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Let’s take a peek at our neighbors’ midsummer gardens

An alternative begonia worked better than expected in a container of Irene lantana and Black Magic colocasia in a Fountain Square garden. Photo courtesy Debra Boyer

An alternative begonia worked better than expected in a container of Irene lantana and Black Magic colocasia in a Fountain Square garden. Photo courtesy Debra Boyer

Let’s pretend we’re in a drone, buzzing some Indianapolis-area, midsummer gardens to see what’s going on. Immediately observable: Plants seem bigger and more lush than normal.

“In general, all plants have shot up taller than usual, due to the heavy rains. This is particularly noticeable with woody perennials. It’s like they’re on steroids,” said Debra Boyer, a Marion County Master Gardener in Fountain Square.

“As for annuals, my wholesaler was out of Dragon Wing begonias so I purchased Big begonias from a retailer. They are striking in the container planting with ‘Irene’ Lantana and ‘Black Magic’ Colocasia. In this case, the alternative worked out better than what I planned,” said Boyer, a facility manager.

Also on the city’s southside, Sue Nord Peiffer praises her 20-year-old, native Hydrangea arborescens. “My shrub measures 6 foot wide by 4 foot high and has rarely been pruned. It may not be as showy or fancy as the hybrids, but it has about 100 blooms.”

The hydrangea teems with pollinators on sunny days and takes virtually no effort, but water during dry periods, said Peiffer, manager of the greenhouse at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “I grow it on the north side of my house in fairly deep shade. I love this plant.”

In Avalon Hills on the city’s northeast side, Jane Lommel, past president of Binford Redevelopment and Growth, has hundreds of hostas in her woodland garden. “This year, they are uniformly much taller and wider than usual. And the blooms are bigger and fuller than in years past.” She’ll soon be adding ‘Claude Shride’, a bright, dark red Martagon lily from Indianapolis’ Soule’s Gardens, for more color among the hostas.

Hendricks County Master Gardener Colletta Kosiba has marveled at the vigor of all plants. The most impressive are the hostas, with leaves at least one-third bigger than ever before, she said. “The second most impressive are the butterfly weed plants. It’s a very good year for them, too.”

Greenwood-based freelance writer and editor, Brian D. Smith, who dubs himself Mr. Tomato Head, planted his usual combination of heirloom and tasty hybrids. “It’s a given that the hybrids grow fast, but this year my heirlooms – ‘Pink Brandywine’, ‘Cherokee Purple’, ‘Great White’ – are reaching for the sky at nearly the same rate as the hybrids. And nearly every plant has already begun kicking out at least one or two ‘greenies.’ Apparently they like the weather we’ve had since late May, although I can’t help thinking they’d enjoy a stretch of mid-80s temperatures more than the 90s.”

The early season warm temps and plentiful rain have benefitted my landscape, too, in many of the ways described by the other gardeners. Most notably, though, I have towering thistle, lamb’s quarter, fleabane and other weeds where I’ve never had them before. Mother Nature sometimes delivers the good with the bad.

Sweltering summer heat? Time to think about spring bulbs

Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa) is an early bloomer with starry, lavender-blue flowers that shade to white in the center. An excellent naturalizer when planted in soil that drains well, it is suited to growing in garden beds, lawns, woodland areas and rock gardens. Left undisturbed in sun or light shade, Glory-of-the-Snow often self-sows, eventually forming a dense carpet of blooms. They are deer and rodent resistant. Foraging animals generally avoid them. Photo courtesy Colorblends.com

Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa) is an early bloomer with starry, lavender-blue flowers that shade to white in the center. An excellent naturalizer when planted in soil that drains well, it is suited to growing in garden beds, lawns, woodland areas, and rock gardens. Left undisturbed in sun or light shade, glory-of-the-snow often self-sows, eventually forming a dense carpet of blooms. They are deer and rodent resistant. Photo courtesy Colorblends.com

Yes, I know it’s still July, but now is a good time to be thinking about next spring’s bulbs. Why is that? Because now is the time to order bulbs from online and mail-order retailers.

Of course, local garden centers will have perfectly good bulbs in a few weeks, but for a broader selection of colors and more unusual blooms, online or mail order is the way to go. The bulbs are shipped in fall when it’s time to plant them. Here are some tips.

Bloom time. Tulips, daffodils, and alliums bloom early, mid or late season, depending on the cultivar. Gardeners with shadier or woodland landscape should seek out early season bulbs because they will bloom before the trees and shrubs leaf out.

Several minor bulbs, which include glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.), squill (Scilla siberica), tommies crocus (C. tommasinianus), not only bloom early, they are perfect for naturalizing as floral carpets under trees and shrubs or in the lawn.

Indianapolis gardener Carol Michel (maydreamsgardens.com) recently told me she’s ordered 500 more glory-of-the-snow to add to the thousand she’s already planted in her lawn. These are especially for lawn areas because the foliage ripens and replenishes the bulbs under ground before the grass has to be mowed.

Deer and squirrel. If deer like to dine in your garden, plant daffodils (Narcissus spp.), which are toxic to animals and humans. Deer do not eat daffodils, and in our climate, these are among the most reliable spring bulbs to plant. Squirrels also tend not to bother daffodils.

Tulips (Tulipa spp.), on the other hand, are like lollipops for deer, which eat the tops. Squirrels like them, too, and eat the bulbs. You can protect tulips with animal repellants, such as Plantskydd, Animal Stopper or Liquid Fence. (At least we don’t have to contend with Moose and Squirrel!)

Colors. Go with what you like. Some gardeners plant a new color scheme each fall, especially with tulips, which tend to decline year after year. Replenish the look by buying and planting a few each year. Some companies, such as Colorblends.com and Longfield-Gardens.com, mix the colors for you. Other favorite places to look for bulbs: oldhousegardens.com, brentandbeckysbulbs.com and vanengelen.com.

Size counts. Smaller or lower grade bulbs are fine for naturalizing, but for the best seasonal show, go with the largest you can find, especially tulips. Bulbs are graded by their size, and with daffodils, the number of noses, or growth points they have. Don’t buy bulbs that are soft or moldy.

Consider Sugar Shack buttonbush and Sun King aralia for the landscape

 

Proven Winners' Sugar Shack buttonbush is a smaller introduction of a very large shrub. Photo courtesy Provenwinners.com

Proven Winners’ Sugar Shack buttonbush is a smaller introduction of a very large shrub. Photo courtesy Provenwinners.com

There are some shrubs that I’ve lusted after for several years, such as a buttonbush and witch hazel.

The drawback has been that these plants are huge, 8-12 feet tall and wide, or larger. I eventually ripped out the beautiful ‘Limelight’ hydrangea (H. paniculata) because at 8 feet tall and wide, it just got too big for my landscape and was out of scale for the house.

A couple years ago, I got Sugar Shack buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), a native cultivar from Proven Winners to trial, and it’s a keeper. It was less than a foot tall when I planted it, encased in a tomato cage to protect the young shrub from dogs’ paws. This year, Sugar Shack is about 30 inches tall and budded up, ready to bloom. At maturity, it will be 3-4 feet tall and wide, about half the size of the straight species.

The deciduous shrub’s leaves are glossy medium green. It blooms fragrant, button-like, ball-shaped flowers in early summer, which are appreciated by nectar-loving butterflies, bees and other insects. Birds like the seed heads, which turn bright red in fall.

Buttonbush prefers full to part sun and tolerates a moist location, so it would work in a swale or rain garden. Mine seems to be thriving, though, in regular garden soil. Buttonbush blooms on current season growth, so it can be pruned in late winter or early spring, if needed. It also is deer resistant.

Shade brightener

'Sun King' aralias brightens a shady area of the landscape. Photo courtesy PerennialResource.com

‘Sun King’ aralias brightens a shady area of the landscape. Photo courtesy PerennialResource.com

I’m also enthused about ‘Sun King’ golden Japanese spikenard (Aralia cordata), which enlivens the shadier areas of the landscape.

This perennial was introduced in the U.S. by well-known plantsman Barry Yinger. It’s bright gold leaves form on arched branches about 3 feet long. There seems to be a pretty wide swing on the size of this plant, with sources pegging it in the 3 or 6 foot tall and wide range. I’m hoping for the smaller size.

Two-foot tall spikes of ball-like flowers emerge through the foliage in midsummer. When the flowers fall, reddish purple berries form, a treat for birds. This plant does best in well-drained, moist soil. It will likely lose its golden hue if grown in too much shade. ‘Sun King’ also is deer resistant.

Slow flowers: Local growers celebrate American Flowers Week

The not-for-profit Indy Urban Acres grows organic cut flowers and sells them at the Market at Hague. Proceeds support its food-growing operations, where produce is donated to local food banks and soup kitchens. Photo courtesy Lauren Brown

The not-for-profit Indy Urban Acres grows organic cut flowers and sells them at the Market at Hague. Proceeds support its food-growing operations, where produce is donated to local food banks and soup kitchens. Photo courtesy Lauren Brown

Just like slow food, there’s a slow flowers movement that promotes growers and florists who embrace and market blooms and branches grown in their area, region or country, as well as serve as a resource for consumers.

SlowFlowers.com has declared June 28 to July 4 American Flowers Week as a way to encourage all of us to cut or buy a locally grown bouquet for our holiday celebrations.

Begun in 2015, the goal is to engage the public, policymakers and the media in a conversation about the origins of their flowers, said Debra Prinzing, founder of American Flowers Week. About 20 percent of flowers sold in the U.S. are grown here.

slow flowers logo 2016

“The Fourth of July is a perfect time to support domestic U.S. flower farms by choosing local, American-grown bouquets. It’s also the time of the year when local and seasonal cut flowers are being grown and harvested in all 50 states,” said Prinzing, who founded SlowFlowers.com in 2014.

On the east side, Indy Urban Acres devotes 1 ½- of its 9 ½-acre organic operation to growing mostly annuals, said Lauren Brown, cut flower manager of the not-for-profit. Indy Urban Acres is an initiative of Indy Parks Foundation and is on park land. Proceeds from cut flower sales support the food-growing operation, where all produce is donated to area food banks, soup kitchens and other groups that feed the hungry.

The flower-growing operation started with annuals in 2014. Brown has been planting perennials, such as coneflower, campanula and black-eyed Susan, to add to the selection. She sells her cut flowers at the Market at Hague at Lawrence North High School, and for weddings and special events. Consumers like that the flowers are organic and grown locally, she said.

Lisianthus, scabiosa, fragrant garden roses, stock, Queen Anne's lace, vines and branches add to the lush, natural feel of JP Parker Flowers’ American Garden style bouquet. Photo courtesy JP Parker Flowers

Lisianthus, scabiosa, fragrant garden roses, stock, Queen Anne’s lace, vines and branches add to the lush, natural feel of JP Parker Flowers’ American Garden style bouquet. Photo courtesy Gretchen Robards Photography 

Well-known florist, event planner and peony grower, Pam Parker, owner of JP Parker Flowers in Indianapolis and Franklin, also grows sunflowers and zinnias, staples of summer cut flowers on about 14 acres on farms in Shelby and Johnson counties. She’s added ornamental corn, celosia, hanging amaranth and marigolds to the mix, and sells her flowers at Broad Ripple, Carmel and Franklin farmers markets.

Parker said many of today’s brides are interested in what she calls “American garden” bouquets, loose arrangements of field flowers.

Amy Beausir farms just under an acre for the cut flowers she sells as part of Molly & Myrtle Indianapolis Vintage Wedding. Photo courtesy Amy Beausir

Amy Beausir farms just under an acre for the cut flowers she sells as part of Molly & Myrtle Indianapolis Vintage Wedding.
Photo courtesy Amy Beausir

In northern Marion County, Molly & Myrtle Indianapolis Vintage Weddings uses cut flowers as part of its event planning services, which includes curated period furnishings and architectural elements. Owner Amy Beausir farms just under an acre, growing annuals, perennials, and greenery, which she sells at Abundant Life Market at 82nd Street and Hague Road.

She’s been in the cut flower business for seven years, and she includes shrubs, such as blueberry, viburnum and magnolia, for year-round arrangements. When flowers are cut the day they are sold or the day before, they last much longer in arrangements, Beausir said. “Slow flowers have an authenticity, are habitat friendly and they don’t look like they are grown by a corporation.”

Give plants their summer due

Snip out the spent flower on Agastache and other perennials to encourage the side shoots to develop and bloom. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Snip out the spent flower on Agastache and other perennials to encourage the side shoots to develop and bloom. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Even though summer has just arrived, there are a few things we can do in the garden to help extend the season for our plants.

First up, give annuals and vegetables a dose of fertilizer. For annuals in containers or in the ground, apply a water-soluble fertilizer. For the vegetable bed, I prefer a granular fertilizer applied as a side dressing, where it’s lightly worked into the soil. Or, you can ring the plants with the fertilizer. Either way, water it in. Always read and follow the label directions.

Harvest green beans, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables as they ripen. This encourages the plants to keep producing. If there’s no rain, be sure to water vegetable plants about 1 inch a week, which also supports good production. Target the water to soil around the base of the plants rather than applying it overhead.

For herbs, harvest them as they grow. Once an herb starts to flower, it frequently loses flavor. You can eat the blossoms of mint, basil, lavender and several other herbs.

Fertilize tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables on a regular basis, with Espoma Tomato-tone or other natural product. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Fertilize tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables on a regular basis, with Espoma Tomato-tone or other natural product. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

For perennials, remove the spent flowers. Called deadheading, it tricks the plants into developing a few more flower buds along side shoots to prolong the show. Remove the seed heads on spring-blooming perennials, such as columbine, iris and peony.

If lilac, viburnum or other spring-blooming shrubs need to be pruned, do so as soon as possible. Pruning any later in summer or fall will remove next year’s blooms. Remember that pruning should always be done for a purpose, such as removing an errant branch, dead stem, to boost fruit or flower production or rein in its size. Remember to keep the top of the shrub slightly more narrow than the base of the plant. If the top is wider, it shades out the base, causing it to look sparse or bare.

As the temps rise, mowing duties are reduced, unless your lawn is irrigated. Mow to keep the lawn about 3 inches tall, which crowds out weeds and keeps grass roots cool.

And, if we go three weeks with no rain, water perennials, shrubs and trees. Healthy lawns can usually go six weeks without supplemental watering.

Celebrate National Pollinator Week

Many gardeners provide housing for mason bees, a native, solitary, stingless bee that specializes in pollinating fruit trees. © Photo Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Many gardeners provide housing for mason bees, a native, solitary, stingless bee that specializes in pollinating fruit trees.
© Photo Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

This coming week, June 20-26, is National Pollinator Week, an effort by the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign and others to raise awareness of the role of bees, butterflies, birds, wasps, bats and other wildlife critical to the production of our food and flowers.

How to celebrate?

  1. Eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides. Bug killers are nonselective, which means they kill bees along with Japanese beetles. Fungicides also are deadly to bees, so always read and follow the label directions when using them. Usually the label advises not to apply when bees are present.
  2. Incorporate native plants in your landscape. Our native pollinators are hard wired to seek out native plants, such as milkweed (Asclepias spp.), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and white oak (Quercus alba). Select plants that bloom in different seasons, such as columbine (Aquilegia spp.) for spring, coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) for summer, and aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) for fall.
Zinnias are a favorite plant of butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/ngb.org

Zinnias are a favorite plant of butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/ngb.org

When buying plants at the garden center, make sure they have not been treated with a systemic insecticide, such as imidacloprid, which has a long residual effect and contaminates all parts of the plant, including pollen and nectar.

  1. Some of the best plants for pollinators are herbs, especially mint, dill, parsley and fennel. The last three serve as food plants for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. Milkweed is a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars. When we understand that plants are food for desirable wildlife, we get over the notion that our landscapes must be unmarred in any way.
  2. Provide a water source. Birdbaths for birds. For butterflies, create a shallow mud puddle in a partly sunny area. Place a stone or two there, where butterflies can rest. For bees, put marbles or gravel in a shallow container, such as a plant saucer, and fill with water. The bees slurp up the water while resting on the rocks. Bees frequently drown trying to drink from birdbaths. Butterflies also may visit these shallow containers.

For more information about supporting pollinators, check out these resources:

 

Colorado blue spruces suffer in Midwest climate

Many disease and insect problems start at the base of Colorado blue spruce and work their way up the tree, which suffers from environmental stresses in the Midwest. Photo courtesy Jud Scott/vineandbranch.net

Many disease and insect problems start at the base of Colorado blue spruce and work their way up the tree, which suffers from environmental stresses in the Midwest.
Photo courtesy Jud Scott/vineandbranch.net

This will probably come as no surprise to property owners with Colorado blue spruce in their landscape, but the tree is in trouble.

American Nurseryman, which covers the nursery trade, posted a piece recently about an increase in the rate of decline of Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) in the Midwest.

The beautiful trees are popular, especially here in the lower Midwest, where we have few native conifers, said Nate Faris, a certified consulting arborist and owner of Faris Tree Consulting in Indianapolis. But because they are from the Rocky Mountains, Colorado blue spruce does not do well here. “They are stressed in our environment.”

Heavy clay soil, high humidity and summer heat are different than the cool temperatures and fast-draining soil in the higher elevations of the Rockies, their native habitat.

Signs of the most common spruce disease in Indiana, a fungus called Rhizosphaera, are yellow needles in mid to late summer and needle drop, usually from the lowest part of the tree. Another common problem is spruce spider mite. Needles develop a splotchy yellow or rusty cast. The mites start toward the center of the tree’s lower branches.

“I would say we’ve seen record levels of spruce complaints for the last three years,” said Jud Scott, a certified consulting arborists and owner of Vine and Branch Inc., in Carmel. Scott cites drought periods in 2012 and 2013, cool, wet springs, hot dry summers, radiant heat from pavement and planting areas that are too small as contributing factors.

“The most common significant problems found on samples are Rhizosphaera needle cast and spruce spider mite,” said Tom Creswell, director of the Plant and Pest Diagnostic Lab at Purdue University. “We also see stress from drought, deep planting, crowding and poorly drained sites.”

His lab has not seen an uptick in Phomopsis canker, another fungus disease, which is bad in Michigan and Illinois. It’s a harder problem to sample because it tends to affect trunks, rather than branches.

“Blue spruce is just not the right plant for many Midwestern landscapes, but even knowing all those problems, I still enjoy seeing the healthy ones,” Creswell said. “I just would never consider planting one in my own yard. Pampering my arborvitae to keep them healthy is enough work for me.”

What can the gardener do? Make sure Colorado blue spruce and all conifers are watered during drought. Spider mites can be detected by shaking a branch above a white piece of paper. If there are spots that smear, they’re likely spider mites. It’s always best to consult with a certified arborist for the best diagnosis and possible treatment.

A salvia for everyone

May Night Salvia (S. nemorosa 'Mainacht'). Photo courtesy perennialresource.com

May Night Salvia (S. nemorosa ‘Mainacht’). Photo courtesy perennialresource.com

A lot of us love salvias, but unfortunately none of the hardy perennial types blooms all summer. That includes May Night, Caradonna, East Friesland, Color Spires Crystal Blue, Purple Rain and other popular perennial salvias.

These are the ones with the gorgeous stalks of intense blue blooms this time of year. The New Dimension salvia series has a beautiful rose one that calls to me every time I’m at the garden center. There are white varieties, too. But these beauties are done, usually by mid to late June. Even if you deadhead them, they just don’t bloom all summer, which is what most of us want.

Annual salvias are the answer.

Victoria Blue, Blue Bedder, Blue Frost and Mystic Spires Blue (Salvia farinacea) are just a few of the annuals or tender perennials that provide flower spikes similar to their hardy perennial siblings. These beautiful annuals bloom all summer and well into fall because they tolerate cool temperatures. As an added bonus, sometimes these plants self sow or die back to the ground to return the next summer.

Bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects enjoy these plants during the summer and finches snack on the seed heads that are left up in winter.

These annual salvias do best in full sun, but they tolerate light shade and are somewhat drought tolerant. Plant them in the ground as a summer annual, mix them in with perennials or use them in containers. I frequently use them as the centerpiece in pots as an alternative to spikes.

Black & Bloom salvia. Photo courtesy ballhort.com

Black & Bloom salvia. Photo courtesy ballhort.com

Another tender perennial salvia that we grow as an annual is the popular Black and Blue, sometimes called hummingbird sage (S. guaranitica). Black and Blue, and a newer introduction, Black & Bloom (S. coerulea), have a completely different form than the ones mentioned above. They get their name from their dark black calyx and vivid, cobalt blue blooms.

Black and Blue salvia. Photo courtesy Monrovia.com

Black and Blue salvia. Photo courtesy Monrovia.com

They are a much larger, open plant, more shrub-like at 3 feet tall and wide. Indeed, hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects enjoy these salvias, too. For the best performance, grow these in full sun. Although large, these salvias could also be grown in a large pot for the summer.

All of the salvias can be cut for indoor flower arrangements. And yes, sage is the common name for this plant family, which includes the herb sage (S. officinalis).

Space-inspired floral design takes first place at Muncie’s Art in Bloom

Indianapolis floral designer Jasmine Farris won first place at Art in Bloom at the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University for her interpretation of “Invocation, Variation #3.” © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Indianapolis floral designer Jasmine Farris won first place at Art in Bloom at the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University for her interpretation of “Invocation, Variation #3.” © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Muncie, Ind. – A couple of weeks ago, six Indiana florists used their flower-arranging skills to interpret six pieces of art at the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University.

Museum curators selected sculptures, paintings, textiles and architectural remnants and charged the florists with presenting the art in flower form. This was the second year for Art in Bloom at the Muncie museum, named for an active donor and member of the local family known for Ball jars.

The event was created to highlight the museum and its collections in the local community and throughout the region, said Barbara Alvarez Bohanon, a retired music teacher and member of the museum’s friends’ group.

The art pieces also were carefully selected to draw visitors throughout the museum’s collection, said Bohanon, a docent at the museum and coordinator of Art in Bloom.

I was privileged to judge this competition with Kari Geary, lead designer of Be Married, the floral division of Bruce Ewing Landscaping in Fort Wayne. Geary won the competition in 2015 with her interpretation of “In Poppyland,” a painting by John Ottis Adams (1851-1927), a member of the Hoosier Group.

First place went to Jasmine Farris, a floral designer with JP Parker Flowers in Indianapolis, for her interpretation of “Invocation, Variation #3,” a copper alloy and steel sculpture by Theodore Roszak (1907-1981).

“During the tour of the museum to see he various artwork I was unexpectedly drawn to one very tall, contemporary piece,” Farris wrote for Art in Bloom’s program.

A native of Thailand, Farris crafted willow, allium, heliconia, antherium, scabiosa pads, dianthus, protea, flax and palm leaves into a piece that strongly resembled the sculpture.

“I had absolutely no idea what it represented, but the moon shaped piece at the top make me think of outer space,” she wrote. “It was later that I discovered that this amazing piece of art did indeed represent space, in the fact that its theme was the Russian satellite Sputnik and the race to space.”

Second place went to floral designer Lisa Pritchett of Dandelions Flowers and Gifts in Muncie. She interpreted “Seated Buddha,” a carved limestone statue from the Wei Dynasty (534-549 CE). She used horsetail, calla lilies, carnations, orchids, roses, hydrangea, moss and mums to create a green and white, undulating design that evoked calm and rest.

The event is expected to continue in 2017. For more information about the museum’s Art in Bloom, please visit: http://bit.ly/1s6XwlV.

Get the most out of your trip to the garden center

A customer selects maroon coral bell, yellow and maroon foamy bell and gold and green variegated Japanese forest grass to create a colorful vignette of shade-tolerant perennials that will do well together. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A customer selects maroon coral bell, yellow and maroon foamy bell and gold and green variegated Japanese forest grass to create a colorful vignette of shade-tolerant perennials that will do well together. © Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Some customers walk through the garden center and make a beeline for the perennials, on the hunt for a new daisy. Some wander aisle to aisle, checking out this plant then that one, reading the labels as they think through a design.

Others, however, stop in their tracks, eyes wide as they take in what many call an overwhelming scene. Thousands of annuals, perennials, herb, vegetables, roses, hydrangeas, evergreens, trees and more stand ready to feed your family or decorate your landscape, deck or porch.

Let’s take a deep breath and run through some tips to make your quest for plants as easy as shopping for groceries. You know what your family likes to eat. If no one likes okra, you don’t buy it. This concept holds true when deciding what to grow in the vegetable garden or in a pot on the patio.

In general, vegetables that produce fruit, such as peppers, tomatoes and beans, need a minimum of six hours of direct sun a day. Leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, and root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes, tolerate light shade or filtered sun.

Just like you have a list when you grocery shop, make a few notes to take with you to the garden center. The list should include the dimensions of the area you want to plant, and the width and depth of containers you want to fill. Note how much direct sun you have where you want to plant or place pots. This information guides in the selection of a plant, taking into account its size, soil and light requirements and your site.

Most independent garden centers will have someone who can give you some ideas about what plants will work with your site or containers. Saturdays are not the best day to seek this help, especially with a complicated or large design. Saturday is a garden center’s busiest day. Some garden centers make appointments for a consult.

Read the tag and take a little time to learn a bit about a plant to make sure it will do what you want or how much care it may need. Pair up plants to see if they make a good color companions and have similar horticulture needs.

Garden center employees usually have favorite combos or plants they can recommend, so ask for suggestions and be open to them. Staff members know which plants are going to do better than others and they can give you tips on growing them successfully.