Every gardener, from the professional-for-hire to the weekend variety like me, knows the key to a spectacular summer backyard. No matter how much of the winter you spend poring over seed catalogs and plotting out your garden beds, come spring, you're going to have to get out there and start digging. Digging the holes to plant the plants, digging in the compost to help them grow, digging out the weeds that will inevitably try to take over.
But more and more, the first place gardeners start their digging is on the Internet. Maybe you're just looking for a quick answer to a simple question, such as what to do about aphids on rose bushes (pick them off by hand) or whether the crape myrtle you're eyeing will survive the winter on your New York balcony (probably not). Or perhaps you'd like to round out your growing collection of lavender with a rare white variety--something you're not likely to find at your local garden center, let alone at Wal-Mart Stores or Home Depot. Chances are you'll find a place to buy whatever you're looking for--or be able to trade someone for it--on the Web.
For novices, a good place to start is the National Gardening Assn. (nationalgardening.com). Besides offering general information and sections tailored to each region of the country, the site has a garden search engine, InfoDigger, that lets you comb a database of more than 18,000 frequently asked questions (FAQs), articles, and tips. It also gives free online courses that, because of a redesign, won't be back up until June 1. You may also want to check the short courses on annuals and perennials at www.burpee.com, the Web home of the famous seed company. They come complete with pop quizzes.
I like the volunteer-maintained garden sites at about.com and suite101.com. While their contributors write regular columns on gardening issues, such as spring planting or pest control, they're most valuable for their links to other sites. If links are what you're looking for, also check out backyardgardener.com, startingpage.com, or the garden list in Google's Web directory (directory.google.com.) Another good source of information is ahs.org, home page of the American Horticultural Society. Here, you'll need to take out a $35 membership to get the details.
But if you're like me, you'll soon outgrow the general sites. Most gardeners become smitten with certain types of plants. At specialized sites, you're bound to find someone like you, or better yet, someone more extreme who has turned a hobby into an obsession (or a business) and is happy to share their knowledge. My favorites: orchidlady.com and orchidspecies.com for orchids and cactus-mall.com and www.succulent-plant.com for cactuses.
Enthusiast organizations, such as the American Rose Society (ars.org) are particularly good for technical information, such as soil and growing conditions, common diseases and pests, or how to propagate a plant from seeds or cuttings. State agricultural universities are another good source of technical advice. They have both general and scientific data and a bonus: Much of the information is regionalized to your soil type and climate.
The best ones are Texas A&M University (aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu) and the Horticulture & Crop Sciences department at Ohio State University (hcs.osu.edu.) Both have extensive databases of plant facts, and OSU's will search across some 40 universities. OSU will also help you pinpoint your own state's agricultural resources.
Don't be afraid to use the message boards and discussion groups that are part of most Web sites. There, you can pose your problems to amateur growers of the same species. I've found that by far the best are at GardenWeb (gardenweb.com), which runs more than 100 single-topic message boards and has forums in a half-dozen foreign languages.
It's better to ask specific questions: Don't just say "Help! My Japanese maple is dying." Instead, give all the details you can, such as "the leaves are turning yellow and curling." Or "what tomato varieties do well in central Pennsylvania?" Unlike the standard advice you get from plant facts and FAQs, you'll receive a variety of answers, usually based on real-life experience. Tip: Many forums, including GardenWeb, have seed and plant exchanges that provide an inexpensive way to try out unusual varieties.
It's actually easier to search the Web for facts on specific plants than for general information. That's because each plant has a scientific name. Type "lavender" or "tea rose" into a search engine such as Google or AltaVista and you'll get all manner of extraneous leads, from soap to quilts to country inns. But "lavandula" or "rosa odorata" will take you to nearly everything you want to know--from history and photographs to a nursery offering the plants for sale. You can even narrow your search to, say, growing conditions, by adding a word such as "soil" to the search string. To find the scientific name, check nationalgardening.com's dictionary, which converts common names to their botanical ones.
There will come a day when you're tempted to order plants from online catalogs (table). I've found that it's usually better to root around the dark corners of your local nursery for unusual plants. That way, you can inspect them--and often return them if they don't take hold in your garden. Then again, if you want the newest hybrids or a vast selection within a single family or rare plants that are patented or nearly extinct, you have no choice but to go online. Try to buy rooted plants, not cuttings. Otherwise, you'll have to root them yourself--and lose half of them in the process. In my experience, online nurseries are pretty good about replacing plants that arrive dead, or nearly so, or even species they've mislabeled or misidentified. To check out the grower, read other buyers' experiences at the plants-by-mail FAQ (pbmfaq.dvol.com). And be prepared to coddle your new arrival for a few weeks. Plants suffer from jet lag and culture shock just like people do.
Most nurseries ship by priority mail on Mondays or Tuesdays. That way, plants arrive in plenty of time for the weekend. After all that digging on the Net, you'll be all charged up to go out and get your hands dirty in the garden. By Larry Armstrong