Multitudes of gardening books have been written on every imaginable topic when it comes to gardening. But plants don't read the books.
In a perfect gardening world, when we have a problem or a plant with an interesting growth pattern, we can refer to someone else's expertise for advice. Perhaps that revered horticulturist has experienced this or that in their past and knows the answer to our question. Perhaps the science department at our esteemed university has researched the whys and wherefores of plant behavior and can tell us why things happen the way they do. But more often than not, it is our elderly neighbor, who has lived through more than a few decades of changing seasons, new cultivars and heirloom descendents, who is the one likely to say, ''that happened to me once!'' Because once is generally how often garden oddities take place.
Except for my container of million bells. These lovely little flowers are becoming more and more prevalent as summer container plants, especially in downtown areas where huge containers-full of trailing color are placed on lightposts to line the streets. Watered daily and fed regularly, these plants can last all summer, looking just as nice at the end of the season as they did at the very beginning. But that's where it should end. Frost comes at the end of September, the baskets of failing blossoms are taken down and holiday decorations take their place.
You can't help but admire these little beauties with the big ambition. I made up a few patio containers a couple years ago and in the centers of the containers, I placed dwarf slow-growing Japanese maple trees with unusual names and even more unusual leaf shapes and colors. I knew the trees would need to be placed in the garden proper in a year or two and I knew the mini petunias would die off in winter, or so I thought. These containers were intended to be temporary.
Million bells aren't petunias at all, but are close cousins. Their botanic name is Calibrachoa and like petunias, they are from the nightshade family of plants. Petunias' Genus and species is Petunia x hybrida. They are named as such because most are hybrids bred from parent plants of many other species.
Million bells are herbaceous perennials, as long as you live in USDA cold hardiness zones 9 to 11 (think South America). For the rest of us (we are in zone 5), they are annuals that bloom from June until frosty nights knock them down in September.
The minis I planted in containers forgot they are supposed to die in winter. The maple trees have been replanted into garden beds, but the flowers, still in the containers and left outdoors all winter, continue to come back each year. They obviously didn't read the book.
There is a plausible, although in itself not common, explanation. Perhaps what shows up each season in my containers aren't the original plants at all, but seedlings have emerged from the previous year's pollination efforts. The plants are not as thick and lush as what I originally put in those container gardens. They are somewhat sparse to tell the truth, but regardless, for the past two years, small purple petunia-like plants have emerged from those containers and by mid-July, they are blooming deep lavender and maroon and attempting to trail over the side of the container just like their former selves of two years past.
Petunias are also herbaceous perennials and once in a while I have had one or two plants make an attempt to come back after a particularly mild winter, but the second showing wasn't worth much and the plant was discarded to make room for something more vigorous.
Faded petunia flowers are not pretty. They turn a slimy brown when the blooms begin to die and for the sake of aesthetics, plants should be deadheaded. To dispel a common myth, deadheading doesn't cause plants to become thick and bushy. It is pinching off the tips of the stems when the plants are young, encouraging the growth of side shoots that create bushier plants.
Petunia stems and flowers are sticky and give off a familiar fragrance that isn't particularly pleasing but isn't repelling either. Regardless, it is their prolific blooms that keep people coming back for more when it's time to set out the summer annuals.
I'm not complaining about the return of the million bells each year. It has become somewhat of a curiosity from year to year to see if this could be the last time the flowers bloom.
Personally, I love it when plants don't read the books.