'90s garden: low on care, high on correctness

September 06, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Speedy, trendy, high-profile, low maintenance, environmentally sensitive, politically correct.

Sounds like a description of a new vehicle, right? Wrong. It's the garden of the '90s.

"Besides taxes and unemployment, what's next on people's minds these days?" asks Punkey Foard, of Valley View Farms garden centers. "The environment."

The more plants people grow, the better off we'll all be, he says. "It's good for you and for your community and for the world in general."

Today's garden is more than a pretty picture. It's "an environment for living," says Mrs. Pauline Vollmer of Ruxton, a longtime garden enthusiast whose quarter-acre garden was among the first in the mid-Atlantic region to illustrate the principles of using hardy, geographically appropriate trees, shrubs and plants in an all-over planting scheme. "It's a much softer look," Mrs. Vollmer says, than more formal styles that often took a lot of costly, time-consuming and chemically supported maintenance.

One reason gardens are changing, Mr. Foard says, is that priorities are. While about the same number of Americans are gardening these days as ever -- 41 percent of all households had flower beds, 31 percent had vegetable beds last year, same as five years ago, according to the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt. -- these days gardening has to compete with a host of other leisure-time activities -- jogging, tennis, golf, the beach, cable television and videos -- as well as two-career families and children's activities.

But today's home gardeners are likely to be a little more experienced, a little more affluent and, as a result, there has been a huge explosion in the number of new products available to them.

Perennials: the 'big factor'

"Look at perennials," says Bob Watson, of Watson's garden center in Lutherville, referring to the types of plants that return every year without replanting. "Twenty years ago they weren't a factor in the marketplace. They are the big factor now. . . . All the different grasses, they weren't here 10 years ago." On the other hand, "Our shade tree sales have dropped considerably," he says. "There's not too much room for them anymore."

Another change: People won't buy a plant as big as a half-dollar with no color showing; instead they're looking for something "as big as a basketball and in full bloom," Mr. Watson says.

He points to a row of perennials in gallon-size pots. "These are big sellers. We have these in smaller pots, for people who don't want to spend as much. But those sales aren't anything like these."

A few years ago, he says, Watson's sales in perennials TTC amounted to a few thousand dollars a year. Today the figure is in the hundreds of thousands. "The most popular size is the 1- and 2-gallon," he says. It's the time factor, he says. People can't wait for a garden to mature. "We're impetuous Americans. We want it right away."

We also want it environmentally safe. Mr. Watson shakes his head when he thinks of the chemicals that used to stock garden-center shelves. Then he digs out a series of bags left by a salesman for organic products from Harmony of Chesapeake, Va. "Harmony," say the bags. "In tune with nature." And on the back of one: "Congratulations! You have just made a natural choice. Harmony Vegetable Food nourishes your soil, nurtures your vegetables and protects your environment."

Henry Marconi, a partner at Watson's who is in charge of "green goods," says there are several underlying reasons for current garden trends: "Maintenance is definitely an issue," he says. "People want more maintenance-free plants. They also want more color, and they want it year-'round."

Return of the hardy native

And there's the issue of conservation. "People are beginning to talk about plants that need little or no water once they're established," Mr. Marconi says. Some hardy native plants that had fallen out of favor are beginning to "creep back into the inventory," says Mr. Marconi, who is a nephew of Mr. Watson. Ilex verticillata (deciduous holly) is one; bayberry is another. Among perennials, he says the most popular is black-eyed susan, with salvia, liriope (grape hyacinth), sedum and lavender close behind.

"In the last 10 or 15 years perennials, and especially the ornamental grasses, have become much more popular," says Richard Watson, of Exterior Design of Glen Arm, who grows perennials for garden centers, landscaping firms and the general public. (He is also a nephew of Bob Watson: "It's in the genes," he says, with a laugh.)

There are several reasons for these plants' new popularity, he says. "They come in so many different varieties, you don't have to plant them every year, and you get a lot of color -- not only in the spring when a lot of other things are blooming, like azaleas and rhododendrons, but during the summer, when there're not a lot of things blooming. And people want color, because they're outside."

Dry weather in recent years has contributed: A lot of perennials do well with less water.

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