Neil Sperry

August 22, 2014

The Garden Guru: Consider celosias for fall color

Mums and marigolds are fine, but this plant’s bold color options are just made for the season.

I’m going to borrow a topic my buddy Tucker Reed, horticulture manager of the Dallas Arboretum, brought to my radio audience last Sunday morning. It’s a plant Tucker and I both like a lot — one that seldom gets much fanfare. It’s a plant that will just get better from now until frost. And as with the new cars of the fall, you have several options in colors and body styles.

It’s celosia, and this is the right time to plant it for its best show of the year.

You may know celosia as cockscomb. Most veteran Texas gardeners have grown the old heirloom type that reseeds freely from one year to the next. The strong-growing plants terminate in giant crests that some say look rather cerebral. (OK, they look like brains.) The reseeding types are almost always deep burgundy red, and as fall’s temperatures begin to drop, their foliage takes on the same rich hue.

It’s a grand plant for the back of the informal floral garden. Oh, sure, you’ll have scores of little seedlings the following spring, but you’ll probably have scores of friends wanting a share of the bounty.

Hybridizers have developed shorter types of cockscomb, and we have them in a wide assortment of jewel-tone reds, pinks, yellows and oranges. Plant them in solid masses of single colors or mixes of shades and they’ll take over from there.

Of course, these hybrid selections won’t “come true” from seed like the old heirloom type, so you won’t want to let their seedlings develop the following spring. Start with new transplants each year.

Then there is the other type of celosias — the types that produce feathery plumes. Those were the ones Tucker said would be great fall alternatives to chrysanthemums and marigolds. As Tucker described using them at the arboretum in large patio pots mixed with crotons, I was imagining the glorious harmonies of colors just made for the fall. I can see them being planted in beds alongside copper plants, firebush or any of the color-compatible sun-tolerant coleus.

Cultural requirements

Celosias need full or nearly full sun to perform to their maximum. Prepare their planting soil by adding several inches of organic matter consisting of equal amounts of compost, sphagnum peat moss, rotted manure and finely ground pine bark mulch. If you’re amending a heavy clay soil, you’ll also want to include an inch of expanded shale along with the organic matter.

Most types of celosias will grow from 16 to 24 inches tall and should be spaced equidistant to their expected height. If you’re planting a bed of them, it usually works best to checkerboard them so you’re not seeing them in rows of individual plants — more as a single mass of color.

Celosias are available in garden centers right now at the perfect time for planting for fall displays. Look for vigorous 4-inch or quart-size containers that have been held in sun conditions similar to what you will have for them when you get them home. It’s usually better to buy plants that are coming into bloom, not those that are already fully engulfed in flowers. The less-mature plants seem to re-establish better in their new homes for a showier long-term display.

Fertilize new plantings with high-nitrogen, water-soluble plant food to get them off to the fastest start. After a couple of weeks, apply a high-quality all-nitrogen granular fertilizer at rates recommended on the bag, and water it into the soil thoroughly. Never let the new plants wilt badly. To do so would risk a slowdown in their growth and flower production.

You’ll be happy to know that celosias seldom have insect or disease problems. They handle the heat very well, and about all the shearing and training they will require will be that you snip off spent flowers of the plume types as they begin to turn brown. New floral spikes will be produced up and around the cut stalks. The crested types, by comparison, are often cut and hung upside-down to dry for winter arrangements.

You’ll find several varieties of celosias in garden centers right now. All should do well for you, but make sure each type’s mature height will fit your needs. A grower friend of mine said his favorites are the Fresh Look series, winners of All-America Selections awards in 2004 and 2007.

Whichever you choose, though, Tucker Reed was right on the money: It’s hard to go wrong with celosias.

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