Saturday, August 1, 2009

Phlox In Flames Of Glory

When spring arrives in a blaze of glory, Creeping Phlox provides the flame. Indeed, Phlox (pronounced "flox") means "flame" or "blaze", and it is appropriate. Hundreds of flowers from red to blue to white carpet the ground in a breathtaking display nearly obscuring the evergreen foliage.

Phlox stolonifera (pronounced "stow-low-NEE-fur-uh") is native to much of the eastern U.S. in the Appalachians and Piedmont and thrives in USDA climate zones 4 through 9. Maximum height is up to 12". It prefers slightly moist, well-drained soil with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.8, but it will tolerate short periods of drought. "Stolonifera" means "bearing runners", which explains how it spreads. Mature plants grow to 18" across, but spreading and propagating along they way, P. stolonifera will produce a beautiful carpet in optimal conditions. Though it is commonly found in light shade to full shade, P. stolonifera will also tolerate full sun.

P. stolonifera is well-suited for woodland gardens, perennial gardens and borders, rock and alpine gardens when planted with species having similar requirements. It benefits from being divided about every 3 years or so. Young plants can be replanted in the same bed, moved to other places in the garden, or shared with friends.

Phlox subulata (pronounced "sub-you-LAY-tah") is also native to the U.S., mostly in the eastern and central regions, and thrives in USDA climate zones 3 through 9. Maximum height is up to 8" and spread is up to 24". It prefers slightly moist, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8, but will tolerate short periods of drought. "Subulata" means "awl-shaped" which describes the shape of the leaves. Due to the shape of the leaves, P. subulata is commonly called "Moss Pink", though the flower colors may not be pink. After spring bloom, the plants display an attractive mossy texture in the garden.

P. subulata is superb as a ground cover in perennial gardens and borders, rock and alpine gardens. Phlox is effective as a planting beside stepping stone paths. It is very beautiful planted atop walls and terraces, especially stone ones, where it can cascade over the side.

Prepare the planting bed for Creeping Phlox by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep. Composted manure may be incorporated into the soil. Fertilizer may be used. If you choose to do so, incorporate 5-10-15 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Container-grown phlox can be planted any time you have a shovel handy, but will require monitoring of soil moisture conditions during hot weather to avoid plant stress.

Space plants 12" to 18" apart. Keep in mind that my spacing recommendations are approximate. If you want them to fill in quickly, plant closer together. If you have plenty of time and patience but less money, plant them farther apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill. Press soil around the roots. Do not cover the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 2" to 4" deep. Irrigate thoroughly.

Maintenance is minimal. Creeping Phlox have few pest and disease problems, but they aren't immune. Spider mites can cause problems during dry weather, but the little critters hate water. So overhead irrigation discourages them. Nematodes can attack stems, but affected areas are noticeable by yellowing. Removal and destruction of the infected portion is effective. Mildew can infect in areas with poor air circulation during cooler, wetter weather. Sulfur spray is a good treatment. Keep in mind that remedial sprays do not restore damaged tissue; they only stop the progress of the problem. The best preventative is to maintain vigorous plants in a healthy environment.

For a thrilling floral spectacle in spring on a low-maintenance ground cover, I highly recommend Creeping Phlox.

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