Such flowery language

Catalogs: It's wise, especially for victims of cabin fever, to exercise some caution with those tempting pages.

In The Garden

January 30, 2000|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,Special to the Sun

I love the language of garden catalogs.

In those buoyant descriptions lie all the promise and optimism of spring. That's where the trouble starts. For I, the cabin-fevered gardener, am the one with all that optimism, and the catalogs know it.

As many other gardeners have learned the hard way, the language of catalogs is as full of hidden nuances and codes as any foreign tongue.

Some of it is fairly straightforward. Take, for instance, the set of ideograms which many catalogs now use as a kind of shorthand.

Little circles of pictures of the sun appear by the plant name or below the description, and can be white, black or half and half. This indicates the light requirements of the plant: full sun, shade or part shade, respectively. All one has to do is read the symbol key if one can find it. Unfortunately, this system has become so widely used that a few catalogs have dropped the explanation from their pages, leaving the uninitiated to puzzle it out on their own.

So after a few minutes spent memorizing tiny pictures of scissors ("good for cut flowers"), pots ("good container plant"), upward arrows (height) and triangles with exclamation points in them (poisonous), the gardener can feel comfortable that he or she is well on the way to making intelligent plant choices for the garden.

Where flowers are concerned, cryptic initials now appear, such as HHA, HA, P or B. These are important for the gardener to know. HHA stands for half hardy annual; these should be sown inside in February or March since they need warmth to grow well. HA is hardy annual; those can be sown outside in situ before frosts have entirely passed. P is for perennial; and B is for biennial flowers, which bloom in their second season and then die.

AAS is another abbreviation the gardener may run across. It signifies that the plant is an All America Selections medal winner. It has been voted an outstanding plant that does well in varied circumstances and locations.

All this is nothing, however, in comparison with the actual plant descriptions.

Take the description "unfussy, thrives in any soil." Ah, the novice thinks to herself, that sounds like a nice healthy plant. And it is. So is kudzu. And Japanese honeysuckle. And the attractive ground cover Bishop's weed (Aegopodium podagraria), which I at first admired and now spend hours each year trying to remove from my flower beds.

Color adjectives are another point open to, well, interpretation. Consider carefully such descriptions as "vibrant lavender, shading to rose," and be prepared to have the plant very possibly burst forth in good, old-fashioned magenta. These are not necessarily bad colors, but the gardener must be ready to take the results in stride.

On the other hand, catalogs can tend to understate the amount of care that will be required by some plants. I have one catalog, for example, that boasts on its cover "Over 200 plants, trees and shrubs guaranteed to grow in Catonsville." This may, indeed, be true -- if I had a greenhouse and unlimited time and money at my disposal. Goodness knows, I'd love to have a 20-foot bougainvillea on my front porch. I would even be satisfied with some delphiniums that didn't turn to mush in our humidity.

Zone numbers are important for the gardeners, since they indicate the minimum winter temperatures in which a plant can normally survive. These are determined by the official USDA Hardiness Zone Map. Some catalogs include the map, but most leave it up to gardeners to find out elsewhere.

The Baltimore area lies in Zone 7 (0 degrees to 10 degrees) but just south of the lines for Zone 6 (-10 degrees to 0 degrees). Although rare, we can get Zone 6 minimums here. The gardener should realize that a plant with a Zone 7 rating may be only marginally hardy here: It may sulk and refuse to live up to its potential and may succumb completely during a very cold winter. It is wiser to look for plants rated at least for Zone 6 -- or even 5 -- to avoid disappointments over the years.

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