It's Still Just Dirt

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It’s Still Just Dirt - Penny Esseltine

Historically, May 24 is the start of the safe time to plant all of your annuals outside in the garden. Annuals are a great addition to any garden. They add colour in all seasons from spring through to frost. And they really mix well with perennials and shrubs.

Among the wide variety of annuals available locally, impatiens have always been my favourite. These plants are sometimes upright, as tall as two feet, and sometimes low and sprawling but always with plenty of colour. Colours that include almost everything in the floral spectrum and some varieties are even bi-coloured. Best of all, they bloom well in shade.

However, in the past few years a fungus called impatiens downy mildew has wreaked havoc on these plants (both shade and double shade varieties) in Southwestern Ontario and lots of areas in the United States. Matthew Fenn, manager or Tillsonburg Garden Gate on Simcoe Street says, “impatiens look beautiful while the weather is cooler but by mid-July, as temperatures climb, they just die. Within 48 hours the petals and leaves will fall off and you’re left with what looks like matchsticks.” Matthew says because of the downy mildew fungus they are not selling impatiens at Garden Gate this year. He says, “It’s not a service to be selling them right now.”

Impatiens downy mildew started here two to three years ago and had been sporadic, but by last summer it was affecting pretty much all impatiens plants. The spores can live for years in soil. They also travel in the air and spread between plants through the water on the leaves. Matthew says it doesn’t affect other varieties of plants. “Even New Guinea impatiens have been immune from downy mildew because they are grown from cuttings rather than from seeds.” You can still plant New Guinea impatiens in your garden in both part sun and shade.

Matthew says flower breeders are working now to develop a variety of impatiens that is resistant to downy mildew fungus. These breeders are mainly in Holland, as well as some parts of the United States, like California, and South America.

He says, “They will conduct trials in different parts of the world and once they have successfully bred an impatiens downy mildew resistant strain we will see impatiens in garden centres again. Right now we can’t do anything at the customer or garden centre level. But yes, impatiens will make a comeback.

“In the past,” Matthew says, “people would buy several trays of impatiens at a time to plant in their gardens.” Altogether at Tillsonburg Garden Gate they would sell 2,000-3,000 flats a season. “It was a good part of the bedding plant business. And not a day goes by,” says Matthew, “that people aren’t asking where the impatiens plants are this year.”

The No. 1 annual that Matthew recommends to replace impatiens this year is wax begonias. He says they put on a really good show colour-wise, they like part sun to shade, and they take less water as well.

His No. 2 recommendation is petunias. He says, “They come in a multitude of colours and there are newer varieties such as wave petunias that don’t require as much deadheading.”

When I asked some Horticultural Society members what they would be planting instead of impatiens they agreed that begonias are a great choice. Some others on their list included fuchsia, caladium, coleus, and annual vinca.

Whether you're planting window boxes, lining your sidewalk, or spicing up your perennial garden, make the most of annuals that are available this year. Annual plants complete their entire growing cycle (from seed, to flowers and back to seed) all in the course of a single growing season. That season is upon us. Let’s get planting!

The Tillsonburg Horticultural Society will meet next on Tuesday, June 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Senior Centre Auditorium at the Community Centre. For more information visit


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