March 1 2003 12:00 AM

In a world that is becoming more and more homogenized, color can create a powerful statement. Our eyes are naturally drawn to color ? sunny yellows, bright pinks, vivid purples. Whether you are creating a warm welcome at a cozy vacation cottage, capturing a customer?s attention in a commercial setting or creating a soothing retreat from the daily stresses of life, colorful flowers can help achieve your goal.

On the downside, color can also be expensive. Quality bedding plants aren?t cheap, and can go downhill with breathtaking speed if conditions aren?t right. The plants can struggle away, never really growing, never really blooming and fi-nally just fading away. . . .
Of course, there are many ways to introduce color into your landscape. There are spectacular flowering trees no matter what area of the country you live and work in. For example, flowering fruit trees, such as plums, peaches, crabapples and pears, thrive just about anywhere. Flowering plums even offer purple leaves if you like.

The range of blooming shrubs that are available are limited only by your imagination. For example, there is a hibiscus variety for almost any climate. Although normally put into a category by itself, roses (which are actually shrubs) grow just about anywhere.
Perennial gardens provide nonstop color throughout the growing season. Though mostly casual and informal, a carefully planned perennial garden can fit into almost any landscape design.

Any of the above colorful plant families are worth an entire article. You can easily find books devoted to the subjects. But for now, let?s just focus on bedding plants, which might be called a universal floral language.

So how do you get the most bang for your color buck? Like most landscape projects, successful flower beds take savvy planning, thorough preparation and meticulous maintenance. Satisfy all three and you?re almost guaranteed success!

Savvy planning
Keeping in mind that you will probably be making a substantial investment in time and money, determine where you will get the most impact from your plantings. That?s why you see so many color plantings at entryways. But don?t overlook other areas where a splash of brightness might be appreciated.

Take a walk around the site. Are there seating areas that might be made a little more inviting with a floral accent? Can that water feature use a little perking up along its banks? Is there a view that might not be all that desirable and could benefit from a little visual distraction nearby?

Don?t forget the vista from inside the building, too. Those office workers might greatly appreciate a little visual distraction during those long meetings. The head of the house might like to gaze upon a cheerful flower-bed while perusing the morning paper. Mom might enjoy watching the hummingbirds feed on the salvia outside the kitchen window while she?s washing the breakfast dishes.

Once you?ve determined the best spots for your floral displays, you need to find the right plant for the right place. Probably the most crucial factor is the amount of direct sun the site receives.

As a general rule, the more sunshine the site receives, the more possibilities you will have. For sunny areas, Ohio State Cooperative Extension suggests aster, bachelor button, calendula, celosia, cosmos, dianthus, flowering kale, flowering cabbage, gazania, geranium, larkspur, marigold, morning glory, moss rose, nasturtium, pansy, petunia, poppy, salvia, snapdragon, statice, strawflower, verbena and zinnia.

Now, of course there are areas that you might want to plant that aren?t in full sun. It seems that, especially in the case of entryways, planting sites are shaded by buildings at least half the day. In addition, if there are trees on the property, the sunny hours will be minimized. For shade or semi-shade areas, OSU lists annual phlox, balsam, begonia, bellflower, calendula, clarkia, coleus, dwarf lobelia, forget-me-not, four o?clock, flowering tobacco, godetia, impatiens, larkspur, nasturtium, pansy, sweet alyssum, verbena, wallflower, wishbone plant.

Hey, wait a minute . . . weren?t calendula, larkspur, nasturtium and others on the sunny list? Well, yes . . . but as is the case with many horticultural questions, the answer is ?it de-pends.?

For example, in hot southern climes in the heat of the summer, pansies would probably poop out. Calendulas would probably do okay in partial shade, but too much and they will succumb to powdery mildew. Throw in areas where you can plant all year, such as Florida or the Southwest, and you have a whole new wrinkle . . . sun/shade plus cool season/warm season.

In a national publication it is almost impossible to make any hard and fast rules about what kind of flowers to plant in what microclimate at what time. Fortunately, there?s plenty of help available. Check out your local botanical garden. Visit All-American Selections? Web site ( and find a display garden in your area to see the best and brightest bedding plants for your area. Stop by your friendly Cooperative Extension office and pick up their list of suggestions ? almost every local office will have a list of proven winners for the area. Check with your favorite nursery ? they will be happy to make suggestions. There are plenty of resources out there; use them!

Thorough preparation
Probably the most crucial factor for success with bedding plants is soil preparation. This is one area where you absolutely can?t fudge. Ideally, you should be able to work the soil in your flower beds with your bare hands. Granted, this is probably not realistic in most cases, but it?s a goal that you should shoot for.

And how do you achieve this goal? The magic potion is organic matter. A good quality compost will make your flowers bloom.
If time and budget permit, have a soil test performed. This will give you a guideline on which micronutrients you need. At the very least, you should know the pH of your soil. This way, you can add lime or sulfur if necessary.

One upside to the landfill crisis that is plaguing most urban areas has been the advent of composting operations. If you?re lucky enough to have a quality facility nearby, take advantage of it! But be sure to ask questions. There have been problems with composts being contaminated by herbicide residues, heavy metals and weed seed. Unfortunately, there is not yet any type of universal certification program for compost. Lately, there has been a call for facilities to provide bioassay results to ensure that the compost is not contaminated with herbicides or pesticides. Some facilities are a step ahead, and providing this information.

In addition, be sure the compost is ?finished.? Normally, this process can take from 90 to 120 days; some facilities will sell their material in as little as 90 days if it looks right.

You can also pick up composted materials at many wholesale suppliers. Again, be sure that the material is well composted. If it is too ?hot,? it will tie up the nitrogen in the soils as it further decomposes, and your plants will suffer.

If you have small planting areas, there is nothing wrong with picking up bagged soil amendments. Again, be familiar with what?s inside the bag ? some contain materials as simple as coarse sawdust!

Spread anywhere from two to four inches over the top of the soil and work it in to a depth of about 12 inches. Be sure that the bed drains well; soggy soil is lethal to most bedding plants. The trick is to add this amount of organic matter every time you replant the bed. Eventually you will have soil that will grow just about anything!

Now that your beds are prepped, you need to look for the best quality plants possible. There?s really not that much difference in price between a great plant and a dud. Look for sturdy, compact plants. The leaves should be dark or bright green. Brown edges can indicate that the plants have wilted and dried out in their lifetime. Needless to say, there shouldn?t be any signs of insects or diseases.
Don?t buy plants that are in full bloom ? they have been in their pots too long. Although most clients will demand ?instant gratification,? go for plants that have as few flowers open as possible ? they will last much longer in the landscape.

Pop a few representative plants out of the pots and take a look at the roots. They should be plump and white. It?s okay if they are circling the pot a little; just be sure that you gently score the roots before planting. However, you don?t want a tangled solid mass of roots ? they will never move into the surrounding soil in this case.

You want bedding plants to grow fast, so use a little pre-plant fertilizer. A balanced fertilizer with a combination of slow- and quick-release nitrogen will ensure that your flowers will be off to a good start.

Plant at soil level, or even a little high. Bedding plants hate to have soil bury their crowns. This can often lead to rot and rapid loss of the plant.

After planting, water thoroughly. Be gentle; blasting them with a hose will result in shock and slower establishment.

Meticulous maintenance
If you have done your homework, maintenance should be relatively easy. First and foremost is proper irrigation. Most bedding plants thrive when the soil is evenly moist. Their roots are relatively shallow, so during the heat of the summer, they could easily need irrigation every day. Water early in the day or right before dawn. The leaves should be dry by the time night falls to minimize the chance that diseases can take hold.

Keep the bed free of weeds. In general, bedding plants are not good competitors. Weeds are ?tough guys,? hogging the water and nutrients. If you?ve done your prep work, weeds will grow with terrifying rapidity, so be sure to pull them out as soon as you see them. For large areas, you can dab weeds with Roundup in a wicking system; grassy weeds can be sprayed with a selective herbicide such as Fusilade.

Hopefully, you shouldn?t have many problems with insects or diseases. Aphids seem to favor bedding plants; washing them off with water is usually all you need to do. If you are having severe problems with insects or diseases, chances are you?ve chosen the wrong plant for the specific site; for example, planting a sun lover in the shade.

To prolong the life of your flowers, you need to ?deadhead? them occasionally. This task may be tedious, but the reward is a new flush of blooms. Consider that by definition, most annuals grow, flower, set seed and die in one season. If you let them go to seed, their internal clock tells them it?s time to check out. However, if you pluck off the seeds before they form, the plants will keep flowering in an attempt to complete their life cycle.

After you deadhead, give the plants a small shot of balanced fertilizer. Water-soluble fertilizers work well in this case. Whatever you use, though, be sure to wash off the leaves. You should be rewarded with another round of blooms. With most bedding plants, you can repeat this several times through the growing season, creating wave after wave of colorful flowers.

March 2003