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Opt for fundamentals, not flash, when shopping for plants

Gardeners skimming the newly arrived 2020 seed catalogs should probably spend less time on the tempting photographs and more time focusing on what retailers call “shopping filters.” That means selecting plants based on their performance rather than their flash.

“Having some facts about what a plant needs and how it can be used in the garden certainly makes the gardener have better odds of starting with the right choices,’’ said David Salman, founder and chief horticulturist for High Country Gardens. “As opposed to simply choosing a plant because it looks pretty or you like its flowers.”

For the plants that High Country Gardens typically sells, search perimeters, or filters, involve cold hardiness zones, plant size, bloom time, flower color, attributes such as resistance to being eaten by deer, and growing-condition preferences.

One advantage that garden catalogs and websites have is the variety of plants they offer, said Randy Schultz, spokesman for the Direct Gardening Association, a trade group.

“There simply isn’t enough space in a garden center to stock all of the yellow-flowering perennial plants that grow in the local climate,” Schultz said. “But a website seller of plants can offer a much broader selection.”

The mail-order marketplace also can help display and educate consumers about the many plant or seed varieties newly available for the coming season.

“The challenge is to make the garden catalog special,” said George Ball, chairman and chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Company, a pioneer in the mail-order marketing of seeds. “We’re big on value and innovation.’’

What Ball calls the “Big Sell” is positioning new plants in the forward pages of Burpee catalogs. Many of the varieties the company has introduced that way have become gardening classics over the years, including cultivars such as Iceberg lettuce (1894), Golden Bantam sweet corn (1902) and Fordhook lima bean (1907). For 2020, Burpee’s featured innovation is the Silky Sweet turnip that you can eat from your hand like an apple, Ball said.

Burpee also is adding introductory information for every plant category in the catalogs — a brief synopsis of nutritional value and growing tips intended primarily for novice gardeners.

Of course, customers also can visit garden stores, where they’ll find native plants and sales staff trained to answer questions about local growing conditions.

Some catalogs offer thematic, pre-planned gardens. Those vary from grower-selected groupings of pizza ingredients (basil, oregano, peppers and tomatoes) to shade tolerant, water-wise, butterfly- and hummingbird-attracting kits among a great many others.

“We take great efforts to design gardens where the plants are all a good match needing the same growing conditions, the gardens are designed with a particular purpose in mind and are combined in an aesthetically pleasing way,” High Country’s Salman said.

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