Monday, March 10, 2014

The Plague

 There it is...and if, as a gardener, you haven't become acquainted with this plague, count yourself uninformed or lucky.  This is downy mildew, only the latest virulent scourge to hit the gardening public.  Shade gardeners accustomed to choosing a carpet of blooms in any hue of their dreams are suddenly facing a paintbox with a lot of holes in it.

That's what I mean.  The photos above are blasts from the recent past, swaths of thousands of small impatiens grown in our greenhouse, waiting to share their colorful wealth in gardens all over the Corn Belt. They weren't the least finicky of infants in the nursery; too much water, too little air, too much cold, too much heat could lead to a host of maladies, but they were the most eye-popping, the most versatile, the most economical means of covering a shady area.

And for that, the horticultural version of an outdoor Oriental carpet has received no ceremonial tearing of the robes, no requiems, no candlelight vigils.  Rather, the gardening poobahs and opinion makers have shown little regret about consigning impatiens walleriana to the compost heap of history, calling them "insipid", or "boring, and not all that pretty."  True, impatiens are prone to wilt in the midday heat of a summer's day.  But to describe the myriad blossoms as "flat"or "dull" is simply inaccurate.   

Some impatiens are nearly iridescent, some pearly, some sprinkled with glitter.  They have been bred to be striped, starred, and picoteed.  If one chooses a boring color, then I guess it is because one wants to play it straight. 

Alas, if our plant orders are any indication, there will be fewer flats of impatiens grown in not just our greenhouse this spring, but everywhere.  Garden centers and landscapers are scrambling for alternatives for shade...there are new shade coleus introduced; as a coleus lover, I cannot argue their star power in the foliage department, but let's not pretend growing coleus is ironclad protection from the assorted rots and fungi associated with shade gardening.  And dare I mention slugs? We have noticed an uptick in orders for torenia, but don't kid yourself that the wishbone flower packs any kind of color punch from a distance no matter how adorable it is in a pot.  Obviously some folks are turning to impatiens of other heritage: New Guineas raised from cuttings or seed.

Finally, let's admit what the bread and butter flower of last resort is going to be for most gardeners of the shade variety: the begonia.  By all means, plant your red and pink Dragonwing begonias from sea to shining sea; enjoy their cascades of  blossoms and sturdy shiny foliage.  Mix them liberally with lysimachia, or various shades of torenia; they will fill a pot, a basket or an empty space under some hostas.  Take advantage of the recently introduced semperflorens types, the vigorous Whoppers or Bigs.  But, if you do this, don't get on your high horticultural horse and look down upon the fallen comrade, the impatiens.  

After all, is there a bigger horticultural cliche in all the Midwest than the corporate planting of a thousand fibrous begonias?  They may be named with exotic monikers like "Nightlife", or "Yin"or "Yang", "Super Olympia", or "Cocktail", but green leaved or bronze, straight or mixed, they still only come in red, white or pink.  Far be it for me to diss a plant that pays the bills, but hardly anyone sees a flat of begonias and says ...oooooh, aaaaah.... 

So, allow me to regret the passing of an era and hope that the geniuses in the breeding labs will sooner rather than later bring a new improved healthy impatiens back to color starved shade gardeners.  Arrest me and take away my trowel, but respect my opinion that a world without impatiens will be far duller than a world with them.


  1. We haven't grown them for several years and I still miss them, cann't beat them for a blast of color. We've planted some sunpatiens but they need an extraordinary amount of water so need to be on their own irrigation zone so I don't kill everything around them with over water.

    1. We certainly have more folks ordering Sunpatiens..saw some pretty ones at the trip gerden in Ft Collins...for what that's worth!