Planting Annual Color Pockets

I've always considered Halloween the jumping-off point for getting the first batch of cool-season annuals in the ground. You may have already planted some pansies or snapdragons, but those put in on Halloween or later are the ones that will look the best in November, December and January.

Cool-season annuals such as snapdragons, pansies, sweet alyssum, ornamental kale and cabbage will not only survive, but thrive, if you follow my flower-planting technique. Frankly, it not only works for annuals, but for perennials and even small flowering and evergreen shrubs. And it isn’t just for cool-season annuals - it’s for all color pockets, no matter the season.

Photo: Randy Lemmon

I've used this regimen for years, and it has never failed me. It ensures good soil for delicate roots, an organically rich environment to encourage even more roots, and includes a controlled-release blooming-plant food that should last for at least three months.

Here's how it works. First, in a raised bed, push aside as much mulch as possible where you intend to transfer an annual from a four-inch pot. (If you have dyed mulch, remove it ALL and get some healthier mulch for the future.) Mix a couple inches of fresh rose soil into a hole of proper size. Then take the annual out of its pot and dip its root ball into a solution of liquid root stimulator, preferably one with mycorrhizal fungi included in the ingredients.

There’s a list below of all the products I recommend. When I first developed this method 25 years ago, Medina Hasta Gro liquid plant food was the only one I’d use. It’s still a great “go-to” for this, but many other products have been introduced since, so now you have multiple options. Also worth noting is that the instructions on most containers of root-stimulating products will include a dosage for “transplanting.” Usually, It’s about half a full dose. Please stick to that for drenching root balls.

Next, insert the plant delicately into the new rose soil-amended area, spreading out the now-wet root system. Before you push the mulch back into place, or add new mulch, side-dress the area with a little Nelson's Color Star — that's the slow-release blooming-plant food of choice for me. There are others, like Carl Pool Colorscapes and Ferti-lome's Start-N-Grow, but none are more readily available than Color Star. If you’re applying this transplant technique on groundcovers or small evergreen shrubs, you don’t need to side-dress, but if you want to take that step, stick to something organic like MicroLife 6-2-4 (with the green label) or any well-balanced all-purpose organic fertilizer.

Finally, the mulch goes back into place. And if you’re replacing dyed mulch, invest in some high-quality native shredded hardwood mulch.

As long as your color pockets stay consistently watered during the first two weeks, you will have great results through January without needing to spray them every two weeks with water-soluble plant foods. You might need to give them another shot of slow-release plant food again by January or February, but that's it.

Some other important things to remember:

  • Don't use anything considered "potting soil" in outdoor beds. If you want to use this technique with potting soil, keep the plants in pots.
  • Stay away from “rose soils” from big box stores or anything that lists peat moss among the first three ingredients.
  • If you need to completely re-do an entire bed with fresh rose soil, as opposed to just making amendments for the color pockets, allow the bed to rest for at least two weeks before planting anything. And consider saturating a newly made bed with soil activator weekly for three weeks, to help mellow the soil and protect delicate roots from a "hot” reaction.
  • One flat of annuals will require one bag of rose soil for mixing into an existing bed.
  • If you don't use one of the liquid products below, please don't use any root stimulator unless it is 100% organic.

LIQUIDS for drenching root balls (I know I’m missing some, but this is a good list to start with.)

  • Medina Hasta Gro Liquid Plant Food
  • MicroLife Liquid Products
    • Soil & Plant Energy
    • Ocean Harvest
    • Humic Acid
  • Nature’s Creation Organic Root Stimulator
  • FoxFarm (mycorrhizal-infused products)
    • Bush Doctor Kangaroots
    • Bush Doctor Microbe Brew
    • Bush Doctor Boomerang

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