Greeting petunias, cucumbers and echinacea

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2014 is the Year of the Cucumber, according 2014 is the Year of the Cucumber, according to the National Garden Bureau, which selects one edible for the honor every year. Photo Credit: National Garden Bureau

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print

Some of us might think of 2014 as the Year of the Horse; others might think of it as the Year of the Snow. But the National Garden Bureau has other ideas: It's named 2014 the Year of the Petunia, Cucumber and Echinacea.

Each year the bureau, a nonprofit organization whose mission is "to disseminate basic instructions for backyard gardeners that will inspire them to spend more time gardening," honors one plant in each category as part of its "Year of the" program.

This year, the group called the petunia "the perfect go-to gardening friend for sunny places," and cited versatility, adaptability and pest- and disease-resistance among reasons for its selection. Petunias are available in a wide array of forms and colors, and some cultivars even exude a sweet fragrance.

Treated as annuals here in Zone 7, petunias actually are tender perennials, hardy only in Zones 10 and 11 (the southernmost tip of Florida and parts of Hawaii). Still, they're low-maintenance while they last, which is from spring straight through frost. Water them deeply once a week (more often if growing in containers) and fertilize about twice a month.

In recent years, new hybrids have offered bushier habits, improved weather resistance, more colors (even bicolor flowers) and better heat and drought tolerance. Trailing cultivars, like those in the popular Wave series, can be planted to spill over walls and cascade from hanging baskets, while bushier plants work well in containers. Both can be used as in-ground plants. And bicolor petunias, like Cha-Ching Cherry, add dramatic appeal wherever they're used.

Echinaceas were named Perennial of the Year for the "vast assortment of flower colors and shapes available to today's gardener but also because they are such an American staple." And both tried-and-true classics and new varieties were lauded as favorites in home and public gardens.

Echinacea, commonly called coneflower, attracts butterflies, bees and birds, and is generally deer resistant. It's also drought- and heat-tolerant, requiring little to no care during the growing season once established. The plant's roots have long been valued as an immunity booster, and were used by American Indians to soothe sore throats, headaches and coughs.

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The plant is available in a wide range of colors and thrives in loamy, well-drained soil in full sun or light shade. What's more, no fertilizer is ever required. For best visual impact, the garden bureau recommends planting in masses and deadheading to encourage continued blooming from June through August.

Cucumbers, which are technically a fruit but regarded as a vegetable, were named Edible of 2014. The plant is available in pickling and slicing varieties, requires ample sun and water and thrives in light, fertile, well-drained soil. For best results, the garden bureau recommends long, deep waterings, mulch to retain soil moisture and a side dressing of 5-10-5 fertilizer at planting time and monthly throughout the growing season. Regular harvesting is important for cucumber production, as leaving mature fruit on the plant will hamper continued output.

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