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GARDENING : It’s Colorful, It’s Hardy, It’s <i> Super</i> Petunia

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine a plant that thrives in heat and sun, is impervious to smog, tolerates water from overhead sprinklers, grows at the phenomenal rate of an inch a day and, best of all, covers itself with masses of eye-catching colorful flowers almost all year. Sounds too good to be true? Meet super petunia.

The plant, which has been captivating Europe for the past five years, was introduced to the United States last year.

They look like their petunia cousins but behave much better. Two super petunia varieties, ‘Sunlover Supertunia’ and ‘Cascadia,’ are available throughout Orange County at nurseries and garden centers.

“We can barely keep up with the demand,” said Evelyn Weidner, owner of Weidner’s Gardens in Encinitas, one of the growers introducing ‘Sunlover Supertunias’ to the U.S. market.

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“ ‘Sunlover Supertunia’ is a wonder plant that loves heat and loves to bloom,” Weidner said.

A hybrid with ancestry back to wild South American petunia strains, ‘Sunlover Supertunia’ is the result of hybridizing efforts of Australian breeder Roy Rother.

In Europe, breeders have also been working with super petunias and a variety called ‘Cascadia,’ which Armstrong Garden Centers is introducing here this year.

“ ‘Cascadia’ is a further development of ‘Supertunias,’ ” explained John Farmer, a spokesman for Armstrong Garden Centers. “The growth habit is the same, but the color range is broader.”

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Both varieties of the powerful new petunias offer the same advantage of masses of color, either in borders or hanging baskets or containers. Unlike regular petunias, these powerhouses grow and bloom for two to three years instead of behaving as short-lived annuals.

Right now, ‘Sunlover Supertunias’ are available in two colors--Pampas Fire, wine-colored blossoms with dark purple centers, and Sweet Victory, larger-flowered pink. Weidner reports that additional colors will be available by August. Look for Kilkenny Bells, with blue/purple flowers; Sun Snow, white; Purple Sunspot, purple, and Velvet Columbine, deep purple. Rother is working on more varieties and plans to offer bicolors by next year.

‘Cascadia’ is available in midnight blue, dark pink, soft pink, dark purple, medium purple and white. The flowers of both varieties are single, and the foliage is compact.

Weidner predicts that the super petunias will replace conventional petunias as gardeners get to know them.

Farmer has been test growing ‘Cascadia’ in his garden in Fullerton and also gives them rave reviews.

“Four plants have filled a 50-square-foot planter bed, and they just keep blooming and blooming and blooming,” he said.

Super petunias provide masses of color in the ground and also are spectacular in hanging baskets because of their cascading growth habit. One plant can fill a 10-inch container, although Weidner recommends using several plants for a fuller look. They can trail for five to six feet.

These plants like heat and need to be planted in full sun. They don’t need dead-heading, because they’ve been hybridized to produce little seed. Regular petunias, like all annuals, stop flower production when they set seeds. Super petunias are produced by cuttings, not seeds, so they keep growing and blooming.

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This vigorous growth habit means they must be fed. “They’re like adolescents in the plant kingdom, growing rapidly and constantly eating,” Weidner said.

She recommends fertilizing every two weeks and supplementing with iron if the leaves start to yellow.

Although super petunias are almost work-free, they aren’t pest-free.

Like other petunias, they attract bud worms, snails and slugs and sometimes aphids and whiteflies. Budworms can be combatted with the use of nontoxic BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), available in nurseries and garden centers under several different brand names.

Snails can be controlled by snail bait, but if you prefer nontoxic methods, try copper barriers around each plant (also sold in nurseries) or snail traps baited with beer. The yeasty brew lures the snails and slugs, and they slurp and drown. Insecticidal soaps will handle the whitefly and aphid problems, which also disappear at the onset of hot weather.

Super petunias can also tolerate cold, even some frost, growers say. They don’t grow and bloom in mid-winter, and a light frost can cause a little damage, but they spring back to life with hot weather, pruning and fertilizing.

What more can you ask of a plant?

Growing Tips

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* Select a sunny location and allow plenty of room for growth. To make an attractive hanging basket, plant a single one-gallon container plant or two four-inch-container plants in a good quality planting mix. In the ground, plant one four-inch-container plant per square yard of garden space.

* Fertilize every two weeks with a liquid or granular fertilizer. If you use time-release fertilizer, double the amount.

* Watch for insect damage and spray or treat as needed with BT or insecticidal soap.

* Bait for slugs and snails or use copper barriers around plants.

* Prune lightly to shape plants as needed.

* Water as needed, according to soil dryness.


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