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Old-fashioned four o'clocks a welcome addition to this summer's garden

Jessica Walliser
| Thursday, March 16, 2017, 8:55 p.m.
Marbles Mixed Four O'Clocks
rareseeds.com
Marbles Mixed Four O'Clocks

Question: My grandmother used to grow a plant called four o'clocks. They were all over her garden, and they bloomed only in the afternoon. I want to grow them in my garden, but I'd like to know if they're easy to grow and where I can find the seeds for sale.

Answer: Four o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) were once quite popular; my nana grew them in her garden, too. For some reason, they fell out of vogue, but I'm happy to see you're interested in bringing them into your garden. You'll be pleased to know they're easy to grow and just as lovely as you remember.

The sweetly scented blooms of four o'clocks are born on plants that reach up to 3 feet in height, with an equal spread. The plants are hardy in the South where they overwinter as underground fleshy tubers, but here in Pennsylvania, we have to grow them as annuals (though you can dig up the fleshy roots and store them indoors for the winter like you would store a dahlia tuber).

The foliage is medium green, and once early summer hits, its covered with inch-wide, petunia-like, tubular flowers that open in the afternoon and evening. The blooms stay open all night long and pollinating moths enjoy sipping their nectar. During the early evening hours, hummingbirds can often be found drinking from the blooms, too.

When the flowers are open, their amazing scent can be enjoyed by anyone standing within a few yards of the plants. But, unlike some other night-blooming plants, their fragrance is not overwhelming. My nana had them growing around her patio so she could enjoy their perfume every evening.

Flower color can be white, orange, pink, red, yellow, purple and more. Some varieties even have splashed or mottled petals, while others have flowers that are multicolored. Different flower colors can even occur on the same plant.

Four o'clocks are easy to grow from seed. Choose a spot that's in full to partial sun. There's no need to do anything extra to the soil prior to planting; four o'clocks thrive in average garden soil. To increase germination rates, run the small seeds against a metal file to nick their seed coat or soak the seeds in tepid water for 24 hours prior to planting. They'll take between 10 and 14 days to germinate. Wait until after the danger of frost has passed to plant the seeds.

Because they often self-sow, pick a site where it's OK for the plants to spread. Unwanted young seedlings are easy to pull if they pop up where you don't want them. One way to prevent them from self-sowing so prolifically is to cut the plants back regularly throughout the summer to remove the spent flowers and encourage new ones to grow.

Four o'clock seeds can be purchased from Burpee Seeds, burpee.com; Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com and Park Seeds, parkseed.com.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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