Impatiens worth trying again

Many varieties are available to try.

Impatiens radiate beautiful colors for your shady locations in the garden.<br/><br/>
John Zvirovski / The Jamestown Sun
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Impatiens happen to be one of the top 10 bestselling annuals in this country. It doesn’t surprise me in the least, as they are great bloomers for those shady areas in the garden. Not only do they bloom well in the shade, but they are available in a whole array of colors from white, red, pink, lavender, orange, coral and even some bi-colors. It would probably explain why it is such a top-selling annual for gardeners.

John Zvirovski.jpg
John Zvirovski, Jamestown Sun garden editor
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

I have heard many people say that they cannot grow impatiens for whatever reasons, but I think with the proper placement and care, anyone can grow them well. As with most plants, there are good years and bad years for growing impatiens. Extreme heat and dry conditions are an impatiens' worse enemy and can put them down for the season. Obviously cooler temperatures, not cold, along with moist conditions are more ideal for the plants’ growth.

Don Kinzler also answers questions about pear trees that can produce fruit in the region and when to dig up onions.

Impatiens grow anywhere from 6 inches to 2 feet tall depending on variety. They thrive in shady to semi-shady areas with rich well-drained soils and good moisture. They have small, single green leaves with a finely serrated edge and a slightly waxy sheen to them. This oily finish causes water to bead up and repel from the leaves. The single flowers are anywhere from 1 to 2 inches across and some varieties even produce a double-blooming form. 

There are a few different varieties available for the garden. One is a dwarf type that only grows to 6 inches tall by 6 inches wide. The flowers are quite small like the size of a dime.

The main variety used by most gardeners grows to the size of 8 to 12 inches high and wide. They usually have blooms the size of a quarter and are very common in most gardens. They can really brighten up any darker area in the yard.


Another variety that is available produces nice double blooms that resemble miniature roses. If you catch these in the nursery, make sure you give them a try, as they are very rewarding throughout the entire summer. They also come in a form with variegated leaves that really set them apart from others.

The popular New Guinea impatiens have long lance-shaped leaves that are green, burgundy and sometimes variegated with yellow or red streaking. Their flowers can be as large as a silver dollar and are quite attractive. Their main draw is that they can grow in more sunlight than most of the others, but are by no means tolerant of full sun. All impatiens prefer to be shaded from the hot afternoon and early evening sun and be kept moist so they do not wilt. Another variety named Sunpatiens is much more tolerant of full sun and seems to do fairly well. As you can see, there are quite a few different types to make a selection.

Balsam is an old variety of the impatiens family that can grow up to 2 feet in height and has many double blooms along the central trunk of the plant. The leaves are light green in color and are long and narrow with serrated edges. The main stem itself can be as thick as a thumb when mature and they grow fairly rapidly. These are also much more sun tolerant than the previously mentioned varieties that are not as common as they use to be in today’s gardens. This one would be a very welcomed sight to see reappear into the garden pallet again.

Impatiens actually comes from the Latin word meaning impatient. I used to think that referred to its growth habit and how long it took for it to mature. After a little more research, I found that it actually had to do with its dispersal of seeds into the environment. The impatiens species develop seed pods that are about 1 inch long and when touched literally explode and send small brown seeds meters away from the plant. The pod literally curls up after the release, thus the term of being "impatient" to reseed.
Impatiens can be started by seed or by cuttings. Most people who start them by seed have to be patient as they are slow to grow at the onset. You must begin them in a sterile soil to avoid a bacterial rot called "damping off." Most people prefer to propagate them via cuttings. Just cut a stem that is 3 to 4 inches long, strip off the lower leaves and place into a glass of water. In about two to three weeks, your cuttings will have roots long enough to place into the soil for growing. A large plant can garner anywhere from 10 to 20 cuttings successfully if done properly. I use this technique when planting large beds of impatiens that call for numerous plants. Not only is it good for experimentation, but it can also save a bundle when purchasing plants in mass quantity.

Impatiens can suffer from root rot if they are grown in heavy soils that do not drain well. They are also susceptible to spider mites in protected areas where the rain does not wash them off. The best way to eliminate these pests is to hose them off with a good water wand or to use an insecticide for spider mites. Unlike other plants, sprays that contain insecticidal soap are toxic to impatiens, so avoid them by all means.

Over the last decade, they have also succumbed to the fungal sporing of downy mildew which literally causes the plant to collapse within weeks in mid-summer if it is in your garden. The spores stay in the soil for an unknown number of years and if you replant impatiens in the same area, they will get it again. I halted planting impatiens for many many years, but this year I tried them again with one of the mildew-resistant varieties called Beacon. So far, they are doing very well! This downy mildew does not seem to affect the New Guinea variety or the balsam.

Impatiens are very versatile and look great intermixed among hostas, ferns and astilbe. They are great for hanging baskets suspended from trees, arbors or pole hangers. They even are perfect for pots on the deck or within the garden. It is their fluorescent flower color that pulls your eye to these shadier locations and they make a great focal point in areas where foliage is more common.

Try these items in your garden’s shadier areas and find out for yourself why they are ranked in the top ten annuals in the country. I think you will find that they are not as difficult to grow as you may think. Have a safe and happy 4th of July!

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