ANAHEIM — While working in a nursery, Phyllis Bernstein saw firsthand the problems and frustrations of gardeners who visited the store.
"It's very common for someone to walk into a nursery, buy hundreds of dollars' worth of plants and never pick up a book on basic gardening," she said. "Then a few months later, they're back."
As a "passionate gardener" and horticulturist, Bernstein tried to help customers choose the best plants for their yards but was often stymied by their lack of knowledge. For instance, some plants require certain exposures to the sun, yet most people don't know which direction their homes face. They were also not aware of soil conditions, which plants grow well together, and basic care needs of various flowers and trees.
"After folks have tried repeatedly to grow and garden . . . and failed, they just give up," Bernstein explained. "That's a shame, because a lovely garden can really give your spirits a boost. It's the first thing you see when you arrive at your home, and it is often the first impression your neighbors have of you."
After witnessing these problems, Bernstein started her own home-based business, Blooming Success, in Anaheim about a year ago. Essentially, she serves as a horticulture consultant, advising would-be gardeners of the best plants for their homes. She first meets with clients at their homes and has them fill out a questionnaire to better understand their lifestyles.
Questions include: Who does the gardening? How many hours a week do you work? Do you have small children? Are you allergic to bees or any scents? What are your favorite colors?
Clients are also asked to provide a "wish list" of their favorite plants and trees. While clients are answering these questions, Bernstein surveys the area to check for soil conditions, irrigation, sun exposure and other variables that could influence a plant's potential for growth.
"With these two documents, I can determine how much time these people wish to devote to a garden, if there are any plants to be avoided because of allergies or because they attract bees or insects, and if there are any color preferences," Bernstein said. "Also, if small children are present, their parents may want plants that have no thorns and are not poisonous."
Most people try several times to establish gardens by "hit or miss" techniques, and they are frequently impulse buyers, according to Bernstein.
"It's no coincidence that flowering plants are placed in the front of most nurseries," she said. "People are attracted to the color and scent, giving little thought to how well it will grow in their own yards. Then once the flowers are planted, they die . . . then it's back to starting all over again."
Yet you can't put the blame on the nurseries.
"They do try to help," Bernstein added. "After all, if customers are buying $300 trees, you want them to be happy. However, once the tree is planted, then neglected or not cared for properly, people have a tendency to blame the nursery. With a little advance planning, they could have determined a better location or a different tree."
Whenever possible, Bernstein recommends saving existing gardens, rather than ripping up an entire lawn or yard. Often, pruning or "opening up" a bush or tree can bring about dramatic results. Or if there is a favorite tree or flowers, she suggests that subsequent flowers that are added have compatible care needs. The key is to find plants that clients enjoy while ensuring that care-giving tasks are in harmony with their lifestyles.
"If you're working 60 hours a week, you may not have much time to putter around in your yard," Bernstein admitted. "Yet you can often find low-maintenance plants that are very attractive. People often look at a lovely yard and think they can't get the same result. They get depressed and just give up. Unfortunately, many gardening books don't address some of the problems that Orange County residents face: small yards, block-wall fences, lots of concrete. But sometimes, just moving a plant can help. Or adding some ferns in a corner can create a tranquil setting.
"For many, money is the bottom line. I think planning a garden is like planning a wedding. Initial plans may call for 500 guests and a sit-down dinner. Yet when the big day finally arrives, it's 100 guests and cake and punch. You need to be practical."
Just as interior designers utilize certain design principles, so should gardeners.
In Bernstein's case, much of her small back yard consists of a concrete patio. So in addition to some flower beds, there are planters filled with blooming plants, dwarf fruit trees in pots and a Victorian-style rose arbor that she is building alongside her yard. Block walls are hidden by vines, trellises and bushes. A liquidambar tree had to be removed because its roots were cracking the pavement. In its place, there now stands an old-fashioned birdhouse atop a pole.