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On Gardening: Big Blue salvia is indeed big, blue, and wonderful

Last year Big Blue stunned us at the plant trials. This year, when we're able to get our hands on it, we can say it is indeed big, blue, and wonderful providing all of the spikes you could want to create excitement in the garden. Botanically speaking, Big Blue is a salvia farinacea x S. longispicata cross. If you are a salvia guru then you recognize this as similar to the Indigo Spires discovered at the Huntington Botanical Garden in 1962.

Big Blue is different, however, it is seed produced; meaning it's a great value for the garden shopper. It is different, too, in that it is vigorous but controlled, unlike the Indigo Spires. It will reach 24- to 36-inches tall and 18- to 20-inches wide and it will bring in pollinators. At the University of Georgia trial where a dozen salvias were grown, this was the only seed variety; the others were reproduced using vegetative propagation. Big Blue won hands down. Pan American Seed has seemingly done the impossible with Big Blue and you'll love it.

Throughout the country, this dazzling blue salvia is being promoted as an annual, and a fine one it will be. In zones 8 and 9, however, we are already hearing of a spring return in fertile well-drained soil. So, my take is, expect an annual and be thrilled with a return.

In the landscape, if you are looking for a way to create more interest in your flower border this year, then, by all means, plan on adding some spiky flower texture from Big Blue. In the garden world, round flowers like zinnias, marigolds, and even petunias often dominate. You can almost draw an imaginary horizontal plane or line across the top of your bed. But it's flowers like Big Blue that rise up above that imaginary line with their glorious spikes of color and create a real show-stopping moment.

Select a site in full sun for best flower performance. Fortunately, these genera of salvia are tolerant of wide varieties in soil pH. From this standpoint, anyone can grow it. However, like all salvias, they prefer good drainage, especially if you want a return from winter. For this reason, I like to plant on raised beds loosened with organic matter. Space the Big Blue plants 16- to18-inches apart. Depending on your space I would use 3 to 5 in an informal cluster or sweep. They do however work quite well in straight line endeavors. In the South, they will hit 36-inches tall by the end of summer.

Though I have touted how drought tolerant they are, do pay attention during prolonged dry spells, watering deeply but infrequently. Start feeding with light applications of slow-released fertilizer about every 6- to 8-weeks with the emergence of spring growth. Keep the flowers deadheaded for a tidy appearance and to increase flower production.

These salvias look like the quintessential cottage garden flowers. Combine them with white picket fences, and your favorite variety of the old-fashioned Gloriosa daisy. I have seen stunning designs with plants like Wasabi lime green coleus, Compact Electric Orange SunPatiens, Tophat White begonias, and Alocasia elephant ears.

No matter your choice of companion plants, it is sure to be Big Blue salvia that will produce that proverbial Kodak moment. There are a lot of hot days left in the growing season why not get them planted this weekend?

(Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of, "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.)

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