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Program narrows choices for do-it-yourself landscapers

| Monday, June 4, 2001

Mow the grass. Plant some flowers. Then what•

When it comes to landscaping, many homeowners are stumped. They want their yards to look good year-round, but don't have time to fuss with spraying and pruning. Nurseries offer an array of trees and shrubs, but making a choice can be daunting.

Beginning this month, home landscapers simply can look for the label.

Landscape Choice, a joint effort of Penn State Cooperative Extension and the local nursery industry, identifies shrubs and small trees ideally suited for yards in western Pennsylvania.

'People don't want something out there with insect problems, something they have to be pruning every two years because it's growing out of bounds,' said Michael Masiuk, commercial horticulture agent for the cooperative extension's Allegheny County office.

'Our mission is education,' he said. 'We want to help people be successful at landscaping by giving them plants that will do well.'

Plants chosen to wear the Landscape Choice label are hardy throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. They require little maintenance and seldom are troubled by insects or disease. In addition, they offer 'multi-seasonal interest' - spring or summer blooms, perhaps, plus bright berries or colored foliage in fall.

Right at home
Landscape Choice plants, selected by local landscape and nursery professionals and the Penn State Cooperative Extension, perform well in southwestern Pennsylvania. The 2001 selections are:

  • Virginia sweetspire ( Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet') - A 3- to 4-foot shrub with faintly scented, tail-like white flowers, 3-6 inches long, in late spring. Leaves turn deep reddish-purple in fall.

  • Doublefile viburnum ( Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Mariesii') - An 8- to 10-foot shrub with horizontal branches, covered in flat white flowers in spring. Bright red berries and reddish-purple foliage in fall.

  • Bird's nest spruce ( Picea abies 'Nidiformis') - A 2- to 3-foot needle evergreen with horizontal branches. Flat-topped shape, often with a depression in the center, gives this plant its common name.

  • Sweetbay magnolia ( Magnolia virginiana ) - A small tree with creamy white, lemon-scented flowers in late spring. Leaves turn yellow-brown in fall. Somewhat hardier than other magnolias, it is less like to lose its flowers to a late-season frost.

    Source: Michael A. Dirr, 'Interactive Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.'
  • Joyce Wilkinson-Rettura, garden center manager at J.W. Wilkinsons' Nurseries Inc. in Armbrust, said many customers come looking for plants that require minimal care.

    'Low-maintenance is the No. 1 criteria. It's at the top of the list, even before hardiness.

    'But sometimes the (plant) choices are overwhelming,' she added. 'This program can help to educate consumers before they get to the garden center. It gives them a starting point, something to look for.'

    Homeowners sometimes pick up landscaping tips from magazines or TV shows without realizing they are geared to milder climates, Wilkinson-Rettura said.

    'I'm tickled to see something like this happening at the local level,' she said. 'This is really pertinent to our area, to Westmoreland, Fayette and Allegheny counties. It says to homeowners: This is true where you live.'

    Shoppers should be able to find these plants easily, Masiuk said.

    'One of the criteria was that they had to be readily available,' he explained. 'Supply and demand is the biggest obstacle to overcome in a program like this. But these are plants that many garden centers carry.'

    The Landscape Choice program evolved over a period of nearly two years -

    and it's still growing, Masiuk said. After an initial mailing to more than 300 members of the region's 'green industry,' suitable plants were suggested by a steering committee of experienced nursery owners, horticulturists, garden writers and others.

    More than two dozen nursery and garden center operators weighed in to determine the program's initial selections - two flowering shrubs, a compact evergreen and a flowering tree.

    The choices aren't new to the marketplace. 'We wanted to educate people about plants already in the system,' Masiuk stressed. 'These are good plants, already in production, that are underutilized in home gardens.'

    The project has two facets, he explained. In mid-June, participating nurseries and garden centers may request pot-tags designed and prepared by Penn State. The red Landscape Choice logo appears on the front; the back lists the 2001 selections. About 50 nurseries are expected to tag plants for sale with the Landscape Choice labels, Masiuk said.

    In addition, he expects Landscape Choice plants to be grown in public places so passers-by can see how they perform. Labels matching the nursery tags will help home gardeners to recognize the plants.

    Possible sites include Kennywood and Idlewild amusement parks, and the Penn State display gardens at Donohoe Center near Greensburg.

    Masiuk expects to add new plants to the Landscape Choice list each year. Eventually, he'd like to highlight the selections on an illustrated Web site, complete with cultural information and growing tips.

    But first, he'd like to teach gardeners to look for the label - and try something new in their yards.

    'It's a bit like what Martha Stewart does,' Masiuk said. 'People want style but they don't know how to get it. So she tells them what to do, step by step.

    'We want to educate the general public on what shrubs do really well in this area. We want to make it easy for them to create attractive landscapes they can live with.'

    Christine Kindl, the Tribune-Review's garden columnist, attended steering committee meetings for the Landscape Choice program.

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