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SPECIAL ISSUE: SPRING HOME & GARDEN GUIDE : Gardens Springing to Life : Desire to Grow Plants Starts Budding With Warmer Weather

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

When Michelle and Ken Browe moved to Orange County from Michigan 5 years ago, they knew they were saying goodby to winter as they knew it. They just didn’t expect to give up spring in the bargain.

For Michelle, spring meant flowers--a bright burst of color after a long siege of muted gray, white and brown. But here it’s the seasonal changes that are muted, not the hues, with floral fireworks exploding into bloom year-round. It may be beautiful, but somehow it’s not quite the same.

“The first couple of springs here didn’t feel like spring to us,” she says. “It took some time to adjust.”

But this year, even without snowdrifts, it has felt like winter to the Rancho Santa Margarita couple. Maybe it was the frost that attacked their neighbor’s hibiscus, or those stretches of chilly, cloudy days in January and February. Or maybe they’ve just become Southern Californians at last. In any case, by mid-February they were anxious for a real spring, flowers and all.

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“When I was growing up (in Michigan), my parents planted flowers a lot,” Michelle says. “Every spring we had to start over again.” From the time she was about 8 years old, Michelle would help, digging holes for the plants and watering. “My parents were always really good about hands-on learning.”

This year the Browes decided to start over for spring in the family tradition. Their last major planting had been about 18 months earlier, and “it was starting to look pretty bad,” Ken says.

Whether they’re back-Easties or native Californians, plenty of Orange County residents get the urge to garden long about now, says Gina Royalty of Nurseryland in Laguna Niguel.

“There aren’t really any times that you can’t plant around here,” says Royalty, an Advanced California Certified Nurseryperson who helped the Browes plan their spring garden. “A lot of people plant prior to the big holidays--Thanksgiving, Christmas--because they know they’re going to have lots of guests coming by. But it gets to be a fever going into spring.”

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The overwhelming year-round display of color in professionally landscaped areas tends to give some aspiring green thumbs the wrong idea, Royalty says. “They see the flowers at places like Disneyland or the Ritz-Carlton, where they use thousands of plants a month, and they expect that their yard is going to look like that. We have to convince them to be realistic so they won’t be disappointed.”

“Most people expect too much out of their plants,” Royalty says. “They want plants that will give them maximum color and will go on forever.” Even in Orange County’s eternal spring, that just doesn’t happen, she says.

“Usually you have to plant about three times a year to get good results,” Royalty says. “To get ongoing color, you plant in the fall, October or November, then again about now, and then again in early summer, June or July. That’s not absolute, but you just have to rotate. Plants get tired. You have to pull them out and replace them.”

For the Browes, it wasn’t so much a matter of expecting the old flowers to last forever as simply lack of time to replace them. With two children, Kenneth, 5, and Ashleigh, 3, and both Ken and Michelle working full time, other things just had to come first.

But between Michelle’s garden-oriented upbringing and the couple’s experience with previous plantings at their current house and a former residence in Mission Viejo, the Browes did have a realistic idea of the amount of effort and time involved.

Veteran do-it-yourselfers, they landscaped both yards themselves from scratch. “We asked a lot of questions at the nursery and the hardware store,” Ken says.

“And we learned a lot of things the hard way,” says Michelle.

They weren’t surprised when Royalty told them that in addition to the flowers, they would need planting mix and fertilizer to keep them healthy.

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“The ground is so terrible here,” Michelle says. “When we were getting our lawn ready for sod, we had to rent a jackhammer to loosen it. It was so hard that the rental places wouldn’t let people use rototillers because too many of them were coming back damaged. The sound of jackhammers rang from dawn to dusk every weekend here for months.”

The rest of the county’s soil might not be quite as bad as Rancho Santa Margarita’s, but in general, Royalty says, soil in the county tends to be a heavy clay that must be amended to give roots room to breathe. She recommends using a mix of “50% planter mix and 50% soil, at a minimum. And it helps to dig in some gypsum too.”

Because the Browes had planted before, they had a head start on their soil quality. “If you’ve replanted a lot, you can go a little lighter. Every time, your soil will gradually get better,” Royalty says.

In planning their planting, the Browes were careful to avoid one mistake they had made before. “The first couple of times we didn’t take the sun into account,” Michelle says. “We put plants in the shade that should have been in the sun, and it just didn’t work.”

That’s one of the most common mistakes, Royalty says. “When we’re advising our customers, we really like to know what kind of exposure they’re planting. And some of them don’t know. They really haven’t looked at the area that closely.”

And because the sun’s angle changes with the seasons, it helps to know if an area that is in shade in March will be in full sun most of the day by July.

Plants also need to get along with their neighbors, Royalty says. Don’t put flowers that need frequent watering alongside those that require a drier soil because one will suffer no matter what you do.

With Royalty’s help, Michelle chose plants for a rectangular planter area under the front window and an irregularly shaped area bounded by a fence, the house, the lawn and the curb. The planting areas total about 100 square feet.

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Ken was content to keep track of the children while Michelle made the choices. “She’s very creative about that sort of thing, so I just leave it to her,” he says.

They decided on a border of white, ground-hugging alyssum for the irregular area, surrounding a planting of purple pansies and multicolor Iceland poppies. For the area in front of the fence, Michelle chose variegated pink and purple primroses, with a star jasmine vine trained to climb the fence itself. And for the middle of the planting, Michelle chose three pink breath of heaven plants.

In the rectangular area by the window, she decided on a mixture of azalea bushes, impatiens and primroses.

Michelle’s selections included a mixture of annuals, such as the pansies and poppies, and perennials, such as the impatiens and azaleas. Royalty says there are advantages and disadvantages to both. “Perennials will come back year after year, not indefinitely, but for 2 or 3 years at least. Annuals last only a season. They have more color right now, but it’s going to be over within a few months.”

Michelle’s family tradition calls for planting early in the morning, to reduce the shock of midday sun on newly transplanted flowers. Royalty says late afternoon can be another good time to plant.

And always dig the holes twice as big as the size of the plant, so you can put enough good soil inside the hole. That’s especially important with plants such as azaleas, which need even more soil amendment than most, Royalty says.

The Browes have a system with their gardening: She does the planning, and he digs the holes.

It’s important to gently break up the dirt surrounding the roots of a bedding plant, Royalty says. “And don’t plant them too deep. You want it to be at the same level it was when you bought it. Don’t bury the little crown too deep.”

While Michelle and Ken planted, Kenneth and Ashleigh did their best to help. Kenneth took a pack of primroses and planted three of them himself while his parents weren’t looking.

“He felt so proud,” Michelle says. “Of course, we had to replant them.”

Ashleigh, meanwhile, helped by making mud pies and carrying the packs of alyssum the few steps from the car to the curb.

After planting--the Browes finished the job in about 4 hours--it’s important to water the new garden well, Royalty says. After that, frequent watering is important, especially until the plants have rooted out into the ground. Later, the plants still need water, although Royalty says most people make the mistake of watering too much.

As the flowers bloom and die, Royalty says, it’s important to pick off the old flowers so the plants will use their energy to produce more flowers rather than going to seed.

“And on plants like the azaleas, you have to do a lot of pruning,” Michelle says. “I know that’s hard at first because you want things to grow. But if you want it to be the way you planned it, you have to keep it under control.”


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