Just Add Water

After a long, dreary winter, here's help for gardeners, who are desperate for the lavish scents and vibrant color of an instant garden.

April 06, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Fast food. Cell phones. High-speed Internet. OK, it's a fast-paced world, but ... fast plants? You bet.

After the snowiest, dreariest winter in recent memory, most of us are ready for instant gratification. If there's one thing gardening teaches, it's patience, but we don't want to wait another minute for lush foliage and big, showy blooms.

Andre Viette, co-author of The Mid-Atlantic Gardener's Guide (Cool Springs Press, 2003) and host of the national call-in radio program In the Garden, saw this phenomenon in action when he owned a retail nursery.

"After a hard winter, people will put anything blooming in their cart," he says. "It's almost comical."

Annuals as a class can always be counted on to produce quickly. Pansies, primroses and English daisies could be planted now for immediate vivid color. Impatiens, geraniums and petunias will have to wait until all danger of frost is past.

"Use them as candy, to accent a garden," says James McElroy of Green Fields Nursery in Roland Park.

But this spring, most of us need even more fast-growing plants than just the annuals and biennials that immediately come to mind. And if the dreadful winter weather didn't get to you, perhaps you're selling a house and need the garden to look good fast. Maybe you want a quick screen or privacy. So we asked authors and horticulturists to recommend speedy species that will grow like Jack's beanstalk in the Baltimore area.

Before you plant

Just about everyone points out first that the quickest way to an instant garden is to buy larger, more mature plants. They're more expensive, of course, but this just might be the spring to invest your money in "one gallon" plant material instead of smaller plants in quart containers.

Second, gardening experts stressed the need to make haste slowly. How quickly a plant starts to grow is influenced by how good the growing conditions are. Properly preparing the soil, mulching, weeding and watering regularly are as important as choosing fast-growing plants for a spectacular garden in a hurry.

Third, when you're talking fast, you're potentially talking invasive. Controlling growth should be as much of a consideration as good looks and hardiness. A classic example is bamboo, some varieties of which can only be contained with a blowtorch. (Well, almost.) But even with something like bamboo it's a matter of choosing your type carefully. Sue Fisher in her book Fast Plants (Fireside, 2002) recommends umbrella bamboo (Fargesia murieliae) as being "rarely invasive" and the most adaptable of all bamboos. It needs fertile soil and lots of moisture, but unlike many varieties, it can tolerate sun and wind.

Finally, don't make the mistake of crowding, even though you want the finished garden look in a hurry.

"When you plant fast-growers, space them well and fill in with annuals," says Larry Hodgson, author of a number of gardening books, most recently Annuals for Every Purpose (Rodale, 2003). Check the label information for the full-grown size and plant accordingly.

Horticulturists are cautious about giving a time frame for their fast favorites. Growth is dependent on so many variables, including soil conditions, orientation (the sun or shade its spot gets), amount of rain and drainage. But there are plenty of perennials that reach their mature size in one year, and those are the ones that will produce a great garden quickly.

Here are several that just about all of our gardening experts mentioned. (Check the box below for a more extensive list):

n Daylilies (Hemerocallis) are popular and easy to grow. There are thousands of cultivars, so many that it's not worth suggesting specific varieties, says Hodgson.

n Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm', a hybrid of the black-eyed Susan, is an easily found fast grower that pairs well with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). It looks good with the native ornamental grasses that are another fast favorite. 'Goldsturm' can become invasive, though.

n Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), with its lavender flowers and gray foliage, is one of Viette's favorites. This upright perennial grows to about 30 inches and is best used in mass.

Some hosta cultivars like 'Big Daddy' are fast growing; others aren't. Ask your nursery how quickly you can expect to see the varieties available reach full maturity.

Shrub picks

Those gardeners who are starting from scratch this spring will want to begin with larger plants like shrubs and trees, to create the structure of the garden, then fill in the gaps with perennials

Mark Miller of the Virginia-based American Horticultural Society is a little more cautious about recommending shrubs as opposed to perennials. As he puts it somewhat ominously, "One always has to temper fast-growing shrubs with the knowledge that they may be short-lived and not environmentally friendly."

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