Color Your Garden

Potted plants on deck

This winter, it was hard to visualize your lawn full of beautiful, bountiful color. But all that’s behind us now, and it’s finally the season to dive in and give your own yard a colorful makeover. (It’s actually the perfect time, says Amanda Bennett, manager of display gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Any earlier and you’d risk planting before April 15, Atlanta’s frost date.)

Raring to go

But according to Walter Reeves, best known as The Georgia Gardener, there is a way to satiate your inner gardener long before planting time. “The perfect time to amend the dense Georgia clay so it’s more welcoming for annuals is March or early April after a rain,” he says. “Turn over the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches and mix in cow manure or composted pine bark, planting soil and lime. The downside is that the process has to be repeated every year or two.

Expanded slate, an additive that is lightweight like pumice, lasts for years. “It’s sold under the
names of PermaTill and Soil Perfector and keeps even the hardest Georgia clay soft year after year,” Reeves says. “The products are pricey but pay off in the long run since the process doesn’t ever
have to be repeated.” He also recommends throwing in one pint of lime per 10 square feet of soil
for good measure.

Color Me Gorgeous

Just as designing interiors takes serious thought, creating eye-catching annual beds requires a plan. Before purchasing the first plant, look at your yard objectively and decide where color is needed.

Is it at the mailbox? Near the front door? Along the edge of a pine island or grassy area? Is it necessary to remove old shrubs and trim trees to allow more sun, or can you create beds around existing greenery by installing white and silver shade-loving plants?

Some yards may need consistency of color (a monochromatic scheme) with carefully selected plants that unify the landscaping. Others lend themselves to dramatic plantings. “If you’re in doubt which colors work best with others, rely on the color wheel and choose opposites,” says Bennett. “This is particularly fun if you like tropical annuals. Play up the drama.

“Once you have a plan, head to your favorite nursery to select plants that speak to you,” she says. But before hitting the cash register, Bennett advises placing different varieties side by side so you can visualize how they will look in combination.

“The biggest mistake people make when visiting a nursery is not taking into account the environment they have to work with,” agrees Scott Barnard at Chatham Landscape Services. “People simply pick attractive plants off the shelf without understanding that to produce beautiful blooms, some need sun; others, shade. Then they struggle to meet the needs of the plants.”

As floriculture director, Barnard’s goal – for homes and commercial properties—is to create a welcoming oasis that will increase yard sustainability and enhance home values.  One of his secret weapons is to establish raised annual beds. “They are visually beautiful and the deeper amended soil encourages root growth and helps retain water,” he says. 

“Although Atlanta hasn’t had a drought in several years, it’s always best to prepare ahead by using low-maintenance plants that are not temperamental,” Barnard says. “Annuals like Vinca, Wave Petunias, Whopper Begonias, Coleus and Scaevola are good choices.”

When in doubt about your color palette, Barnard recommends choosing three complementary colors using plants of contrasting sizes and shapes. Height, texture and unique leaf contours create eye appeal. Colorful foliage like Coleus and Caladium also add impact. He calls it the “thriller, filler, spiller” approach.

“Creating a beautiful yard is all about planning ahead, planting annuals in the right spot and choosing colors you love,” Barnard says. Energetic reds and oranges add pizzazz while blues can be coolly beautiful.  A variety of annuals can create a cheerful riot of color and be just the touch needed to attract “oohs” and “aahs.”

Gardens in a pot

If digging in the dirt is too daunting for that achin’ back, you can create a colorful container garden without getting on your hands and knees. Bennett, who designs the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s eye-popping container gardens says, “They are ideal for patios, pools, decks, entries, apartments and condos.”

Choosing a pot that’s right for the location is key. Tall containers can frame an entry, and shorter pots of differing heights might work best for a pool, porch or patio. Regardless the height, make sure the pots are at least 18 to 24-inches wide at the top to allow for sufficient soil and water retention. “If pots are heavy, place them in their intended location before filling them with potting soil and arranging the plants,” Bennett advises. 

But regardless the size, every pot needs holes for drainage. “I only recommend using pottery pieces or Styrofoam in the bottom if the display is going to be extremely temporary,” she says. “Otherwise, good quality potting soil allows for plenty of drainage. 

“Choosing annuals for container gardens should be fun, so don’t be afraid to show your personality by picking plants you love,” Bennett says. Her personal favorites include: Ornamental Banana plants that have dark red stems combined with red Caladiums and Asparagus Fern; orange and red striped Bengal Tiger Cannas and the gold leaf foliage of Duranta; Black Elephant Ear (actually a deep purple) surrounded by medium size yellow flowers or foliage like Allamanda; and Bronze Potato Vine or Sweet Caroline combined with asparagus fern.

“Begonias are always a great choice,” says Jenny Hardgrave, President of Simply Flowers, Inc. “They are fabulous if they just have the right ‘friends.’  Pair them up with Lantana, sun-loving Caladiums, Angelonia, or Coleus.  There are some new Begonia series on the market including ‘Big’ and ‘Whopper’.  These get taller with stronger stems than standard begonias.”

There are many great choices for Atlanta lawns. “Zinnias come in a wide variety of colors,” continues Hardgrave. “The Zinnia Profusion series stays low at around 18”, they love the heat, and are fairly easy to maintain!  Use them in full sun.

“Avoid standard Impatiens – there is a horrible disease called Downey Mildew that will kill Impatiens mid-summer, and there is very little that can be done to combat it.  New Guinea Impatiens are a great alternative.  Coleus and Caladiums have lovely foliage. They work great for color in the shade. The best news: they require very little care!”

Care and feeding

No matter the beauty of the installation, plants need water and fertilizer to keep them blooming all summer long. “Most plants will ‘talk’ to you and let you know they are thirsty,” says Reeves. “Check them in the heat of the day to see if they droop. Above all, never lightly sprinkle your annual beds. Water them to a depth of one-inch once a week. Extended release fertilizers can do all the rest of the work for you. They may cost more than brands requiring multiple single applications, but they keep those plants healthy all summer long.”


Spectacular, Sustainable Annuals
•  Whopper Begonias (sun/shade)
•  Lucky Lantanas (sun)
•  Devine or New Guinea Impatiens (shade) (Avoid standard impatiens that have a tendency to produce powdery mildew.)
•  Sunpatiens (sun/shade)
•  Serena Angelonia (sun)
•  Kong Coleus (sun/shade)
•  Cora Vinca (sun)

Scott Barnard, Chatham Landscape Services


Garden Dos
•  When planting flowers against a dark background, stay away from dark purples and even reds that don’t show up well in shady areas; whites, yellows, chartreuses and silvers brighten them up.
•  Be sure to read the labels so you’ll know which plants need shade and which prefer sun. Keep in mind how tall they grow and how much water they will need.
Amanda Bennett, Atlanta Botanical Garden

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