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When mixing up containers, consider these vibrant blue lobelias

If you love playing like you're Monet as you design mixed containers, then you must learn about the new component plants Techno Heat, Lucia and Waterfall. These are all new lobelia series gaining the attention of designers of mixed floral containers.

They are all Lobelia erinus or hybrids, native to southern Africa and much different than our tall native cardinal flower Lobelia cardinalis, known as a hummingbird magnet. But don't fret -- use these blue lobelias in containers and hanging baskets, and you'll find them attracting their fair share of butterflies.

The reason these new varieties are garnering attention is that they are showing a new heat tolerance, blooming like superstars from spring through midsummer. The series are all vegetatively propagated, giving you a more vigorous performance than the seed-produced selections. Cooler regions of the country will find them blooming even longer.

While many gardeners like the rare shades of blue provided by the lobelia in the border as an edging plant, I think they are simply unbeatable in a container mixed with other flowers like argyranthemum, calibrachoa, petunias and verbena.

In the landscape, they prefer fertile but very well-drained soil. Soggy soil will not yield satisfactory results. If your soil is heavy, incorporate 3 to 4 inches of compost, peat or humus prior to planting. A good layer of mulch will help keep the soil cooler.

In hanging baskets and mixed containers, the task is a lot easier. Simply make sure the container has holes for drainage and select a good lightweight, airy potting soil. Today's better soils even have slow-release fertilizer in the blend.

The lobelia needs plenty of sun to bloom its best, although a little midafternoon shade will certainly be appreciated as you head toward summer and the temperatures start to climb.

Each series has various shades of blue. The Waterfall Blue and the new Techno Heat Electric Blue are riveting with a color that almost seems iridescent. Pay attention as you shop for lobelias in that some are considered upright, others trailing.

In containers, water daily as spring starts to warm. This frequent watering will leach the nutrients, meaning you need to fertilize more often. Use controlled-released granules according to label directions or water-soluble fertilizer that you mix.

There are so many combinations that can be created using the intense blue of the lobelia that adding yellow, although not directly its complement, is nonetheless contrasting enough to make a visually stunning display. Be sure and include some of these new lobelias in your designer containers. Your neighbors will be jealous of your creation.

Horticulturist Norman Winter is vice president for college advancement, Brewton Parker College, Mount Vernon, Ga. and author of Tough-as-Nail Flowers for the South.

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