Plants - Annuals

Stephen speaks: Annual dilemma

"In the end I keep coming back to just one plant: white-flowered impatiens."

Some time ago at the CG May issue planning session, editor-in-chief Erin McLaughlin asked me what the subject of my column would be. When I replied that, among other things, I intended to wax poetic about an extremely handsome young hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) I had popped into the ground last autumn, I was met with a chorus of moans and groans. A vociferous chorus.

Of course, deep down I knew that I should be staying more on theme, and instead write about some of the breathtakingly brilliant containers I've designed during my career. Unfortunately, these clever container combos exist only in my imagination. Truth be told, I like to keep things simple when it comes to pots of annuals and tender perennials, and for several reasons.

First, I’m temperamentally unsuited to fussing with minutia, and second, I live in the Land of Extremes. The back of my house faces south, so the possibilities there are endless. On the other hand, the front of my house — my public face, if you will — looks directly north, and this presents some
serious horticultural challenges as the sun simply never hits the edge of my porch. Since moving here, I’ve had four summers in which to assess what will work and what won’t in this total shade situation. I’ve tried just about everything, from Abutilon to Torenia, but in the end I keep coming back to just one plant: white-flowered impatiens.

This confession will certainly provoke a derisive sniff from plant snobs, but I don’t consider that I’m doing anything even remotely infra dig. Surveying the area, I realized that I needed something bright to illuminate the porch, but in a hue that wouldn’t clash with existing plants in the herbaceous border directly in front. I remembered seeing wild Impatiens walleriana clinging to relentlessly shady mountain crevices in the Cordillera de Talamanca (Central America), and I knew that however ubiquitous the flower might be here, it was undeniably the best choice.

Accepting the tenet that “a spiller, a filler and a thriller” is required for every good planter, I “spill” using variegated English ivy, and “thrill” with coleus (look for some of the dramatic new Kong Series cultivars). As for the impatiens, I’ve tried white ones with variegated leaves, double-flowered whites, and varieties with a picotee edge. In the end, I always return to clean, crisp, single white flowers without the embellishments.

There isn’t a huge difference between the various available Impatiens series: they are all bred for compact growth and non-stop flower production. My current favourite is Dazzler White. I love to watch as the hybrid seedlings revert from year to year, and begin to assume wild characteristics— smaller flowers with thinner petals that may be wavy, or splotched with silver over white, and a gangly, trailing habit. Perhaps not perfect for the mass market, but then, I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog. I say, “Plant what you love, and to hell with the critics!”

Check out other white-flowered favourites that Stephen recommends.

This column originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners.


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