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Seeking success with spring plants

Every garden center is ready for Mother's Day, with the focus on flowers. Roses, lilacs, potted hydrangeas and azaleas are popular gifts.

The classic garden center and farmers' market take-home is the spring hanging basket. Every one of these plants leaves its seller looking wonderful, dripping with annual flowers. Some last, and some don't. Let's do well by Mom and the plants, and choose carefully.

Cold weather isn't the problem: Many of the annual flowering plants sold in spring containers or for Mother's Day are "semi-hardy" annuals; they like cool weather. They tolerate cold nights and enjoy moderate daytime temperatures. If the nighttime temperature dips below freezing, many would survive but suffer some damage to the tips and buds, so you should move them into a cool room or cover them on such occasions.

However, "tender" annuals such as impatiens, coleus and sweet potato vines have no business going outside until the nights stay above 50 degrees. Garden center staff should warn you if you are buying tender annuals in early May.

Also check whether the plants you're buying have been "hardened off" (gradually introduced to cold weather). Even cold-hardy plants or perennials, if they have been residing in a cozy greenhouse, may have a setback if they move from 65 to 40 degrees in one day.

Designing your own planter: You might find it fun to participate in a garden center workshop to make your own mixed containers, with a guide to compatible plant combinations. You can also design your own look, with a little help from garden center staff. Remember when you shop: Read the tags for the plant's eventual height, and its sunlight and moisture requirements.

Here are some cool-weather plants to play with for spring enjoyment outdoors. Unless noted otherwise, assume they require good potting soil, at least a partial day of sunlight, watering when dry and fertilizing through the summer.

*Argyranthemum: Cheerful, daisy-shaped bright flowers.

*Bacopa: delicate white or lavender flowers.

*Bellis (English daisies): for small containers, charming short lawn daisies; easy to perennialize.

*Calibrachoa: like small petunias; many shades.

*Diascia: fluffy pastel flowers for a sunny place.

*Heucheras (Coral bells): perennials with amazing foliage colors. Some that are sold as annuals aren't dependably hardy here, but do try planting them in September.

*Lobularia (sweet Alyssum, 'Snow Princess'): superior plant for spring, summer and fall; fragrant; tolerates a range of temperatures; performs as long as you water and fertilize.

*Nemesia: underappreciated, wonderful in baskets.

*Osteospermum (Cape daisies): dynamic colors and designs.

*Pansies: now almost universally hardy; use them in baskets and then plant for another year.

*Primula (primroses): long flowering now, useful as perennials later.

*Verbenas: old favorites, now much improved.

*Violas: one of the most-improved species. Try 'Violina'!

Gifts beyond the basket: Consider hydrangeas. This most popular shrub genus also appears in indoor displays this season, with massive purple, blue or pink blooms. In most cases, these are hardy plants but not necessarily "bud-hardy" plants; they may live in your yard in coming years but may not flower in our climate. Yet many people have reported great success, so it can't hurt to try.

*Roses: Miniature roses often sell as gift plants. They look delicate but are usually hardy. Often three or more are in one little pot, so separate them when you plant. Full-sized roses are a huge Mother's Day sentimental favorite; read the tags and know your rose.

*Azaleas: As with gift plant hydrangeas, we can't usually tell what kind of azalea you have. They may be hardy, or not.

*Hibiscus, usually shipped in from the South, are also good gifts, as long as people know they are tropical -- houseplants in the winter, deck plants in summer.

What to do with a gift shrub: Sometimes people receive a tree, bush or flower as a gift, but have no idea what to do with it. This is what the nonplant-person needs to know:

*Outdoor plants must be planted outdoors, as they do not keep well as houseplants. Find out if it's tropical, a houseplant, a perennial, or a "hardy" ornamental.

*Look for a tag with directions on where you should put it and how large it will grow. It might be a cute now but it could turn into a 20-foot tree.

*It's fine to plant hardy plants now as long as the soil is soft enough to work in (not wet). A freezing night or frost won't kill your outdoor plant.

*Get some instructions about bed preparation and how to plant.

*The most important thing to learn about a new plant is that it can't take care of itself all summer. Especially during the first year, you must water deeply at least once a week while it gets established. Learn more about how to water.

Whether you're giving or receiving, or shopping for your own plants, having the right information is the first step toward success with your plants.


Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.