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Horticulture and Landscape Architecture
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Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078

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Using Bedding Plants in the Landscape!

by David Hillock

Bedding plants or annuals continue to be a garden favorite because they can provide a full season of color and interest. They also have many uses, to name a few – temporary ground covers, hanging baskets, containers, dried flowers, cutting gardens, wildflower gardens, bedding plants, etc. The following tips will help to ensure a successful and stunning display.

Bed Preparation - The real key to a successful planting is proper bed preparation. Remove all debris and gain control of weeds before planting. Choose a suitable site: i.e. – sun, shade; close to a water source; and away from shallow rooted trees and shrubs, which compete for water and nutrients. Soil tests are recommended to determine proper amounts of fertilizer to apply. Often gardens need only applications of nitrogen. Amend soil by incorporating 3 - 4” of composted organic matter into the area; this improves soil aeration, improves drainage, encourages healthier root systems, and is easier to plant and manage. Spade or till in the organic matter at least 6” deep. After planting, apply a light mulch a couple inches thick if necessary. Mulches can aid in shading out weed seed as well as moderating soil temperatures and moisture. 

Timing – In Oklahoma, planting times will vary some depending upon which part of the state you live in. In the north central portion of the state the middle to latter part of April is the time to begin planting many of the annuals available in your garden center or nursery. Southeast residents may be a week earlier and northwest residents may be about a week later. Remember that these planting times are based on average last frost dates. The planting of flowers like Catharanthus roseus (Annual Vinca) should be delayed until warmer weather is sure to stick around and the soil temperatures are at least 65°F or better.

Design - a living bouquet – While the following are not necessarily hard and fast rules and may create a bit of a challenge for some of us, it is certainly worth the time and effort when the right “combination” is achieved. Take time to plan the design properly. Take into consideration cultural requirements, principles of color, and placement of different species. Also, don’t be afraid to copy what others have already proven to be successful. 

Avoid planting monocultures (beds with all of the same species e.g. – all vinca or all marigold, etc.) or monochromatic gardens (all one color). Instead, try combining several annual species into one design. The benefits of mixing several species together are twofold: 1) it adds interest (height, color, and texture differences) to the garden and is pleasing to the eye. While the flower and color in themselves are beautiful, using just one flower and/or color will not hold one’s interest for very long. 2) At the same time, you protect yourself from total failure due to a pest particular to one species that could wipe out the whole bed. Mixing species and/or cultivars provides genetic diversity, which reduces the chances of an insect or disease to become well established in a bed.

Group plants that have the same cultural requirements to increase success; make sure you select those species best suited for the site i.e. sun, shade, wet, or dry (HLA-6425). Do not place plants that thrive in cool, moist shade into a bed in full sun and little water.

Working with colors can be tricky, but by using the following principles and tips, and some practice, you will soon be creating some wonderful bouquets.

  • The color wheel is divided into cool and warm hues, using three primary colors – red, yellow and blue. Cool colors such as blue, green and violet are subdued. Warm colors such as red, yellow and orange tend to catch the eye more easily.
  • Color groupings can be harmonious or contrasting. Hues are particular shades of colors.  Hues in any neighboring group on the color wheel are harmonious or analogous. Complimentary contrasts are formed by choosing colors opposite each other on the color wheel.
  • A successful design will have a balance of analogous and complimentary contrasts.
  • White, silver or gray, and yellow should be used sparingly since they have a tendency to drown out the rest of the design. These colors can be used as a “sparkle” and in general should not make up more than 10 percent of the composition.

In general, flowers need to be planted in drifts or clumps large enough to make a visual difference when viewed from the farthest vanishing point. Of course this may not be practical as dictated by the pocket book. But large masses of flowers are more dramatic and satisfying.

Color balancing and strategically placing the dominant colors in the composition or throughout the garden will lead the eye from one end of the bed or garden to the next.

Color balancing can be used to trick the eye into thinking that the garden is deeper or larger than it really is. By using bright strong colors close to the viewer, and then getting progressively bluer and grayer and lighter as you go further back, you can create the illusion of depth.

Height differences can also be used to exaggerate depth by emphasizing the height differential between the little plants in front and the tall ones in the back. The ever-increasing height allows more of each color to be seen enhancing the overall effect.

In general, small or short plants are placed in the front and tall ones in the back. However, more interest can be created by bringing some of the tall plants closer to the front and pushing short ones toward the back. Some successful combinations for partial or light shade might include: begonia, impatiens, lobelia, wishbone flower and a touch of marigolds for sparkle; for sun you might use combinations of: blue salvia, summer snapdragon, vinca, Joseph’s coat, and use zinnia and dusty miller for sparkle.                                             

How many bedding plants do I need? – Avoid overbuying or under-buying the number of bedding plants you need. All it takes is some simple arithmetic.

1) Measure the area of your garden and calculate its square footage (width x length = square feet). If the area is irregularly shaped – oval, round or long and winding – a rough estimate is good enough.

2) Use the chart below to estimate the number of plants you will need. You will probably want to get at least a few more than you will need, just in case some are damaged by weather, animals or pests.

                           Recommended Spacing                   Number of Plants per Sq. Ft.

                                      6 inches                                                     4

                                      8 inches                                                     2.25

                                    10 inches                                                     1.44

                                    12 inches                                                     1

                                    18 inches                                                     0.44

                                    24 inches                                                     0.25

Example: A 125 sq. ft. garden, using plants recommended to be spaced 10 inches apart would need approximately 180 plants.

The above information is only the tip of the iceberg. For more information and ideas look for books that discuss the principles of design and color and study them, or visit your local public gardens or retail garden centers for their expertise. Oh and don’t forget, Have Fun!

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