If impatiens mildew lingers, here are some possible substitutions

Newsday - As gardeners, we have many decisions to make during spring: Should we expand the garden and shrink the lawn? Start vegetables from seeds or buy starter plants? 

Without fail, the one decision I struggle with each year is how to balance the ratio of new perennials, which typically bloom for just a few weeks each season and take several years to attain their full potential, and quick-fix annuals, which will grow quickly, provide near-instant gratification and bloom nonstop from spring through frost.

Impatiens have been the go-to annual for shady beds and planters for as long as I can remember. They asked for little, generously allowing us to forgo deadheading, pinching and staking, and rewarded us with brilliant color all season. But as is too often the case, all good things must come to an end.

Last year, a disease called downy mildew declared open season on impatiens, and the results weren't pretty: Leaves turned yellow and fell off, plants were severely stunted and gardeners who looked closely noticed the presence of a white substance under leaves. 

The bad news is that we should avoid planting impatiens until a cure is found, and that's not likely to happen for several years. The good news is that, although the pathogen -- Plasmopara obducens -- might have survived winter in the soil, it is host-specific, which means it only poses a threat to Impatiens walleriana. Other plants will not be infected if planted in the same soil this year. 

Linda Frohlinger has been planting impatiens in her Massapequa, N.Y., garden for 30 years, tucking pockets of red and white, or violet or pink plants into corners to brighten up beds around her hostas and ferns.

This year, Frohlinger will alter her decades-long routine. "I have shady areas where I always have a pot or two of coleus up on a rock," she said. "This year I'm going to get more coleus for the ground instead of impatiens."

So what can you plant this year instead of impatiens? I sought flowering annuals with a long bloom cycle that are low-maintenance, can tolerate at least some shade and have the same suitable-for-bed-or-container habit as our beloved standby. 

SEVEN ALTERNATIVES TO IMPATIENS

-- Vinca (Catharanthus roseus): Not to be confused with vinca vine, a perennial ground cover, this annual resembles impatiens more closely than any other substitute and is available with lavender, white, red or pink blossoms. It can handle some shade, but flower size increases dramatically with sunlight exposure. Perfect for hot, dry sites, this plant is drought-tolerant, "self-cleaning" (no deadheading necessary) and can be brought indoors for winter windowsill color. Grows 6-16 inches tall and wide.

-- Begonia, tuberous (x tuberhybrida), wax (x semperflorens-cultorum) or hiemalis (x hiemalis): Requires ample water and fertilizer; grows 6-18 inches tall, 6-12 inches wide.

-- Clown flower (Torenia): Doesn't bloom quite as prolifically as impatiens but is very attractive and thrives in light shade while tolerating heat. Flowers are deer-resistant; grows 8-12 inches tall, 6-9 inches wide. 

-- Flowering tobacco: (Nicotiana 'Starmaker'): Requires just six hours of sunlight per day. Deadhead to prevent self-sowing; grows 10-12 inches tall and wide.

-- Lobelia: Available in cascading and mounding varieties. If plants stop blooming during heat waves, shear plant to encourage another burst of flowers; grows 6 inches tall, 6-9 inches wide.

-- Petunia: Performs best with 6-8 hours of sun daily. Pinch or cut back by half in midsummer to rejuvenate plants.

-- Amethyst flower (Browallia): Prefers rich soil, so add compost at planting time, then mulch to keep roots cool. Grows 12-24 inches tall, 6-12 inches wide.

OTHER ANNUALS

Plenty of annuals bask in full sun, with common geraniums, marigolds and New Guinea impatiens among the most popular. But there are so many other, less common choices available.

-- Lantana: Suitable for beds, borders, containers and even as ground cover, lantana produces an abundance of solid or multi-toned, deer-resistant, fragrant flowers all season long.

-- Angelonia: Varieties include those with white, pink or purple flowers. Plant in the garden or in containers, and snip flower stalks for indoor vases.

-- Moss rose: (Portulaca): Perfect for hot, dry spots, this succulent tolerates drought and poor soil like a champ. May reseed.

-- Zinnia: Varieties include single daisylike types as well as semidouble- and double-flowered. Available in myriad colors, including various shades of orange, pink, yellow, purple and white. 

-- Ageratum: Old-fashioned favorite available with lavender, white, rose or nearly-blue (a rarity) flowers. Suitable for containers, beds and borders, with height among varieties ranging from 6 inches to 3 feet tall.

-- Calibrachoa: Resembling mini-petunias, these adorable cascading annuals are covered with hundreds of flowers all season long. Fertilize regularly for best color.

(Contact Jessica Damiano at jessica.damiano@newsday.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard

News Service, www.shns.com.)

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