Neil Sperry: See what makes the list of top cold-weather color favorites

Posted Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Someone asked me the other day which cold-weather annuals would be most tolerant of our North Texas winters. The first three or four plants I suggested fell in order pretty naturally, but the ones farther down the list required a little more thinking. Here is the essence of my reply.

• Pansies and their smaller-flowering sisters violas are, hands-down, our most winter-hardy annual flowers, which is probably why they’re also our best-selling annuals of the entire Texas year. You have many choices in the spring and summer, but winter options are much more limited. Pansies are so dependable in winter that we all want to have them.

You’ll find scores of varieties and mixtures of these wonderful little flowers in nurseries right now, and this is the best planting time of the year. If you set out healthy and vigorous 4-inch potted transplants now, they’ll give you nice color the balance of the fall, through the winter, and well into spring. Plant them into well-prepared and perfectly draining garden soils. They’ll need to be in full sunlight, and you’ll want to space them 12 or 14 inches apart, checkerboard-style. You’ll get the showiest display if you choose small to mid-sized varieties and if you use compatible mixtures of colors. They are well suited to larger patio containers (14 inches and wider).

• Pinks are next on our list. They’re the single-flowering cousins to greenhouse carnations, and they share that same wonderful fragrance. Their flowers are red, pink, white and orchid, as well as banded combinations of them all. Pinks grow to be 8 to 10 inches tall, and like pansies, they bloom almost non-stop into the spring. Their labels may describe them as perennials, but in Texas we use them as cool-weather annuals.

• Snapdragons are next hardiest of our flowering annuals. They come in just about all colors except blue, and they’ll bloom in flushes in fall and through all of the spring. Dwarf types are good for flower-bed edgings, while mid-height types can be grown in pots and in the middle or toward the back of the floral border.

• Ornamental cabbage and kale don’t fit the description of “flowering” annuals, but they’re some of the most dependable sources of mid-winter color. The heading types are incredibly showy, with their leaves tinted white, pink, rose or lavender. Upright selections like the heirloom Redbor have become standards of mid-winter landscaping. Redbor is used by home gardeners and landscape contractors as a showy deep maroon contrast to pansies and other flowering annuals. Among the kales and cabbages, it’s one of the most cold tolerant. Its white-leafed counterpart is Winterbor.

Red Giant mustard produces leathery-looking, burgundy-colored leaves. It grows quickly, and it can even be harvested from the color garden and brought to the table.

That is our A-list of the most reliable sources of color for November through February, and if you use nothing more than those plants, you’ll have lovely results. However, if you’re just a little more adventuresome, there are several good plants that can stand frosts and light freezes. While you won’t be able to grow them in ground beds and patio pots unless they’re sheltered from the brunt of the cold and the wind, these plants are great where you can offer them just a little measure of protection.

• Swiss chard, notably the mixture called ‘Bright Lights,’ produces fluorescent shades of red, gold, pink, lavender and white leaves and leaf stalks (petioles). These plants are so showy, it’s hard to believe that their colors are natural. They’ll withstand temperatures a few degrees below freezing.

• Iceland poppies will establish over the winter and start blooming with the first days of very early spring. Their flowers are crisp and pure shades of orange, yellow, pink, rose and white. They grow to be 16 to 18 inches in bloom. They’re winter-hardy into the mid-20s if they’re properly conditioned.

• Snow Princess sweet alyssum is a selection of Proven Winners, and those who have grown it have proclaimed it to be the best of its class. It’s a trailing plant with pure white blooms, so it’s a perfect choice for the outer edge of big patio pots, much as you might use baby’s breath in a floral arrangement.

• Dusty miller’s silvery gray leaves are staple items in mid-winter color beds. It’s probably as winter-hardy as our top list above, but it really needs to be used in tandem with pansies and other bright flowers. Keep its flowers sheared off in the spring and it may survive as a perennial, even though you plant it as an annual.

• Cardoon is the flashiest plant of them all. Its large foliage looks like blue-gray thistle leaves. It’s big and it’s bold, to 3 to 5 feet tall and wide. If you decide to try it, put cardoon at the back of your flower bed or in the center of very large patio pots, and plant blue, red or purple flowers and foliage around it.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.

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