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When can you ask your nurserymen for help?

For many gardeners, nurseries are more than places to buy plants: they're places to get advice and to find solutions to gardening problems.

Full-service nurseries, where mostly plants and garden supplies are sold, are staffed by people who can answer your questions. But unless you arm yourself with enough information to ask the right ones, you may not get the most precise answers.

Sunset asked Western nurserymen how you can help them help you with gardening problems. Here are the most-asked questions and what nurserymen need to know to answer them accurately. (If you have complicated questions, weekday mornings not busy weekends-are the best times to corner a nurseryman.)

What's wrong with my plant?

Before asking your nurseryman to identify what pest or disease is attacking your plant, see if you can identify the problem yourself. Try to catch problems at the first signs of trouble, before the whole plant is affected. Don't wait until the plant is nearly dead, then expect to nurse it back to health; it's probably too late. Insects. Look at them through a magnifying glass. Note their appearance and the damage they've caused. Are they coating the leaves with a sticky residue? Chewing holes in flower buds, or gnawing scalloped chunks out of leaf edges?

Diseases. Are the leaves coated with powdery white patches? The problem could be powdery mildew. Are powdery orange pustules coating the undersides of your rose leaves, or brown ones spotting your snapdragon leaves? It could be rust.

Check some gardening books for clues. See if you can match the symptoms with a culprit, or pictures of the pest or disease with the one on your plants. If you still can't tell what's wrong, take a sample of the troubled plant to the nursery. "Our nursery won't make diagnoses over the phone," says John Chiapelone of Burlingame Garden Center. "Like doctors, we can't be sure what the problem is until we see the patient." Take the whole plant, if it's small enough. Otherwise, cut a 6- to 10-inch branchlet; if you think the plant is diseased, try to choose a sample that shows various stages of infection. Cut it just before you leave for the nursery to make sure it's fresh; dry leaves and dead twigs hold few, if any, clues about what killed them.

Carry samples in sealed containers, such as plastic bags or glass jars with lids, to avoid contaminating nursery stock. Bring chunks of diseased turf-about 6 by 12 inches in shoe boxes. Include a diseased portion and an adjacent healthy portion. Be prepared for questions. If leaves are yellow, for example, the cause could be a nutrient deficiency, improper watering, or poor drainage, The nurseryman will want to know how often you water the plant (once a week? once a month?), how much water you give it each time (a quart? 2 gallons?), how much you fertilize it (and with what), and what kind of soil it grows in. "Tell us what you really do, not what you think you're supposed to do," says Ryan Wagner of Walter Andersen Nursery in San "Our diagnosis is only as good as the information you give us." Once the nurseryman identifies the problem, he can suggest treatment.

What should I plant, where?

If you ask for plant recommendations for a particular site, the nurseryman will want a few details to be able to suggest the best plants. Photographs of the site, taken in both morning and late afternoon, will help even more (note on them tbe season and time of day). "The old saying-a picture is worth a thousand words-is a good guideline," says Ray Sodomka of Turk Hesselund Nursery in Santa Barbara. "And if you include some of the neighboring plants in the frame, the nurseryman can recommend plants that fit in with the ones you already have."

Prepare for these questions:

Location. Where is the site in relation to the house? Is it near foot traffic? Adjacent to a lawn that gets watered frequently? What other plants (color, if any) are in the area? Are there nearby trees that could cast dense shadeor cause root competition? Is it close to a septic tank or leach field? Near a downspout? Is the site watered by hand, drip, or sprinklers?

Size. How big is the area where you want to plant? For example, is it a 2-foot-wide strip along a driveway, or a 4-foot-square bed in a patio? Measure it. In small spaces, certain plants might overgrow their boundaries too quickly. And measurements will allow the nurseryman to tell you how much seed or how many plants you need for the space.

Exposure. Is it in a windy spot? On a south-facing slope? Against a white wall that gets lots of reflected heat and light? How much sun (or shade) does it get? Watch the site for a day or two; write down what time the sun comes into the area, and what time it leaves.

Soil. What is it like? Sandy? Heavy clay? Gravelly? Does it drain well?

Purpose. What do you want the plant or plants to do? Enhance or accent a view? Screen out an undesirable view or provide privacy? Add color to a shady spot? Scramble up a fence along a driveway? Maintenance. How much time are you willing to spend tending the plant or plants, or cleaning up around them? If it's low maintenance you want, ask your nurseryman about the plant's habits before you buy. Many trees, for example, are notorious droppers of leaves, fruits, or sticky pods and require constant raking underneath. Others might need regular pruning to look their best. Certain ground covers might catch blowing papers and other debris too easily, especially if your garden edges a busy street.

What is that plant with the . . .?

You saw a tree or shrub in a neighbor's yard that you'd like to plant in yours. But you get to the nursery and can't describe it. Try to bring a leaf and flower sample, or a snapshot of the plant. Find out its common name beforehand, if possible. A botanical name is better yet, since very different plants can share a common name. Most nurseries can special-order plants not in


Can you help redesign my flower beds? For extensive landscape consultations, ask if your nursery has a design division or consulting service (many do). Some consultants will visit your garden for an hour and suggest planting ideas-and some nurseries will even credit the cost of the visit ($35 to $50) toward the purchase of plants within a specified time period.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Nov 1, 1988
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