What flowers can you plant at this time of the year that will bloom quickly and offer some vertical appeal? Although it's late in the season, stocks are a good bet for color, fragrance and spikes.
Of the winter-blooming bedding plants, only two--snapdragons and stocks--offer much height or columnar effect to contrast with the rounded forms of pansy, nemesia, lobelia, alyssum, primrose, calendula, and other typical cool-weather flowers. Although snapdragons are delightful, their rust is not. Perhaps if I sprayed more, my snapdragons could survive. Instead, I've turned to stocks for spiky contrast in the winter garden.
In addition to their vertical appeal, stocks offer spicy fragrance, two to three months of bloom, and a cool-color range that seems to please fashionable gardeners still searching for pink color schemes.
In the height department, however, stocks are really changing. Ten years ago my stocks were 2 to 3 feet tall, somewhat floppy and good for cutting. To keep them from slouching, I frequently had to stake the long stems. Today, the stocks available from nurseries are quite different.
The most popular current bedding stock is a strain called Midget. It was developed in Japan six years ago by Takii Inc., one of the world's largest seed producers. Midget has clear, smooth, green leaves (instead of the normal gray fuzzy ones), very compact growth and a limited color range (white, violet, rose, and red). Shoinoue Inoue, flower technical manager of American Takii Inc. in Salinas, Calif., said the Midget strain did not sell well in Japan. Growers there preferred tall stocks for cutting flowers.
In this country, though, about four years ago, Midget stocks became a big hit, especially among nursery wholesale growers. The Midgets bloomed fast in seedling trays and pots, and customers seemed to prefer the color contrast of the bright flowers with the clear green leaves. Too, Midgets were easier to maintain in the garden because they require no staking to protect them from winter winds.
Some gardeners, though, are not very impressed with these subcompact plants. One gardening friend said, "They're so squat, they look like you'd stub your toe on them in the garden." Perhaps in pots or in small growing areas, these Midgets might be useful.
If you want taller stocks, most nurseries are also carrying two other strains, seven-week Trysomic and 10-week Trysomic. These are usually gray-leaved and can range from 12 inches to 30 inches in height. Terry Hartog, owner of Vintage Growers in Bellflower, says the 10-week strain is a little dwarfer and slower to bloom than the seven-week strain. But the flowers in the 10-week strain are somewhat more double. Ten-week stocks form bushy plants in many colors, including purple, blue, mauve, crimson, copper, rose, pink, yellow and white.
Stocks require little special care or maintenance. Like most plants, they grow best in well-drained, cultivated soil. Since I use the same growing beds over and over, I dig in lots of redwood compost before each new planting. The compost improves soil texture but doesn't add much in the way of nutrients, so I also dig in fertilizers before planting.
After setting out plants, water with a diluted mixture of liquid fertilizer. Once stocks begin to bloom, remove faded flowers immediately. Some flowers are very quick to shut down flower production once seeds begin to form. Pansies and stocks both consider their task completed when seeds are allowed to form.
Therefore, to extend the flowering season for stocks from one month to three or more, cut off any stalks that begin to make flat, button-like seed capsules. Flower expert Inoue also pointed out that single stocks go to seed much more quickly than double varieties. By the way, to determine whether a stock plant will be single or double, check the leaf. Lobed leaves usually indicate doubleness; smooth-edged leaves mean single flowers.
In my garden, the only problems I have had with stocks were aphids. Stocks belong to the mustard family ( Cruciferae or Brassicaceae ), which includes cabbage, broccoli and nasturtiums. All of these plants are very attractive to nasty yellow aphids. The good news is that aphids are about the easiest of all garden pests to eradicate. Spray with Safer's soap, Malathion or Orthene.