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Originally published Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 7:03 PM

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Packets full of promise

In the Garden: Pansies or petunias? Expert gardeners help choose the winners from seed catalogs.

The New York Times

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Fun article, but I would urge folks to check the growing requirements for some of these... MORE
I never see anyone advocating for Salpiglossis but it is my most favorite annual ever. ... MORE

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Where have all the flowers gone? Seriously, where did they go?

They're not in the garden, it would seem. The number of households growing flowers has dropped for three years straight, according to research from the National Gardening Association.

It would be nice to think that we've torn up all our flower beds to raise black oxheart tomatoes and red warty thing squash. (OK, maybe not so nice.) Apparently, at the same time flower purchases fell, food-garden spending climbed 20 percent. During a recession, we have discovered a surprising interest in feeding ourselves.

And yet, even during hard times, the pompon bloom of a bachelor's button is still as cute as a lapdog's up-do. The brain celosia, with its magenta convolutions, looks as if it should be floating in a lab jar full of formaldehyde. And a sunflower still faces the sun.

Which is another way of saying that, according to the data, there are 11.2 million households that have continued to buy flower seed. These folks know that seed catalogs are the place to find a palette of petal colors never seen on a paint chip. It's where you'll find flowers for every spot in the yard and every week of the summer. And at $3 or so for 100 seeds, all this beauty is literally cheaper than dirt.

The only problem with the variety of flower seed is that there's so much, it's hard to know what to choose. So we asked three experienced gardeners — from the New York, Los Angeles and Birmingham, Ala. — to recommend a few favorites for each region from the multitude of all creation. Flowers to look at and flowers to smell and (why not?) flowers to eat.

One of our stalwarts even nominated a night bloom that can tempt the rarely seen sphinx moth. And what could be more exciting than lepidopterological epicureanism? We are confident that as soon as the public learns about this flower, seed sales will be headed back up.

SUSANNAH STRAZZERA

The Garden: Strazzera, 51, will start 250 different types of seeds this year as a gardener at Wave Hill, a pair of mansions and a public garden on the Hudson River in New York City. (Notable occupants have included Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Arturo Toscanini.) Wave Hill's 28-acre grounds encompass a conservatory, a flower garden, an herb garden, a wild garden, a water garden and "something called a monocot garden," Strazzera said. If you have to ask. ...

New Growth: "I'm going to try a different viola this year called Freckles," Strazzera said. (Its formal name: Viola sororia Freckles.) You could say the delicate, half-inch flowers look like purple dandruff on a clean white collar, or like a floral Rorschach test. Or, fine, like freckles.

Can't Go Wrong: A fugitive from the annual herb garden, borage (Borago officinalis) can go in the dirt as early as mid-February in New York. This flower tops the adorable-o-meter (not a real scientific instrument): the leaves and stems are furry, and the flowers look like tiny blue sea stars that have bowed at the waist. "Dip them in egg white and then superfine sugar," Strazzera said, to make candied flowers.

Rare Beauty: The common name of this less common plant is "throatwort" (Trachelium caeruleum). OK, so it sounds like a social disease. But if you start the seeds in February, Strazzera said, this perennial herb from the Mediterranean will create beautiful lavender umbels all summer long.

Petal Pusher:

Purple bell vine (Rhodochiton atrosanguineum): Start this Mexican perennial vine indoors in February, move the pot next to a trellis in April or May, and then stand back. It "keeps going and going," Strazzera said, forming "beautiful, two-toned tubular bells" in mauve and purple.

Nicotiana Babybella: Strazzera likes to seed these dangling, maroon flowers next to ornamental vegetables like beets with their blood-red leaves. Sort of like a mix-and-match sweater set. Also called flowering tobacco, nicotiana "can be tall and really lanky," she said. This one is more compact — an endomorph, maybe.

Pansy Padparadja: Strazzera already has these cool-season blooms going in the greenhouse. By the Fourth of July, they'll be overheating. Before then, though, these traffic-cone-orange flowers smell "sweet like violets," she said. "Just delicious!"

Deadheads: "I've had bad luck with the silver lupine," Strazzera said. This shrubby perennial (Lupinus albifrons) is a native to the gravelly slopes of coastal California and Oregon. "They've germinated," she said of the seedlings. "But they're just too wet in New York City. They rot when you put them in the ground."

Growing Tips: "My key thing," Strazzera said, is transplanting "at the exact soil level where it was in the pot. If the roots are exposed, it's going to do really poorly. Too deep and you bury the crown, which hurts it also."

Seed Bank: Wave Hill stocks up on seeds at Chiltern Seeds (http://www.chilternseeds.co.uk/); Prairie Moon Nursery (prairiemoon.com); Seedhunt (seedhunt.com); Summer Hill Seeds (summerhillseeds.com); the Territorial Seed Co. (territorialseed.com); and Thompson & Morgan (tmseeds.com).

GENEVIEVE ARNOLD

The Garden: Arnold, 41, grows out and stores the seeds of more than 1,000 different native California plants and wildflowers for the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit retail and educational nursery in Los Angeles. (The group also tends the fantastically useful California Native Plant Wiki, theodorepayne.org/mediawiki.)

New Growth: The region's Chumash Indians used to eat the green shoots and ground-up seeds of fringed redmaids (Calandrinia ciliata), Arnold said. Alternately, you could plant them in a pot with sandy soil, lest the low-slung, 1-inch-diameter magenta flowers get lost in a crowded bed.

Can't Go Wrong: The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Arnold said, "can be sown any time of year," in its home range. And supplemental water will keep it flowering through a baking Los Angeles summer. Spread enough seeds, she added, and you could end up with the classic wildflower panorama, "a California hillside, painted in gold."

Rare Beauty: What is most lovely about a wind poppy (Stylomecon heterophylla)? Is it the blaze-orange flower with the papery petals? Or the 2-foot-tall stems, which "kind of sway in the wind"? Even after the "flower is spent," Arnold said, the show isn't over. "They form a pyxis," she explained, a jewel box that's a "little like a castle turret."

Petal Pusher:

California Indian pink (Silene californica): Arnold has found one subspecies of this annual growing in the Verdugo Mountains outside Burbank, Calif., — practically her backyard. The cardinal-colored flowers look a bit like an asterisk in a gothic font.

Lindley's blazingstar (Mentzelia lindleyi): Blooming profusely in open fields with well-drained soil or along the road, this showy annual wins the gold star in Arnold's book. The 3-inch flower heads have an orangey beard of filaments at the center. "It literally looks like a gold star!" she said.

Farewell to spring (Clarkia amoena): A delicate fingerbowl, painted in Barbie pink, this wildflower could be a great character actor. One day it might appear in the chaparral of a John Ford western; the next year, it could do summer stock in a New England cottage garden. According to Arnold, the cut flower might also win raves in Samuel Beckett's "Play" — that is, trapped in an urn.

Deadheads: "A big stumper for growers of native California plants is the woolly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum)," Arnold said. "We put a label right on the packet saying'very hard to germinate."' When the seed does sprout, it is typically in the wake of a wildfire. And yet the deep purple flowers, with their flamboyant stamens, have the whimsy of a Gaudi cathedral spire. Good luck!

Growing Tips: A hose-blast can be a monsoon for a tiny wildflower seed before it sets roots; a rainstorm feels more like a tsunami. Arnold gently waters her newly sown seeds with a hose's shower attachment or a watering can. "Avoid letting the water pool up or create divots," she said.

Seed Bank: The Theodore Payne Foundation sells seeds and native plants at its headquarters in the San Fernando Valley of Losa Angeles, and seeds at its online store (store.theodorepayne.org). Arnold also shops for rare and unusual California seeds, plants and grasses at Annie's Annuals and Perennials (anniesannuals.com) and S&S Seeds (ssseeds.com).

CHARLIE THIGPEN

The Garden: For almost three decades, Thigpen, 50, designed and maintained the display gardens for Southern Living magazine. Currently, he gardens in the borders and containers outside his store, Charlie Thigpen's Garden Gallery (charliethigpensgardengallery.com), in a converted Dr Pepper plant in downtown Birmingham, Ala.

New Growth: After sinking a few years into vegetable gardening, Thigpen has his eye on a nasturtium cultivar called Empress of India. He appreciates the nasturtium's crimson flowers in early spring or early fall. Better yet, he added, "It tastes like a radish!"

Can't Go Wrong: The classic orange sulfur cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus) develops lacy foliage on a 4-foot-tall stem. But amid heat and drought, these are no blushing roses. Deadhead the first round of blooms, and they'll keep coming. "They actually use them down here for highway plantings," Thigpen said, acres and acres of them. "That will tell you how tough they are."

Rare Beauty: Thigpen appreciates the "pretty, pealike blooms" and "light fragrance" of the Chinese red noodle bean. But he grows this edible plant for the oddball fruit that follows: a "kind of burgundy-red" worm-like pod that grows as long as a woman's arm.

Petal Pusher:

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba): This 15-foot-long vine, with its CD-size white blossom, "should be the bucket-list flower," Thigpen said. "At night, it opens so rapidly you can almost watch it" happen. The moonflower vine he grew last summer, over an arbor outside the store, attracted "a moth you don't see often called a sphinx moth. It looks just like a hummingbird."

Blood sage (Salvia coccinea): "I love plants that reseed in the garden in cracks!" Thigpen said. Like couture from a catalog, the flower clusters of this knee-high Southern native come in different colors: white, shrimp and red.

Spider flower (Cleome hassleriana): The head of this "great, old-fashioned flower" is like a botanical riddle. Here are the white, pink or purple petals, boinging at the end of XXL pedicels. Here are the stamens, drooping like crawdad antennas. Essay question: Does the spider flower look more like Wes Craven's Pinhead or a 4-foot-tall cellphone tower? Discuss.

Deadheads: "When my son was a baby," Thigpen recalled, "we used to stroll him around the neighborhood. One time I grabbed a handful of seeds from the four-o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa). They were the yellow selection — so fragrant — growing next to someone's mailbox. I shouldn't have done that. I've been cursed. I actually planted them in my yard, and they just went crazy." In fact, the flowers followed him years later to a new house, hitchhiking in a planter.

Growing Tips: "My whole thing is maintenance," Thigpen said: staking, deadheading, grooming. "I used to always tell my employees, if there's brown on a plant, it will never turn green again."

Seed Bank: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com); Burpee (burpee.com); the Ferry-Morse Seed Co. (ferry-morse.com); Renee's Garden Seeds (reneesgarden.com); Thompson & Morgan (tmseeds.com).

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