night temperature for several days before planting them in the garden. Be prepared to protect them from a late-season freeze.

Q: My hanging baskets of annuals look great each spring when I purchase them. By midsummer they look dried up and have few blooms. How can I keep them fresh and full of flowers?

A: Follow three basic principles when growing flowering baskets -- water, fertilize, and groom. The soil mass in a basket is very small -- it heats up and dries out quickly -- so daily watering may be needed. Fertilize the plant with a liquid balanced fertilizer every two weeks. And groom your plant often. Deadhead and pinch back leggy growth to promote heavier flowering and branching.

Q: What should be done this fall to prepare a bed of annuals for next spring?

A: When this year's plants have died from frost, cut them to the ground and, to prevent this year's pests from overwintering, remove all debris from the area. Have your soil tested now -- add lime if necessary but wait until spring to fertilize. Cultivate organic matter into the soil and apply a fresh layer of mulch to prevent winter weeds from germinating. Your bed should be ready for spring planting.

Q: Is it possible to save any of my annuals through the winter for next year's plantings?

A: Several types of annuals overwinter well in the house. Coleus, geraniums, impatiens, and wax begonias hold nicely as houseplants. Dig up the plant with as much of its root system intact as possible and pot it, using quality potting soil. Cut the plant back by 40 to 50 percent, leaving some foliage on the plant. In the house, provide the plants with as much light as possible, keeping the soil slightly moist.

Q: I'd like to grow annuals for cutting and arranging. What types make the best cut flowers and where should I plant them?

A: Look for varieties with tall stems in the colors you'd like to use for arranging. Many species of annuals are available in varieties that have different characteristics. Some will be short and bushy for edging and massing, while others will be tall -- excellent for cutting. It is a good idea to grow them in the back of the border or design a bed especially for cutting. A row or more in a sunny vegetable garden, for example, serves as an ideal place to grow cut flowers.

Q: What is the best way to stake my tall and floppy annuals?

A: Use materials that will be unobtrusive in the garden. Natural brush and twigs blend in well with garden plants; green bamboo stakes are available at garden centers. It is best to set up the stakes during planting time so the roots are not damaged during installation. Tie the plants loosely with string, plastic wrap, or even leaves of tall ornamental grasses. Avoid wire ties, as they easily cut flower stems.

Q: Which annuals require the least amount of maintenance time?

A: Choose varieties that will not require deadheading or much additional irrigation. Some annuals drop their flowers naturally while others put energy into seed production, and must be groomed for continual bloom. Ageratum, alyssum, begonias, dusty miller, impatiens, and vinca are a few self-cleaning annuals. Ageratum, marigolds, ornamental peppers, portulaca, and vinca are among the drought-tolerant species. Prepare your soil well with organic matter (such as wood chips, leaves, or compost) to increase the intervals between waterings and to save maintenance time.

Q: It seems that the only bedding plants available are short varieties suited for the front of the border. What can I do to get some height for the back of the border?

A: A greater selection of varieties is available through mail-order seed catalogs. Some companies sell a large selection of starter plants as well as seeds, but you may enjoy starting your own seedlings. Start small-seeded varieties on a sunny windowsill several weeks before planting outside. Many varieties can be sown directly in the garden.

Q: Do you have any suggestions to help encourage children to enjoy gardening?

A: Success is the best motivator. Encourage children to have a garden space of their own, but work with them to ensure success. Grow plants from large seeds, or use transplants for immediate color. Grow varieties like morning glories and gourds -- quick growing vines which produce abundant flower or fruit -- and colorful zinnias, or balsam. Encourage the child to collect seeds to save for next season. Most of all, go out and enjoy the garden together!

On the next page, learn how to maintain your plants so you can enjoy them year after year.

Want to find out more about growing a flower garden, a houseplant, or a vegetable garden? Check out: