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Behnke’s Annuals Pollinator Garden Review: What Worked and What Didn’t

It’s evaluation time to see what still looks good this late in the season in our rain garden and pollinator gardens.  First: the annuals,focusing mainly on the failures and the successes.  These were planted in May (best selection of summer annuals at our garden center is from late April to early June).  For annuals, it’s a question of making it from the hot summer to the (usually) cooler temperatures of the fall.  Recall that we had regular rainfall for most of the summer, and August temperatures were cooler than normal.  We then got hot and dry in September although of course, we water as necessary to maintain an attractive planting.

I planted three selections of Zinnia.  We pulled out two of them during the summer because they got ratty (a professional term; they suffered from plant fungal infections which is not atypical of Zinnia).  The third,  Zinnia ‘Zahara Starlight Rose’ is still blooming but we were disappointed that this cream and pink two-tone had almost no pink during the summer, since we were shooting for pink in that corner of the garden.  We have some seedlings coming up from the Zinnia ‘Magellan Orange’ and ‘Magellan Red’ that we removed; we will probably get some blooms from them if we have a late frost. It’s not that zinnias aren’t beautiful flowers, but in the average garden they will probably need to be replaced sometime in the season.  Luckily they bloom within a few weeks of sowing seed so you can do multiple crops in a year, preferably rotating locations with something else you have removed rather than planting zinnias right back into the same spot.

Also removed because they became unattractive—Basil ‘Amethyst’ but you expect that from Basil by late summer; Cosmos Sonata Mix (also disfigured by fungus) and Sunflower ‘Firecracker,’ which we replaced with dwarf Spiderflower, Cleome ‘Cleo’ in the middle of summer when the sunflowers were done blooming.   The sunflowers are very popular with bees while they are in flower, but the flowering period is limited to a few weeks.

coleus that’s been cut back on left and coleus that’s been allowed to flower on right

Looking terrific: sun-loving Coleus and Perilla ‘Magilla Purple;’ blue Salvia in the Sallyfun series; red Salvia ‘Red Hot Sally;’ and all the Lantanas.  Behnke’s gardener Stephen Rick planted big beds of Lantana at our front entrance on US Route One, and they are spectacular, as are those in the pollinator garden.  An invasive species in warmer climates where it overwinters, lantana really performs well here.  Our intent was to allow some of the Coleus to flower to attract bees; it looks like a totally different plant with an abstract form; you can barely see the foliage.  Egyptian Star Flower, Pentas ‘Grafitti Rose’ was also a winner.

Lantana ‘Bandana Pink’ and Cleome ‘Cleo’

We have a honeybee hive on the property, and we also get many bumblebees and other pollinators in our gardens.  It seemed that the bees in general preferred the perennials to the annuals.  Of the annuals, at this end of the blooming season, the honeybees love the Spiderflower (Cleome) first thing in the morning.  I don’t find the plant attractive in pots in the selling season, but once planted and established, this dwarf form is really attractive, and it’s the bees’ knees to the bees.  The bees also like the lantana.

by Larry Hurley, Behnke horticulturist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. When you cut back the coleus, do you just clip the flowering portion or do you cut down more of the plant?

    I planted coleus, salvia, and Egyptian star flower along my front walk this year. Lots of bees, some butterflies and a few moths. I really enjoyed seeing the pollinators and feeling good about supporting them. BTW, the bees never bothered us – they were too busy visiting the flowers!

    1. HI, sorry for the delay.

      On the pollinators, I’m allergic to wasp stings so I am always careful around blooming plants. Like you, I find that they are focused on the flowers, and if you move slowly and deliberately, and you don’t do something stupid, like grab one by mistake or step on one barefoot, they won’t bother you.

      Generally stings occur when bees/wasps are defending their nests, or with yellow jackets, when you are dining outdoors in late summer/fall and you are defending your sandwich. I think yellow jackets are just looking for a fight so I avoid them as much as possible.


      How to pinch (or cut, prune) depends on your goal. To remove flower spikes, you can just pinch them off with your fingers or with a pruner. This is known as deadheading, which may encourage new flowering spikes to grow from lower down on the stem. But to create a fuller plant, I would recommend cutting further down the stem so that the plant branches out.

      In the “More Than You Need to Know Category:

      The way this works is:

      When not in flower, at the tip of the plant is the growing point that makes the next set of leaves, and while it is growing it produces a chemical that suppresses branching below the tip of the plant. This keeps the plant growing upward toward the light, but you wind up with “leggy”stems, not a bushy plant.

      When you remove the tip by cutting it off, it triggers the plant to make new shoots from inactive buds in the nodes: the node is the place where the leaf attaches to the stem. [On dicots, there is always a leaf bud between the leaf stem (petiole) and the branch.]

      Since coleus has opposite branching–stems are directly across from each other – you will get two new shoots to replace the one your removed; maybe more if the next set of buds at the next set of leaves below also starts to grow.

      You are sure to get the new shoots from near the top of the stem where you have pinched/cut off the original piece, so if you want the plant to be low and full, the first pinch when the plant is say, 6 or 8 inches tall, making sure to pinch somewhere ABOVE the lowest set of leaves, otherwise there won’t be any nodes and you just have a sad stick left.

      When the plant flowers and starts to go to seed, the two nodes below may also start to grow as the flowering stem ages, so you now have two new sets of flowers. Depending on the growth habit of the plant, this may continue on for several sets of blooming, although usually the second set of flowers is smaller than the first.

      Larry Hurley

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