Flowering Million Bells are Easy Petunia Look-Alikes

Yellow and Pink Million Bells (Calibrachoa) Flowers.

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Would you like an annual flower that blooms nonstop without the need for deadheading? How about one that spills gracefully over the sides of your containers and hanging baskets, but has a dense trailing habit rather than a spindly one? Million bells plants fit this description, and they attract hummingbirds and butterflies to boot.

Your grandmother probably didn’t grow million bells, but not because they didn’t exist. Petunias and million bells were exported from South America to Europe in the 1800’s. Petunias ruled until 1997 when Proven Winners licensed the up-and-coming million bells from its breeder, Sunstory Ltd. Million bells filled a rain-proof, hot weather-loving niche that petunias couldn't. 

Get to Know Million Bells

Genus Calibrachoa, like other members of the plant family Solanaceae, is a tender perennial, but most gardeners treat the spring through frost bloomers as annuals. The blooms of million bells are approximately one inch across, and many sport veining or colorful throats that contrast with the primary petal color. Million bells foliage is bright green, oval-shaped, and compact.

Million bells flowers grow best in full sun, where they will attain a height of three to twelve inches and a spread of up to two feet. Bright dappled shade or afternoon shade are second choice placements in the garden but may turn your “million bells” into “hundred bells” due to a reduction in blooming.

Planting Million Bells

The majority of million bells on the market today are hybrid plants that are vegetatively propagated, so you must grow these from plants rather than seed. However, the newer Kabloom series offers gardeners an economical way to grow million bells from seed, with the same self-cleaning habit and prolific blooms of other varieties. The trade-off is a significant waiting period, as it takes about four months from sowing to bloom for these plants. Million bell seeds need light for germination, which takes about two weeks.

Million bells thrive in warm and hot weather. Plant them outdoors around the same time you plant your tomatoes. Plants that are installed too early in the spring may fall prey to aphids. 

To get the most from your million bells, plant in soil-free potting mix amended with humus or compost. Potting mix will ensure the excellent drainage necessary for plant health, as million bells hate wet feet. Space plants to allow for spreading, about 18 inches apart. Cover soil with organic mulch to keep the root system cool and to stop evaporation.

Million Bells Maintenance

Million bells under proper culture rarely suffer from problems, as long as you follow a few basic care techniques. Keep plants evenly moist; soil surface should not dry out. Do a "swing test" daily with your hanging baskets. Does the basket seem as light as a feather when you give it a push? If so, you must irrigate until water flows through the drainage holes. 

Fertilize your million every two weeks throughout the growing season with a liquid flower fertilizer, which provides nutrients faster than time-released varieties. This is especially important at summer's end when plants appear to be bloomed out. If your million bells have light green or yellowish foliage, this is also a symptom that they need a nutrient boost (or more sunshine). 

Unlike petunias, million bells don’t suffer from the dreaded tobacco budworm. Keep your plants from becoming heat stressed, which tempts spider mites. If your weather conditions are dry and dusty, practice cultural control of these pests by misting plants with water daily.

Garden Design With Million Bells

Their trailing habit, low maintenance, and prolific blooms make million bells excellent candidates for containers and hanging baskets. Million bells are also somewhat drought tolerant, so you can include them in the rock garden, where they will appreciate the sharp drainage conditions. If you use million bells as a ground cover, keep in mind that plants seldom spread more than two feet, so plant enough to ensure adequate coverage.

Million Bells Varieties to Try

  • Kabloom: Seeds available in pink, white, red, yellow, and deep blue
  • Crackling Fire: Dark neon orange flowers marbled with yellow
  • Tangerine: Cheerful clear orange flowers with red veining
  • Terra Cotta: Yellow flecked with red
  • Trailing Sky Blue: Bright lavender-blue flowers with green throats
  • Cherry Pink: Hot pink flowers with yellow throats are a hummingbird beacon