Growing and Caring for Impatiens
Brighten shady — and sunny — nooks with one of the most goof-proof annuals: impatiens.
Impatiens have always been the go-to plant for adding floral sizzle to a yard’s shady corners. But with plant breeding improvements, some types of impatiens bring the non-stop flower show to sunny spots, too. One type of sun-loving impatiens is sold under the brand name SunPatiens. These different types of impatiens are easy to grow and deliver season-long color.
Caring for impatiens, whether it’s traditional shade-loving impatiens, Sunpatiens or New Guinea impatiens, isn’t tricky at all. These bloomers’ easy-growing ways make them a favorite for low-maintenance color.
Traditional impatiens, known botanically as Impatiens walleriana, are one of the most recognized bedding plants on the market. They’re typically grown as annuals, although they can be hardy in the very warmest zones. Plant size varies depending on the type of impatiens — some are 8 to 12 inches tall while larger varieties grow as tall as 48 inches.
Impatiens flowers open in a wide variety of shades. Blushing pink, snow white, dusky red, blazing orange, iridescent lavender, deep purple — the only colors missing from the impatiens roster are blue and yellow. You’ll also find a wonderful variety of bicolor flower types, including swirls, blends, picotees and dark shades with white eyes. The hardest part about growing impatiens is choosing which ones you want to grow.
Types of Impatiens
This is the classic impatiens, the one that’s made-for-the-shade, wilts dramatically if it gets too dry (you’ll think it’s dying. It wilts that much!) and comes in an amazing array of flower colors and patterns. This type is usually simply called “impatiens.” It’s also the one that is highly susceptible to downy mildew.
New Guinea impatiens (Impatiens hawkeri)
This is the one that’s readily adaptable to different light levels, from shade to part sun. Flowers are larger and open in bold to pastel hues. Leaves can be green, burgundy or variegated. This is a rugged plant that withstands wind and rain well.
SunPatiens impatiens (Impatiens hybrids)
This is the impatiens that’s been bred to thrive in full sun to part shade. The flower color range is similar to traditional impatiens. SunPatiens come in three sizes: compact (18-36 inches tall and wide), spreading (30-40 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide) and vigorous (36-48 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide). Check plant tags to be sure you’re buying the size you want.
Caring for Impatiens
Where to Plant Impatiens
The most important part of caring for impatiens is choosing the right site to plant them. Traditional annual impatiens need fertile, well-drained soil that holds moisture well. Impatiens are thirsty plants and need soil that retains moisture without being soggy. That means soil should have plenty of organic matter in it naturally or worked into it prior to planting. Use organic matter like compost, composted manure, leaves or bark fines or whatever material is readily available in your region.
The second aspect of choosing a planting site is asking, “How much sun do impatiens need?” The answer is that it depends on the types of impatiens you’re growing. Traditional annual Impatiens walleriana are shade-loving plants. New Guinea impatiens can take more sun and SunPatiens can grow in full sun. Choose the right types of impatiens for your growing conditions.
How to Plant Impatiens
Plant impatiens like you would any other annual. Impatiens are always sold in pots or cell packs, so remove the plant from its container carefully. Gently squeeze the container and flip it over while cradling the plant in your hand. It should slide easily from the pot. Loosen roots slightly by massaging the soil and root system and tuck the plant into a planting hole that's slightly bigger than the size of the impatiens rootball. Be sure to position the plant at the same depth in soil that it was growing in the pot.
The most important aspect of planting impatiens is waiting until all danger of frost has passed. Impatiens are very sensitive to frost and need warm soil to thrive.
Space impatiens plants according to the tag directions. In general, impatiens plants grow taller if they’re planted closer together. If you want plants to spread out, plant them further apart. Follow tag directions carefully. Plants that are too close together are more prone to developing disease.
Shade-loving impatiens are divas in the garden. Let soil get just a tad too dry and the plants wilt dramatically. New Guinea impatiens need consistently moist soil to thrive in full sun. In general, it’s best to water impatiens in planting beds when the soil is dry 2 inches deep. Plants in shady locations need watered less often than ones in sunnier spots.
For impatiens in containers, as plants grow and fill out the pot, they’ll need watered more frequently. At summer’s peak, expect to water containers of impatiens daily.
Impatiens plants flower best when they have adequate fertilizer. The easiest approach is to amend soil so that it contains plenty of organic matter and a slow-release plant fertilizer. You can mix a balanced, slow-release plant food, like Espoma organic Plant-tone, into beds prior to planting.
For impatiens in containers, mix a slow-release low-nitrogen fertilizer into soil prior to planting. Also plan to nourish plants using water soluble fertilizer every two to three weeks through the growing season. SunPatiens in particular have big appetites and grow best when fed with a water-soluble plant food two to three times a month.
Pruning and Deadheading Impatiens
- Pruning impatiens: Prune shade-loving impatiens when plants are 6 inches tall. Cut to remove 2 inches of growth. This causes plants to branch and become bushier, which ultimately results in more flowers.
- Deadheading impatiens: All types of impatiens are self-cleaning. That means the dead flowers fall away and you don’t have to manually remove them. They are low-maintenance bloomers.
Using Impatiens in the Landscape
- Plant in containers or window boxes. Try single colors for a monochromatic look or differing shades in one color family for an ombre effect.
- Create a carpet of color in a planting bed or beneath trees.
- Tuck double-flowered varieties like Rockapulco into pots where you can see the rose-like blooms up close.
- Pair SunPatiens with sun-tolerant hostas or leafy ground covers to craft an eye-catching scene.
Caring for Impatiens: Downy Mildew
There is one fly in the impatiens ointment: downy mildew disease. This deadly fungal disease kills plants and overwinters on plant debris. Once you have it, you shouldn’t plant impatiens in that same spot for at least two years. Symptoms include pale leaves and stunted growth. Leaves develop a white or gray fuzz on the undersides and eventually fall off plants, creating bare stems. It can wipe out an entire planting bed in a very short time frame.
If you have infected plants, pull and bag them. Gather any fallen leaves. Spraying fungicides can slow the disease spread from infected to healthy plants, but once the fungus is in a plant, it moves throughout the entire plant. The only option is to pull plants, bag and destroy them. Avoid planting impatiens in the same place year after year. Change soil in containers and sterilize containers from year to year, especially if you have had downy mildew.
One way to help avoid the disease to by planting varieties and types of impatiens that are resistant to downy mildew. Many of the newer types of impatiens fit this bill, including Rockapulco double impatiens, SunPatiens, Infinity New Guinea impatiens, Bounce impatiens and Beacon impatiens.