Visions of Spring

Colorful catalogs sell tempting plants from near and far, but choose wisely to avoid costly mistakes in the garden.

January 19, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Leaf through the venerable Burpee catalog for 2003 and, at times, you might think you've strayed into an exotic travelogue.

The pleasures of the catalog's bright peppers, juicy lettuces and alluring perennials and herbs don't always speak for themselves. Accompanying stories occasionally tell as well of adventure and intriguing origins.

'Hot Lemon,' a zingy yellow pepper, for example, is touted as a " 'must-have' heirloom from Ecuador."

"Romancing the baby boomer is what everybody's got to do," says George Ball Jr., president of the Warminster, Pa.-based seed and plant company. "It's called myth, it's called poetry. If I can say I found it in Ecuador, that makes the thing kind of go somewhere in somebody's mind."

For both experienced and aspiring gardeners, whether or not they fit Ball's target demographic, the challenge is to not get too romanced by this year's crop of garden catalogs. Good gardening form doesn't always follow good gardening fantasies.

"Garden catalogs are a great avenue to learn about your plants. They really pique peoples' interests in the dog days of winter," says Karen Gahs, a landscaper with the local firm TDH Nurseries and Landscaping who also teaches horticulture at Dundalk Community College.

But, she cautions, "This is where my clients get in trouble. The pictures can look so beautiful, but they're not always the right plant for the right property."

An advocate of low-maintenance plant material, Gahs speaks of one client whose catalog meanderings resulted in an order of 25 rose plants that had to be added to a garden already nearing maturity. Finding the right spot for each rose was a matter of "real trial and error," she says. Besides, now her client "has to get out there and spray."

So, enjoy the catalogs, say Gahs and other gardening experts, but be mindful of limitations.

"The most important thing is to determine sun exposure," Gahs says. "That's 50 percent of the battle."

If you're preparing for the possibility of another drought, choose plants such as Coreopsis, blue salvia, Penstemon, and ornamental grasses tolerant of full sun, she says.

Gahs also suggests looking for substitutes for plants that typically don't fare well in this region. "English lavender really struggles," Gahs says. Cat mint, (or catnip), however, does well and "will give you the same blue color."

The prospect of drought should also prompt gardeners to equip their landscaping arsenal with soaker hoses, drip irrigation systems, and plans for conserving "gray water," says Jon Traunfeld of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

He also suggests "drought-resistant veggies," such as sweet potatoes, "all of the southern peas," okra and other "Deep-South crops."

Even as new hybrids guaranteed to resist disease, produce high yields, and dazzle with unique hues continue to make their debut, advocates for heirloom varieties make their case for old-fashioned varieties that are often spared from extinction by a network of devoted seed savers.

"If you're inclined to the storied old historical variety, we have those for you," Ball says. "If you want something that is of a more practical nature and will give you as many bushels of as many tasty fruits as possible, we have the latest hybrid for you."

Gardeners aren't necessarily motivated by practicality, or a love of uniformity. Some want to recover a once-upon-a-time taste or memory. Seeds from Italy, a Massachusetts-based mail-order company, caters to those who crave authentic Italian flavors, with onions, carrots, tomatoes and eggplants, herbs and dozens of other seed offerings. The company is the American distributor for Franchi Sementi of Bergamo, an Italian seed business started in 1783.

Bill McKay, owner of Seeds from Italy, started his business in a desperate quest to replicate the gardens and meals he enjoyed on the farm of his Italian grandparents. "I want the stuff my grandmother used to make," says McKay, who includes a recipe sheet with each order.

Even dreamers, though, need to recognize certain realities. As the catalogs arrive, Gahs cautions gardeners to know what fauna they are up against. If your garden is frequented by large numbers of squirrels and deer, don't plant hydrangea or hosta, which the creatures will devour. "This is something catalogs aren't going to tell you," Gahs says. "Plant it and they will come."

While she's not a purist, "I try to use natives whenever possible," Gahs says, in particular because they have the "ability to withstand our conditions." Native plants also have the advantage of benefiting the environment. And while it might not always make a huge visual splash, a native plant, such as the rangy joe-pye weed, can make a surprise comeback in popularity.

Hydrangea, lilacs, boxwood and other "old faithfuls" are also "making tremendous comebacks," Gahs says.

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