It's easy to envision a spring garden full of beautiful flowers -- a colorful carpet of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, succeeded by clusters of lilies and iris, walkways bordered with roses, pots of puffy hydrangeas and the aroma of fragrant lavender.
Thinking about the garden of your dreams is one thing. Making it happen is another, especially if you're a novice when it comes to picking plants that match your growing region and ability. Some flowers are easy to take care of; others are high maintenance and require daily watering, weeding and worrying about the weather.
North America is divided into 11 separate hardiness zones, each 10 degrees warmer or colder in an average winter than its adjacent counterpart. When you shop for plants, seeds and flowers, the zones are usually printed on the label, something some would-be gardeners overlook, sometimes intentionally, says Nicholas Staddon, director of the New Plants Team for Monrovia, a major grower and supplier to independent garden centers and re-wholesalers nationwide.
"They're in zonal denial," says Staddon, of buyers who get caught up in the beauty, shape or color of a plant and ignore the zone limits. "You need to read that label carefully," he says -- and not just for the zone information. Plant labels also provide such things as sun or shade requirements, water needs, average height, flowering time, care and planting instructions, he says.
If you want flowers that are easy to take care of, purchase plants that don't need watering every day, that are on the drought-tolerant side, such as daylilies and lavender, he says. For rich color, Flower Carpet, a patented scarlet groundcover rose that flowers up to 10 months in warmer climates, can be used as a border or in containers. You may want to prune it, and you'll have to water regularly when the top three inches of soil is dry, but its long bloom season and multi-use in plantings falls into the easy-care category, Staddon adds.
"Annuals are generally the easiest to care for because they are grown for one season only, so they don't need the ongoing care that perennials, shrubs and trees do," says gardening expert Nell Foster. "Anything that requires pruning and extensive soil amending is high-maintenance," she says, urging amateur flower-garden planners to "pay attention to growing requirements. Any plant under stress is definitely more prone to insects and diseases."
If you're going to mix easy and high-maintenance flowers together, make sure you have easy access to the plants that will require your attention, she says. "Keep up on the maintenance, or you'll lose the form of your garden."
As far as horticulture guru and author Chris McLaughlin is concerned, the easiest plants to care for are those that are given the correct growing conditions for that species or variety. You should consider not only the broader hardiness zone, but also the microclimate in which the plant will be placed, she says. McLaughlin, a frequent contributor to gardening magazines, whose newest book, "The Complete Idiots Guide to Small-Space Gardening," addresses the issues of garden simplicity and maintenance, points out that when you're deciding what types of garden flowers to choose, "the question really becomes less about a specific plant list and more about how to choose the right plants for your garden or yard so there's minimal maintenance. That said, after you find the right plants for your growing conditions, keep your eyes open for annual and bedding plants. They're great re-bloomers, without deadheading (removal of the spent flowers), which is precisely why we call them bedding plants. They fill everything in nicely."
Whether you're planning to grow that easy or high-maintenance flower garden from seed or seedling, websites and catalogs can provide good information, says Rachel Kaplan, in-house gardener for Summer Winter, a popular restaurant known for growing its own flowers and herbs on-site. She recommends the National Gardening Association's comprehensive Plant Care Guide, at http://www.garden.org/plantguide.
"Aesthetics are certainly a part of planning a flower garden. Keep in mind that flowers not only grow in a wide variety of colors but also to different heights. Experiment and see what works best for your space."