March 17 2009 12:00 AM

There's no place like home

That statement is more true today than it ever has been before. In recent years, travel has become so costly and so stressful that people are booking fewer vacations. In addition, as more Americans begin to be affected by the current economic crunch, discretionary funds for leisure activities are becoming scarce. So people are staying put. Their homes and gardens are becoming their sanctuaries: refuges from the stress and anxiety of everyday life. As this trend continues, more people are investing in environmental improvements in and around their homes.

Of all the ornaments that can potentially adorn a property, annual flowers are perhaps the single most beautiful. Geraniums, asters, calendulas and impatiens all add their own unique touch to an entryway, backyard or front yard. These flowers can transform a cold and uninviting patio into a warm and intimate hideaway. However, most people couldn’t pull an ageratum or an aster out of a lineup. But they can easily identify the deep blue that colors the ageratum’s fuzzy leaves or the soft pink that paints the aster’s delicate petals. It may seem like now is not the time to make improvements to a home unless they’re absolutely essential. At first glance, color may seem like it adds only aesthetic value to a property. This is not the case. According to a study conducted by realtors across the country, a nicely landscaped property can have a significant effect on the asking price of a home. The same study showed that nearly 20 percent of home buyers consider landscaping to be an important factor when purchasing a new home. When viewed in this light, it behooves any contractor to become familiar with all aspects of these colorful flowers. In order to get the most out of these plants, a basic understanding of colors and how they work together is useful. When properly used, colorful flowers are a welcome addition to any property. But they can easily become a disorganized hodgepodge. Using a color wheel to aid in your design is an easy way to be sure you get maximum impact. Colors are typically classified as “warm” and “cool.” The right side of the color wheel consists of warm colors. These include red, orange and yellow. The left side of the wheel is comprised of cool colors. Violet, blue and green all fall into this category. Red-violet and yellow-green can go either way depending on the other colors they are used with.

Colors next to each other on the wheel are called “analogous.” Opposites are referred to as “complementary.” Your color designs should strive for what color artists call “harmonies.” Analogous harmonies are composed of colors next to each other on the wheel. For example, marigolds lend themselves well to an analogous harmony of orange, yellow-orange and yellow.

As you probably guessed, complementary 2_1.jpgharmonies use colors that are opposite each other on the wheel. This design style tends to give you the most dramatic impact. Picture bright orange marigolds with electric-blue lobelia and you’ll get the idea. Or how about towering sunshine-yellow snapdragons with radiant purple petunias in front?

Of course these are only pointers. There is no right or wrong way to use color. In the end, the only thing that really matters is pleasing your client. That’s why it’s extremely important to get their input. Sometimes finding out what your client likes can be as easy as asking them what their favorite color is. Unfortunately, it’s not always this simple. People who are not professionally involved in design aren’t always great at describing their likes and dislikes. Some people may say they like red, but what does that mean? There are literally hundreds and hundreds of different shades of red. Pay close attention to how people describe things. Do they use words like “country cottage” and “red” in the same sentence? Or does “red” for them mean a sumptuous burgundy? One good way to clear up ambiguities is to pay attention to the way your clients use colors in the rest of their world. Take a peek inside and see how color is used in their homes. Do they tend to go for bold and bright or soft and subdued? Answering this question will help you give clients exactly what they want.

When picking colors, it’s important to remember that annuals do much more than paint the landscape. One of color’s most useful attributes is its ability to create a mood or undertone. Different colors create different moods. Red is the most dominant of all colors. It can have a pronounced physical effect, actually raising blood pressure, pulse rate and even your temperature. Red can also stimulate the appetite (ever notice how many restaurants have red and white checkered tablecloths?) Try planting red flowers around outdoor eating and entertainment areas.

Sometimes different shades of the same color can have drastically opposite affects. Pink, a shade of red, is considered relaxing. Several years ago, prison officials noticed that fights between inmates occurred less frequently when walls were painted pink. Try planting pink flowers around a gazebo or spa to create an environment of total relaxation. Because of their calming qualities, pink flowers are often placed outside of windows in office buildings where they can be viewed by stressed-out workers. Violet or purple is the color of luxury. Religious officials often wear purple robes and the color is often associated with royalty.

Violet flowers at an entrance can convey opulence and a lavish feel. Purple is also associated with sensuality. Planting exuberant purple petunias around that spa will evoke a much more passionate reaction than pink.

Although blue might not be opposite red on the color wheel, color scientists tell us that our psychological response is the opposite of red. Blue can lower blood pressure and pulse rates. It is considered restful and sedate. Incidentally, because blue does not naturally occur as a food color, it has been shown to suppress appetites. So if your clients love to cook and entertain outdoors, you might want to think twice about planting blue flowers near dining areas.

Yellow is thought of as cheery. When children are asked to draw a happy picture, they most often draw it in yellow. Consider yellow when landscaping a playground or backyard play area. Yellow is also the most visible of all colors; it is the first color that the human eye notices. Use it to get attention. Yellow accents can be used to draw people to an entryway. It can also be used to distract people from things you don’t want them to see. Have a garden eyesore? Use yellow in another more aesthetic area of a site to draw them away from the offending view.

Remember to be conscious of the size of the space when choosing your colors. Colors have a big influence on proportion and are most effective when they match the scale of the garden. In a large space, big blocks of color will be needed to make an impact. In smaller areas, excessive use of color can overwhelm the space and make it feel cluttered.

3_1.jpgThe amount of light an area gets is also an important consideration. Brighter colors tend to hold up better in excessive sunlight. Colors such as soft pink, soft yellow, and light lavender will tend to wash out in bright sunlight and will look better in a shadier or low light situation.

The location of the viewer is also something to keep in mind when choosing colors. Because they recede, cool colors like blues, soft pinks and purples, are better used in situations where they will be viewed up close, such as around a small intimate patio space. Use bold colors when landscaping areas that will be seen from a distance. When decorating the driveway of an estate or large home, use oranges, yellows and shocking pinks to grab the attention of people who are driving by.

One last thing to keep in mind is that consumers like to have that latest, hottest, trendiest thing to hit the marketplace. This is true of cars, clothes and colors too. These trends often drive purchase decisions, so it’s important to be aware of them. This year’s hot colors include rich shades of purple, energetic shades of yellow and bright oranges.

Annuals are as finicky as they are beautiful and in order to thrive the flowers require proper care. One of the most important steps to ensure success with these plants is soil preparation. Annuals require good drainage, even moisture and regular fertilization. To help provide these conditions, start by taking a soil test. Your pH levels should be at 7 or slightly below. If it is less than 5.5-6, add lime to bring it up. If it is over 7, you can add sulfur. When preparing a new bed, it pays to check the drainage. Most annual color plants will not tolerate soggy soils and succumb to root rot almost overnight. One of the easiest ways to check drainage is by digging a hole that’s about a foot deep and then filling it with water. The hole should drain in less than a day. If it doesn’t, you can install a drainage system. If that’s not an option, select a different site for your flowers. In general, plenty of organic matter helps provide a hospitable rooting environment. Organic amendments are crucial for success in arid environments, where soils have little or no organic matter. The bacteria, organic acids and humus that are associated with organic matter loosen the soil to allow root growth and also help to break down mineral nutrients into a form that is available to plants. Compost is one of the best amendments; it is generally pH-balanced and loaded with beneficial organisms. Just be sure that the material you purchase is thoroughly composted. It should have an "earthly" smell. Beware if it smells like ammonia or sulfur. Look for a rich, crumbly texture. Large chunks or limey material should be avoided.

After you’ve created a hospitable environment for your flowers, it’s time to actually select the plants. Plants that are in full bloom should be avoided. Annuals sprout, grow, flower, set seed and die in one year. Plants that are in full bloom are entering the last part of their life cycles. To get the most use out of your flowers, pick ones that have just established themselves in the pony packs or pots. A few buds or one open flower is fine, but a plant that is any further along than that should be left at the nursery.

Always examine a plant’s roots. They should be plump, white and well established. You want to avoid plants when the roots are a tangled, solid mass. Since annuals grow very quickly, the roots may have started circling in the pot or pack. When planting, you can gently score the roots or slightly spread the root ball by hand so the roots will move into the surrounding soil.

Now that your flowers have been selected, it’s time to plant them. If you’ve chosen young plants, which you should have, make sure not to plant them too close to each other. When planted too closely, air circulation will be limited when they reach full size. This is an open invitation to disease. Know how large the plants you pick will grow to be, then space them accordingly. There might be too much open area for your liking, but this space can be dressed up with thin layers of shredded bark. As a bonus, the bark acts as a mulch that will hold water and reduce weed growth.

Be sure to water the flats thoroughly before planting, and give them a few hours to drain so you’re not handling sopping- wet rootballs. Making sure that the rootball is moist at planting time will minimize transplant shock.

Many landscape managers have found that adding a soil polymer at planting time can help minimize moisture stress. You can also incorporate a preplant fertilizer, using the recommended rates. Slow-release fertilizers can last the entire season saving labor. In addition, organic fertilizers with humates, bacteria and organic acids can also result in sturdy, steady growth.

Water thoroughly immediately after planting. This4_1.jpg helps settle the soil around the roots and also reduces transplant shock. If you haven’t incorporated a preplant fertilizer, you can use a weak solution of soluble fertilizer right after planting to get the roots off to a good start. Although general maintenance of annuals was just discussed, certain steps can be taken to ensure that you get the most color out of these flowers for the longest period of time possible. One of the best ways to keep color coming is to deadhead, which simply means removing old flowers. Annuals die shortly after they set seed. By removing spent flowers on a regular basis, the plant will be stimulated to bloom on and on.

Proper irrigation also plays a big part in color longevity. The ideal condition is even moisture. It’s difficult to recommend a set watering schedule because there is so much variability in soil type, climate conditions and even individual plant requirements. Monitor planting beds carefully, and don’t be afraid to experiment with irrigation cycles. Just make sure you avoid a soggy soil environment.

What is the best thing about annual flowers? Their stunning beauty, their ability to create myriad moods and the value they add to a property are certainly among their best attributes. But one benefit of these colorful plants that is often overlooked is their power as marketing tools. Great use of color makes for great images to place in a portfolio or to use in promotional materials. But their true value is their ability to generate word of mouth buzz. If your clients are happy with your work, they’re likely to tell their friends. In this business, where money for advertising is often limited, it’s hard to put a price tag on that.