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

March 05, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | 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.

"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."

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.

"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."

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