A garden that comes in the mail

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Planned gardens by mail take some of the guesswork out of gardening. Even if you don't know a delphinium from a day lily, garden plans and the plants that come with them are package deals designed for success. All you have to do is dig a few holes and prepare to accept the compliments.

Predesigned gardens have been coming on strong with mail-order specialists for a few years. Instead of expecting customers to prowl through catalogs, mixing and matching to create their own plans and combinations, a number of mail-order companies offer gardens ready to go, with basic designs keyed to the colorful plants that bring them to life.

Experienced gardeners can use them as reliable sources of ideas and inspiration; new gardeners are thrilled to be able to leave some of gardening's tough decisions to the experts.

"Sometimes the easiest way to learn gardening is to study a nicely designed little bed," says David Salman, president of High Country Gardens (www.highcountrygardens.com), a mail-order gardening company in Santa Fe, N.M., that offers 10 perennial garden designs in its catalog.

The gardens solve landscaping problems and introduce customers to new plants and great plant combinations. "I hope these gardens will inspire people to start designing their own gardens," Salman says.

High Country Gardens' most popular garden is a "water-wise" design with 18 plants that thrive without pampering and look great all summer long.

Bill Boonstra, owner of Bluestone Perennials (www.bluestoneperennials.com), in Madison, Ohio, has offered planned gardens in the company's catalog since 1984. The company sells more than 2,000 planned gardens every year, Boonstra says. The original design, a 5-foot-by-32-foot perennial border that comes with 59 plants, remains the most popular, but there are now several choices, and others are being designed.

"They're wildly popular," Boonstra says. "There are a lot of gardeners who want to give them to a friend, to get somebody involved in gardening. It takes a lot of the angst out of starting out."

Planned gardens spare you the endless decisions involved in choosing plants, and the time and trouble of meeting with a garden designer. You'll still have the satisfaction of preparing the soil, planting, nurturing the young plants and watching the garden grow and develop. The catalog garden designs get you started right away, so you can get mud on your boots and dirt under your fingernails without doing a lot of homework first.

The most basic garden plans are usually rectangles and nothing to be afraid of. The plans are easy to follow and they fit into almost any landscape. You can always make simple changes to the layout, adapting the design to wrap around a corner or dividing it in two and planting it on either side of a garden path. Bluestone's garden plans include variations for island beds that will be viewed from both sides.

"We hope people are taking them home and morphing them around," Boonstra says. "The more fun they have with it the better."

The best planned gardens are built on a foundation of dependable plants, with interesting or unexpected choices to keep the designs lively and up to date. One of High Country Gardens' designs is for a cold-hardy Mediterranean garden with a blue, purple, pink and silver palette. The idea was to offer customers the romance of a Mediterranean garden using winter-hardy plants that perform well all across the country, not just in California's Mediterranean climate, Salman says.

The company's "August Afternoon" perennial garden, available last year for the first time, has already received an award from the Mailorder Gardening Association. "Autumn is often overlooked, but it's one of my favorite times of year in the garden," Salman says. The design combines fiery autumn hues and silvery sundown colors.

Professional landscapers usually plant relatively large specimens in their customers' gardens; perennials in one-gallon pots are standard. With a planned garden package, you'll be starting with smaller stock. It might look a little stark at first, but small plants are easy to plant, adapt well to their new conditions and they grow quickly.

"Most people are flabbergasted at how fast small plants fill out," Boonstra says. To give the garden a boost its first season, some designs leave spaces for annual bedding plants.

Sources

High Country Gardens, www.highcountrygardens.com or 800-925-9387, sells 10 different planned gardens designed around low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants, priced from $85 to $146.

Bluestone Perennials, www.bluestoneperennials.com or 800-852-5243, offers several planned perennial gardens for sun and shade. Plans and plants run from $47 to $83.

White Flower Farm, www.whiteflowerfarm.com or 800-503-9624, sells more than 20 different annual-flower combinations perfect for flowerpots. Most cost about $35 for five or six plants.

Jackson and Perkins, www.jacksonandperkins.com or 877-322-2300, carries several "Gardens by the Numbers" designed for sun or shade. One garden plan features deer-resistant plants.

Better Homes and Gardens posts free plans for dozens of gardens on its Web site (www.bhg.com). You can download the plans, with illustrations of the finished gardens and shopping lists to take to a local garden shop.

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