We weekend gardeners couldn't do without our convenient, one-stop-shop garden centers; but Maryland's less well-known "boutique" nurseries offer their own eco-pleasures.
Some are very small, some are quirky, some specialize in one kind of plant. A few don't advertise or even list themselves in the phone book. They rely on word of mouth. All are fun to visit when you have time to linger.
These specialty nurseries aren't all-purpose. You won't find mulch and gardening gloves and a faux marble cherub and 20 different kinds of impatiens. What you will get are display gardens showing you how to use their stock and expert advice from the owners, many of whom love to educate as much as sell plants.
Below are seven of our favorite nurseries, just to get you started. Be sure to call before you go; hours vary widely and you'll need detailed directions to get to some of them.
Bittersweet Hill Nurseries
1274 Governors Bridge Road
Bittersweet Hill has two specialties: herbs and water garden plants. We defy anyone to visit here and not want to start an herb garden and put in a backyard pond with water lilies and a frog fountain. (You can also buy the fish here.) But owner Hildreth Morton also stocks plenty of annuals and perennials, orchids, bonsai, Japanese maples and dwarf conifers. It's an odd and very personal assortment.
There are sunny greenhouses filled with bedding plants and herbs -- including more than 45 varieties of sage! -- and a shade greenhouse created by a canopy of passionflower. Besides a good assortment of the best sellers -- marigolds, petunias and the like -- you'll also find unusual plants like Brazilian button bush and lantana.
What we love about it: The fairy gardens in the shade greenhouse, beautifully landscaped with tiny ponds, herbs and flowers, and clever little fairy houses fashioned from dried grapevine and old English boxwood.
Happy Hollow Nursery
12212 Happy Hollow Road
Who would expect to find two greenhouses and more than 200 varieties of hostas behind a suburban house in a residential area of Cockeysville?
Sue Bloodgood, who owns the nursery with Tim Reuwer, says she realized "most people live in the shade" when she started the business. So she decided to specialize in hostas, those versatile, shade-tolerant perennials known for their wonderful foliage. She also has all sorts of plants that go well with hostas, like lungwort, brunnera (perennial forget-me-nots), shade grasses and Japanese painted fern.
Happy Hollow Nursery has other perennials and annuals, with lots of glorious color, but the draw here is the hostas and their companion plants.
What we love about it: There's something relaxing -- even peaceful -- about this many hostas collected together in one greenhouse, says Bloodgood, and we agree.
4300 Hamilton Ave.
We love this place for its cheerful kitsch and beautiful, healthy annuals and perennials at great prices. (Be sure to pick up a 10 percent-off card, and seniors get 20 percent off every Thursday.) But Leaf has much more than just hanging baskets and bedding plants. It started as an azalea nursery, and there are plenty of shrubs and trees for sale.
What you might not expect are the less ordinary plants the place specializes in, like some rare varieties of azaleas and unusual flowering kales, to name only two. Be sure to get a tour from one of the staff.
Leaf Nursery is open Thursday through Sunday only.
What else we love about it: The fact that the owner is named Lawrence Leaf. Also the nursery's motto: "Plant today for a better tomorrow."
Robert A. Schultz Co.
2311 Blue Mount Road, Monkton
by appointment only; 410-343-0452
A visit here has a serene, Zenlike quality to it. Go when you have plenty of time to wander through and enjoy the 7 acres of stock gardens in the middle of 70 acres of woods. They are more beautiful than some nurseries' display gardens, although not as showy.
Owners Robert and Valerie Schultz take a thoughtful, long-term view of gardening. They've been known to tell customers to wait until next year to buy their plants -- to go home and improve their soil first.
"A lot of our business is giving advice rather than selling plants," says Schultz. "They'll buy the plants eventually."
Visits are by appointment only so the staff can show you around personally. Bring snapshots and sketches of your garden if you wish.
The advice, by the way, is free, unless you hire the Schultzes to come to your home for a consultation. Then it's very, very expensive; they charge a flat rate of $3,000.
What we love about it: The eye-opening alternatives available for Maryland gardens, if only you dare. Bet you never considered a rock garden filled with blooming succulents for your Baltimore rowhouse.
Walther and Southern avenues