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Petunias: Low care, but much variety

| Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, 6:11 p.m.
Jessica Walliser
Sweet alyssum and petunias.

Petunias have come a long way over the years. Originally native to South America, today's hybrid petunias provide the garden with a broad diversity of colors, growth habits and flowering styles. Petunias have been planted in gardens since the 1700s, when European breeders really began to develop new varieties.

Typically grown as an annual, petunias are actually perennials, surviving for many years where the climate is warm and winters never drop below freezing. This member of the potato family has a lot going for it. Not only are petunias easy to grow and relatively pest-resistant, they offer a long season of bloom and seldom require deadheading.

Though I'm not a big fan of their sticky leaves, I always find a home for a few petunias in my garden each year. I'm partial to using the newer, trailing varieties in my window boxes and containers. I also love the smaller-flowering types planted on the edge of my perennial border. Petunias are drought-tolerant and very easy to find at most local garden centers. If you're lucky, you can even find petunia varieties that emit a light, sweet fragrance in the evening.

Petunias enjoy full sun and thrive even in less-than-perfect garden soil. In recent years, more hybridization has occurred, resulting in some pretty-stellar garden varieties with bushier growth habits and an increasing range of colors and color-combinations.

Large-flowered petunias, known as grandiflora types, have blooms that measure 4 or more inches across. They come in solids and stripes, and some even have a variegated edge. In my experience, grandiflora types are a bit fussier than other petunias, but they are beautiful, nonetheless.

My favorite petunias are the multiflora types. Though their flowers are a bit smaller, only 2 inches across, they bloom quite prolifically from May through September. Some have single flowers, while others are double. I love the striped ones and those with a contrasting “eye” at the center of each bloom. Nurseries often sell mixed six-packs of multiflora petunias with a range of colors mixed together. Lovely! Miniature petunias bear blooms a mere 1 inch across, but they are completely slathered in flowers all season long. They are great for containers and hanging baskets and do not require pinching.

But my favorites, by far, are the spreading types. They are very low-growing, but each plant can reach up to 5 feet in width. Spreading petunias grow quickly and are excellent bloomers, even during summer's intense heat. They make a beautiful ground cover, smothering the soil with blooms or tumbling out of containers.

By and large, petunias require very little care. Pinching the stems back every few weeks results in more-compact growth and continuous blooms. Many of the newer cultivars, however, are bred for compactness and don't require pinching. Check the tag if you aren't sure which type you have. Watering, of course, is necessary during extremely dry spells, and adding some liquid fertilizer to the irrigation water every few weeks will keep them looking their best.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. 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

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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