Gardening: On being frenemies with the lovely petunia


I have a love-hate relationship with petunias. It’s true if given the proper care — occasional pruning and fertilizing along with copious amounts of water — they bloom nonstop for months on end.

So what’s not to love? Well, petunias are also a magnet for rabbits, deer and woodchucks, and I swear they can smell them a mile away. Oh, and don’t forget slugs. When I moved to the country I’d hoped I’d outrun those horrid critters. Guess what guys: Slugs are indigenous to Michigan and thrive in wooded areas, so for the 20 years I gardened in the country petunias were out as bedding plants.

The secret is to put them in hanging baskets, you say? Well, in hot weather those lovely suspended gardens need to be watered on a daily basis, and that kind of upkeep does not work well with my schedule. They turn to toast in a week.

So, for years I have ignored petunias. Oh, I raved about the Wave varieties in my columns and introduced their popular relatives, the Calibrachoa, aka million bells, in container gardening programs as well. However, I passed on them for use in my garden for two decades.

Now that I am stewarding the display garden at the Rochester OPC, my design style has changed from English Cottage to in-your-face color blocking that attracts attention and looks good from the second floor of a 90,000-square-foot building 150 feet away, petunias are more than just on my radar screen; they’re important players in my planting scheme.

Pink petunias are a snap to shop for, but purple not so much. The color purple recedes in the garden when viewed at a distance so I mix it with white to make it pop. My petunia of choice is the 2003 All American Selections variety Merlin Blue Morn, with a white throat framed in a deep velvety purple and I drive 45 miles to Campbell’s Greenhouse in North Branch to get them.

This year a critter has decided to test my sanity by popping the newly planted petunia plugs out of the ground at night. I currently have half of my beloved petunia plants in my office under lights recovering from the brink of death after treating them with my rescue remedy. The recipe is as follows: 1 teaspoon Neptune’s Harvest Seaweed plant food (liquid kelp) and 3-4 drops Superthrive vitamin solution mixed in 1 cup lukewarm water. Soak the plant for several hours until the foliage revives.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears on Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at