Virtual Gardening 

Perusing plant catalogs

If the gray days of winter were rolled into a ball and kicked off the planet, gardeners would celebrate all around the world. Unfortunately, cold temperatures are necessary for vernalizing bulbs, chilling fruit buds and giving some plants their regenerative winter sleep. But still, there's just not enough color outside to hold our interest in winter.

One way to perk up dreary days is to remodel your landscape or plant a veggie garden on paper. Getting creative with colored pencils, glue and pictures cut from garden catalogs is a dreamy way to "armchair garden" your way into spring. Plus, it'll ground your restless gardening imagination. You just can't beat a comfortable sofa, a hot mug of chocolate, a crackling fire and a slow leisurely perusal through those gorgeously colored catalogs filled with blooming flowers and blazing shrubs. Let's face it, pictures of plants are easy on the eyes and those catalogs seduce us into seeing our gardening potential. "You, too, can create a Butchart Gardens in your backyard," they seem to whisper.

There are hundreds of free plant catalogs, many of which you can find online. I gravitate toward those with lots of pretty pictures. During my first exciting dance through one of those plant wish books, I make mental notes of hundreds of dollars of must-have plants, which later, once put on paper and added up, causes me to seriously rethink my "have-to-haves."

Asking yourself how much space you really have to work with is the beginning of a good reality check for some gardeners, but it won't restrain the dyed-in-the-wool gardening optimists or the plantaholics from purchasing way too many plants. The simplest method of reining in those folks is to actually force them to go outside and measure the area they want to plant. Once the measurement is transfered onto a piece of graph paper, it all becomes pretty black and white as to the amount of space actually available.

Now, start drawing in where your potential purchases will go, but once again, be realistic. Failing to leave enough space between plants is one of the biggest mistakes repeated in designing landscapes and flower beds. Like all babies, small plants are cute, but once mature, they can become a leafy equivalent of King Kong rubbing up against the side of your house or obnoxious villains scratching the faces of unsuspecting visitors stumbling up your front walk. Always check mature plant dimensions—both height and width—before purchasing the plant. Large trees and shrubs are especially difficult to move 10 years later if they are placed too close to structures.

Prior to planting trees, look upward to see if there will be any interference with power lines in the future.

Gardeners are captivated by colored photos of densely flowering plants and trees in full fall display. Advertisers know this and therefore the catalog photos are taken of mature plants during peak performance. When your plant order arrives, that mighty shrub depicted in a catalogue might be a wee little greenling in a 4-inch pot. But don't be discouraged. Gardeners all have to go through that innocent, hopeful stage when buying catalog plants. We soon learn to see those tempting tomes for what they really are: a glimpse into the future and an excellent source of plant information.

Catalogs supply gardeners with growing tips and instructions such as hardiness zone and what exposure a plant prefers: sun, shade or semi-shade. Often a description of a plant will tell you whether it thrives in a moist or dry location. With vegetable seed, the number of days to maturity will be listed, as well as information on disease resistance. Disease and pest resistance is often indicated by a letter following the cultivar (short for cultivated variety) name. Look for a key or chart explaining the abbreviations. The letters VFNT next to Celebrity tomato, for example, means that this cultivar is resistant to V-verticillium wilt, F-fusarium wilt, N-nematodes and T-tobacco mosaic virus.

Some seed catalogs use special symbols to indicate cultivars that are new, easy to grow or suitable for containers. All American Selection (AAS) winners are usually good choices because they have been tested nationwide and proven to perform well under a wide range of growing conditions.

These wish books are a wonderful way to while away the days until spring bulbs pop up. Just keep in mind that if the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. After several years of ordering through catalogs, you'll discover that when large numbers of plants are offered for an inexpensive price, the plants will be very small or they will be seconds instead of Grade A stock. As with any purchase, it's good to shop around. Ask fellow gardeners which companies they've ordered from and recommend.

Have fun viewing the virtual plants in garden catalogs and try some of my favorites: Stark Brothers has been selling fruit trees for over 190 years; Burpee Seeds is a well-known family owned operation founded in 1876; White Flower Farm and Wayside Gardens are premier sources for trees, shrubs and perennials; Thompson-Morgan and Veseys are both known for quality seed; and High Country Gardens is a great source for drought-tolerant plant material. Hundreds of wonderful seed and plant sourcebooks are out there to enjoy. The Ada County Extension office keeps about 400 on file, if you'd like to see which ones you're missing.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send your gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail: sbell@uidaho.edu.

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