Knowing what to plant, where, and when is important for the best flower gardenKnowing what to plant, where, and when is important for the best flower garden — Photo courtesy of AegeanBlue / Getty Images

Walking into a plant nursery can be overwhelming, especially when you want a stunning flower garden at home. Before the planting season begins, look for guidance from experts.

We tapped Steve Foltz, director of horticulture at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, for help with flower garden ideas and tips. He’s been with the horticulture department since 1988, taught university-level courses in horticulture for three decades, and is a member of the Kentucky Nursery and Landscape Hall of Fame. He knows his stuff.

We ask the important questions and Foltz answers. Want your flower garden to resemble those at Zoo Blooms, the annual event held at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (also voted the Best Flower Festival in the USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards)? You’re in the right place.

How do you arrange a flower garden?

Add pops of color in high-traffic flower garden areasAdd pops of color in high-traffic flower garden areas — Photo courtesy of Nitiphonphat / iStock Via Getty Images

Like most things, your best bet is to keep it simple. Foltz says to use drifts of color in your home flower garden and to use the most color in high-traffic areas, like walkways, patios, and decks.

Keep in mind that annuals require care and even the hardiest need to be watered and fertilized, so your flower bed should be near water outlets.

What flowers are best for a flower garden?

Bright yellow and orange lantana makes a stunning flower garden pickBright yellow and orange lantana makes a stunning flower garden pick — Photo courtesy of Srdjan Stepic / iStock Via Getty Images

For a colorful flower garden with mad curb appeal, Foltz suggests the following easy-to-grow blooms whether you plant them directly in the ground or in containers.

Best for sunny areas in your flower garden

Petunia: Choose bright colors like Vista Bubblegum pink or Supertunia Vista Jazzberry.

Lantana: Good choices include Citrus Blend and Lucky Pot of Gold.

Sweet Potato Vine: Marguerite is a great ground cover in sunny spots. It cascades over walls and is a vigorous grower.

Zinnias: Zahara Fire is a low plant with bright orange flowers, or try any in the Profusion Zinnias series.

Salvia: Mystic Spires Blue is a terrific pollinator plant, or go for the Big Blue and Blue Suede Shoes varieties.

Grass: Purple Fountain Grass is super easy!

Best for shady areas in your flower garden

Impatiens: Foltz especially likes the Sunpatiens Compact Electric Orange.

Begonias: Dragon Wings series, Megawatt series, and Surefire Cherry Cordial are Foltz’ favorites.

Coleus: Foltz likes the vegetative varieties like the ColorBlaze series or the Main Street series.

Should you plant seeds or use potted plants for a flower garden?

Potted plants are usually best for home flower gardensPotted plants are usually best for home flower gardens — Photo courtesy of AleksandarNakic / Getty Images

Foltz suggests visiting your local garden store that sells well-grown annuals that are in either flats or 4-inch pots.

“Most of the time the vigorous plants that do well are in 4-inch pots,” he adds. “Growing from seed can be fun in the back of the garden, but when you are really counting on color, buy plants.”

How do you prepare the soil before planting flowers?

A beautiful flower garden starts with the soilA beautiful flower garden starts with the soil — Photo courtesy of Zorica Nastasic / iStock Via Getty Images

Soil prep for a flower garden starts with knowing the soil type that’s native to your area. You may have to apply some elbow grease to get the dirt in good enough shape to plant annuals.

“The most important tip is to dig up your soil with a shovel or a small rototiller to make sure it’s loose and soft,” Foltz explains. Try for 6 to 8 inches deep, and if you can’t dig with your hands the soil is not ready. “If you have to chip away at the soil to plant your flowers, you are in for an uphill battle in which you will not win.”

Consider a soil test kit (for $10 to $20) to determine your soil’s composition, alkalinity, and acidity. Foltz says if you’re working your dirt and adding organic matter occasionally when preparing your beds, you should be in good shape.

How often do you need to water and fertilize a flower garden?

Keep a close eye on your flower garden for the first few weeksKeep a close eye on your flower garden for the first few weeks — Photo courtesy of cjp / Getty Images

Assuming you adequately prepared your soil, water your flower garden immediately after planting, and keep an eye on them for the next week or so.

“The first week we fertilize with a liquid feed you can attach to your hose (like Miracle Grow or something similar),” the horticulturist advises. “And you can use slow-release fertilizer as a top-dress as well. Then it is a matter of making sure the color of your leaves stays good and dark green.”

Once the annuals are established, water two times a week. If it rains, you may still need to water because sometimes it doesn’t soak the ground. If you’re unsure, stick your finger in the soil at the base of the plant, and feel if it is wet or dry.

How do you extend the blooming season of a flower garden?

Coleus Main Street is one of the recommended plants from the Botanical Garden's trialsColeus Main Street is one of the recommended plants from the Botanical Garden’s trials — Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

“By using the recommended plants from our trials [at the botanical garden],” Foltz says. “We expect our annuals to look good from May to the first frost! If they are short-season color, they don’t get the Zoo’s ‘Best Annuals’ moniker.”

For more flower garden ideas, check out the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s guide to planning your garden.

How do you prevent common pests and diseases that affect flowers?

Plants like salvia can keep deer away from your flower gardenPlants like salvia can keep deer away from your flower garden — Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

If you’ve done all of the above — selected the best-recommended plants, prepared your soil, watered and fertilized your annuals (being extra attentive the first three weeks) — you should be good.

Deer, however, can be your thorniest issue, if you have them in your neighborhood. If they don’t bother your hostas (lilies), you’re probably safe. If they eat your hostas, Foltz suggests adding plants like lantana, salvia, and verbena bonariensis to keep deer at bay.

When it comes to controlling weeds, forget about using fabric, plastic, or rocks. Cover your soil with mulch. (But with annuals don’t lay it on too thick!)

Foltz uses pine-based mulch, which is very fine in texture. He notes that well-regarded garden stores and nurseries generally use this mix to grow their perennials.

How do you plant a wildflower garden?

Butterflies, birds, and bees love a wildflower gardenButterflies, birds, and bees love a wildflower garden — Photo courtesy of L Feddes / iStock Via Getty Images

Wildflowers are a vital support system for butterflies, birds, and bees and are a beautiful addition to your flower garden. Butterflies need host plants and nectar plants that will feed them later.

If you want to see Monarchs, for example, Foltz suggests Asclepias (also known as milkweed) as the host plant. For swallowtail butterfiles, plant pipevine, spicebush, and fennel. Annuals like lantana, salvia, and verbena bonariensis make great nectar plants for the butterflies to feed on.

How do you make a container flower garden?

Container gardens are easy to grow and the larger the container the easier it is to maintainContainer gardens are easy to grow and the larger the container the easier it is to maintain — Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

Container gardens are a snap to grow, and the larger the container, the easier it is to maintain. Always use a soilless mix in containers, according to Foltz.

“See your best garden centers that display a lot of beautiful annual color containers and use their mix,” he says. “It will be more important to use slow-release fertilizer or fertilize more often when growing in containers. Note that you will have to water more frequently when container gardening.”

What are some edible plants to include in a flower garden?

Peppery nasturtium brings color to the garden and flavor to a saladPeppery nasturtium brings color to the garden and flavor to a salad — Photo courtesy of Nadya So / iStock Via Getty Images

Kale, chard, and peppery nasturtium bring a lot of color to gardens. Chives are a hardy perennial plant that adds edible leaves and flowers, and they’re easy, deer-proof, and attractive.

Nothing is better than homegrown strawberries, which grow well in containers, or raspberries and blackberries planted in wilder places where they can ramble.

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