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Helping El Dorado bloom with color

Wave petunias in various color combinations cascade from hanging baskets in El Dorado. About 38 plants are placed in each container.
Wave petunias in various color combinations cascade from hanging baskets in El Dorado. About 38 plants are placed in each container. Courtesy photo

When it comes to making the hanging baskets of El Dorado into the lush, colorful, cascading bouquets you see downtown today, it takes a virtue – and a vice.

“I get a little greedy,” says Sue Austin, the city employee who is responsible for the big summer splash in El Dorado.

She starts out in the spring nervous that the Wave petunias, trailing vincas and ivy geraniums she’s started from plugs in the greenhouse in February won’t make it when she introduces them to the elements. She packs the plants into containers hanging from lampposts and bridge railings, playing with combinations. A full basket of Strawberry vinca here. A white petunia in the middle of a mass of purple petunias there. Just a few more. Just a few more. Just a few more.

“I wouldn’t have to put that many in. I just get worried this one’s not going to make it, and that one’s going to have to make up for it. We just need to relax. I’ve tried it both ways, and it works. You’ve just gotta learn to be patient about it.”

Austin ends up with about 38 plugs in each 20-inch Bloom Master box planter. The planters have holes in the sides for the plants.

And then virtue takes over to produce such flowers.

“You gotta love them or they’re not gonna do anything for ya,” Austin says. And by love, she means Miracle-Gro.

“That makes quite a difference. If you don’t Miracle-Gro, you won’t get the results.” The annuals get fed once a week at label rate. Then stand back.

“You’re overwhelmed by all the flowers,” Austin says. The planters are erased from view in the process, leaving the bouquets to seemingly float.

Austin looks at each container as a person. A male person.

“He is great,” she says of a container of dark pink and dark purple petunias splashed with some of the Strawberry vinca. “He’s lovin’ life. He’s very happy with me.”

And El Dorado residents are, too. You can see their comments on the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau Facebook page.

“Thanks for making our town beautiful!”

“I’ve always thought the flowers in El Dorado look amazing!! When my mom visits from out of town she’s always in awe of how well the flowers look also. Great job!”

“We get comments every day at City Hall about how beautiful all the flowers around town look!!!”

“During times when budgets get tight please remember to tell your elected officials that these types of quality-of-life issues are important to our community and what makes El Dorado a great place to live.”

“We know people like what we do,” Austin says. “It makes them smile.”

This is her fourth summer doing the planters. With no background in horticulture, she’s learned along the way. As with anything, she can do more when she has more help. Last year, Austin had to do all the watering herself. This year, C.J. Cypret, a high-school student, waters the planters every morning. It takes two hours of riding around in the water truck, hooking up a hose to irrigation systems that flood the containers along the way.

On each side of the North Main Bridge, for example, Cypret lets the water run for five minutes as she goes from container to container, checking for any dead stems or trash or new bird nests to pull out. Even though water starts running out the bottom of the pots pretty much right away, she lets the water continue to flood the plants for the full five minutes, “so we know for sure,” Austin says. As the pots dry out, soil pulls away from the planting holes, she explains. The water can run right past the soil and out the holes without hydrating the plants.

“It’s not an exact science,” Austin says of the watering. “We just know.

“We allow them to dry out overnight. I don’t think they would do so well if they didn’t dry out. Hanging there dries them out.”

Cypret waters seven days a week, even on rainy days. It would take rain falling straight down, in large droplets, to do the job for her, she says. On 100-degree days, the baskets get watered twice.

A little pocket garden with planters and benches can be found in Sunshine Alley off Main Street north of Central. One time Austin was in the alley fertilizing the planters with Miracle-Gro when a man ran out and stuck a coffee cup under one of the plants to catch the water that was dripping out. Startled, Austin told the man he couldn’t drink that fertilizer water. But not to worry – he told her it was his plant that needed it.

Austin chooses annuals that can handle heat and that for the most part do not require deadheading. Wave petunias are self-cleaning; the ivy geraniums do need to have their spent flowers pinched off, which Cypret quickly and easily does while the plants are being watered.

Austin tried lantana one year, but it only did so-so. She’s not thrilled with the sweet-potato vines that are in some of the concrete planters along Main Street. Not enough impact. Those planters will be full of flowers next year.

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