Professional garden folk, from horticulturists to seed sellers to plant purveyors, are getting serious about making gardening more user-friendly; a lack of appropriate information and frustration over plant failure keep many a plot in grass -- or concrete. Sturdier, hardier plants, more drought tolerance, better fruit setting and more continuous blooms are among characteristics being bred into plants today.
Richard Watson, of Exterior Design of Glen Arm has some tips for gardeners just getting started:
*By all means, read all the books you can find. Be aware, however, that plants that are most successful in your particular area may not be those most touted in the books. Mr. Watson recommends "Bold Romantic Gardens" (Acropolis Books, hardcover, $59.95), written by Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden in conjunction with garden writer Susan Rademacher Frey. "All the plants in there are ones that do well in this climate," Mr. Watson says.
*Be wary of the tags that come with plants; they may not be specific enough to describe performance in your climate.
*Ask questions when you buy plants. It may take some experience to know what questions to ask,and some retail outlets will be more responsive than others. Be persistent and gather as much information as you can.
One source often overlooked is the Cooperative Extension Service. In Baltimore, the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service has a toll-free number for questions about plants and gardening. Call (800)342-2507 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. Most of the counties in Maryland offer Master Gardener programs, with volunteers available to help with gardening questions. Call your local extension service office.
*Groups of plants of the same kind and color are more effective than individual plants of several dozen kinds. "You try to make a garden look natural," Mr. Watson says. "You want to pick the plants that go well together, that you like, that give you the same height requirements you need, the flowering color and time, and the foliage texture that goes well together . . . You don't want to get 50 varieties using one of each, you want to get seven varieties, using five of each . . . What you want to see is splashes of color, and you do that with numbers of plants. It's like painting a picture with a brush."
*"The best time to plant [perennials] is in the fall," Mr. Watson says, "because the air temperature is cool, the soil temperature is warm, and there's quite a bit of rain. . . . The point is to produce strong roots." When you buy perennials, you are buying roots, he notes; it's good roots that allow the plant to come back year after year.