Plan before planting
Avoid buyer's remorse: Don't purchase flowers without doing some homework

March 16, 2006
BARBARA WHEELIS - Victoria County Master Gardener

Have you ever gone to a local nursery or home improvement store this time of year and bought a pretty flat of bedding plants? Then when you get them home, your beds are not ready and you cannot put them in the ground right away? I am writing from experience. It is very hard to avoid buyer's impulse - retailers have merchandising down to a science. But you are setting yourself up for disappointment without some advanced planning.
Start your spring planting off with a little forethought. Without the needed ground moisture, bed preparation will be well worth the extra effort. Mulching will help retain moisture and provide a jumpstart for your new bedding plants by shading the soil from the sun's heat, protecting plant roots from temperature extremes in summer and winter, and helping suppress weed growth.
Having beds and pots ready when you get home with your beautiful spring plants will make your gardening experience more enjoyable. Some of the most important facts you need to remember about your garden are the dimensions of your yard and flowerbeds. If having just moved into a new house or never measured your yard, this is well worth the extra effort.

While taking the measurements, take time to walk around your yard and try to visualize the yard as you want it. Note the areas that need a little splash of color and jot down what type of light each area receives. You might keep in mind the prevailing winds and either morning or afternoon sun. A little bit of homework saves wasted time and money at the store.

At the time of planning I like to look at catalogs, go to the library, or pick up some gardening magazines. When reading up on spring planting, I look for color and how the professional gardeners use texture, height or garden art in the model gardens. After taking several trips to the local garden centers, I have come to the opinion that we have one of the best selections in town in a long time. Or maybe I am just excited about the little rain we received and the colors just look more vibrant.

Take a "visit only" trip to the garden centers and take inventory of what is available. Look at the specimens that are in bloom, this will give you an idea of what you may want. Upon getting your beds ready, return to the nursery prepared to buy. Choose plants with dark green color and short compacted stems with several good sets of leaves. One mistake people make as they survey the array of plants is to select plants in full bloom. Resist the temptation and search for plants just beginning to bud as these perform better in the garden. Read on the label to calculate how many full-grown plants would fill the allotted space in the flowerbed or planter.

Most people agree that a large area of one color gives a bigger impact than a hodge-podge of many different varieties. Recently, during a trip to Austin, I noticed many of the commercial plantings and larger beds done with one variety in one color. Large displays of color in one area, all the same height and color value was very appealing to the eye. This is just as easy for the homeowner to achieve.

Another theme may be a wildflower or cottage garden. There are unlimited sources for this type of flowerbeds. This is where you can paint with your trowel and spade. Select a favorite flower and, just like a stroke of a watercolor paintbrush, arch the color through the flowerbed. Watercolor paintings have been a source of inspiration for me when planning a garden scene in my personal yard. Some of the mail order catalogs have these drawings or pictures of gardens that one can copy or get ideas from. Most of these publications will have zones and varieties that will do well in this area. If you want instant gratification, take a copy of the picture out of your inspiration source with you to the local nursery and shop by the picture. This is also helpful when trying to describe a certain flower to the nursery staff.

Using pre-planned gardens is a relatively new idea. At the hectic pace most of us live, a packaged idea is something that may help relieve the stress of planning a garden. Try searching the Web for "pre-planned gardens." I used Google and found several wonderful choices. Two Web sites that I have used the last couple of years are and No one said a master gardener had to be a landscape designer; one just needs to know where to go for the information.

One well-known designer, Fred Thode of Clemson, S.C., likes to use a comma, or a tadpole shape to place color. Thode suggests that using this shape with one type flower throughout the garden area will allow an organized, tapestry-like appearance. Pitfalls to avoid are straight, tidy rows referred to by some as soldiers or ducks in a row. They tend to make things too perfect and not reflect how flowers grow in nature.

Another respected designer, Ruthie Lacey, is quoted as saying, "I mass plants and use curves. But then I like to put one plant out of place, so it looks natural." This will allow a focal point of interest. One can also achieve this by placing a piece of yard art, or a pot placed in the flowerbed to add height and keep it from becoming static. Another idea is to allow flowers to spill onto the walkway to soften a hard edge and give a more natural look.

Do not be afraid to plan and plant a bed using just two colors like green and white or pick a color and use all the shades in that color family. There are numerous color combinations to choose from at the local retailers. Explore the possibilities and experiment with something new. Most outlets in town have staff on hand to help with the selection.

Another source for spring plants is the popular Master Gardener Plant Sale scheduled for Saturday, April 22. Stay tuned for more information, and plan to choose from a variety of propagated plants at very reasonable prices.