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Think foliage for fall-through-spring color

By Paul A. Thomas
University of Georgia

Interested in fall-through-spring color? Tired of pansies? Here's an idea: think vegetables and perennial foliage instead of relying on flower color.

Pansies and snapdragons don't bloom consistently all winter. But the January and early February doldrums happen every year. By late January, after pansy color has recessed, the remaining foliage will inevitably reveal your planning and artistic skills.

There are NO sure-thing, 12-month color plants. And most of the new materials on the market are selected from plants native to moderate winter areas that don't get our warm-then-quickly-very-cold weather.

Foliage first

You could easily be left with only the foliage of your fall color plants for up to three months. So consider the foliage form and color as the main design feature and allow the flowers to be the extra benefit.

Here are some new plants being bantered about in the landscape designer circles. Contact your local greenhouse, landscaper or garden center to be sure they have enough for fall planting.

Cabbages and Kales: 'Red Bore', and 'Red Russian' are excellent texture plants for massing or as dark and substantial backgrounds for pansies and viola beds. Red Bore is a tight-leaved, large kale with very ruffled, deep red-purple leaves at the 2-foot level. It's like having red/purple ostrich plumes rising up behind the pansies.

Mustards: Red Giant, Mizuna, Osaka Purple and many others will be popular again this year. Used as line accents, separators and focal groups in well-defined colonies, the mustards have come into a period of wide acceptance.

Pak Choi: 'Tatsoi' is a flat, low-growing, mustard-like plant with intensely spiraled, deep green rosettes. The plant may get 6 to 8 inches high and provides dramatic foliage against violas, pansies and dianthus.

Swiss Chard: 'Bright Lights' is a fantastic plant with brightly colored stems, as if someone from Sesame Street stopped by with a paint brush and went wild. Kids love them. The challenge is to use them where the stems can be seen head on.

Poppy: Remember, think foliage first. Ornamental poppies sown or transplanted in mid-fall are actually quite beautiful. Plant them on 4-inch centers or seed them heavily to get the carpet effect. The silver-green, feathery leaves are stunning, and when they bloom, it's a show stopper. Left uncovered, though, they can be killed by 10-degree cold snaps.

A 'snap' plan

Always have a "snap" plan to protect your investment. Warm winters followed by short, severe cold snaps seem to happen three out of four years.

Most crops are killed by leaf tissue drying out, not freezing. As soils freeze, the roots can't take up water. Usually a cold front brings dry air and sunny weather. Leaves warm up, but mulched soils don't. The bright sun and wind cause the leaves to lose water the roots can't replace.

You can prevent this.

Cover the entire bed with a 2-inch layer of pine straw. This significantly reduces the light and heat from the sun. (Plants don't need this, as most are inactive at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.) It keeps the plants cold so they don't lose precious leaf water and significantly reduces the loss of future buds and leaves.

A frost cloth works well, too. And it's much easier to clean up. When it warms up again, simply rake off the straw or remove the cloth. Remember, when it's really cold, keeping out light and wind are the most important.

(Paul Thomas is a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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