AVANT GARDENS: Winter Takes on Spring

Norman Winter's idea of a perfect day is my idea of a nightmare. The 51-year-old garden guru enjoys planting, pruning and weeding, and he has a golden tan and wardrobe of his trademark Hawaiian shirts to prove it. I, on the other hand, have nothing to do with plants (particularly ones that are still in the ground), and I have the pasty, pale complexion to prove it. So, at the very least, I knew that getting to know one of the South's most knowledgeable horticulturists was going to be interesting … for both of us.

Before we began, I felt as though I had to get my foliage-phobia out in the open. I admitted to Winter that the recent purchase of my first home was largely based on the property's lack of a yard.

Winter, who has spent a lifetime cultivating his own "passion for plants," had difficulty relating to my anti-yard sentiments, but suggested that I start out with a manageable project like container gardening; perhaps that would ignite a fondness for foliage.

"There is hope for everyone," Winter said. "As I tell everyone, the key to the green thumb is getting it brown first with soil preparation—because without proper soil, that marigold doesn't have a prayer."

He knows.

Winter, one of the most sought-after gardening lecturers in the South, reaches more than 2 million homes regularly via radio, television, magazines, and a syndicated column that appears in daily and weekly newspapers throughout the region. He is the author of "Paradise Found: Growing Tropicals in Your Own Back Yard" (Taylor Publishing, 2001) and "Mississippi Gardener's Guide" (Cool Springs Press, 2001). His most recent book, "Tough-As-Nails Flowers for the South" (University of Mississippi Press, 2003), takes on a Southern gardener's greatest enemies: heat, drought and tight, heavy soil. He offers practical advice and showcases specific plants that are good buys and stellar performers in his reference-style manual intended to "take the guesswork out of choosing flowers."

Among the unbeatable southern stalwarts, Winter recommends four o'clock, Bouncing Bet and summer poinsettia. New award-winners he touts are scaevola, angelonia and Jewel of Thailand Ginger.

And which is the absolute toughest?

"That sounds like a loaded question for someone accused of having never met a plant he did not like," Winter said. "One that quickly comes to mind is Bouquet Purple dianthus. This dianthus hybrid was chosen as a Mississippi Medallion winner and the Minnesota Select Perennial Plant of the Year. This speaks volumes when a plant can perform well in two climate extremes."

Included, too, are 200 full-color photographs intended to assist with identification and choice, suggestions for companion plantings, a guide to U.S. planting zones and a color wheel that will help lead aspiring garden gurus to glory.

"Gardening is both therapeutic and spiritual," Winter said. "Nothing changes the spirit like working the soil, planting something and seeing it mature."

However, his continued celebrity and success keep him busy, sometimes a little too busy, he admitted. "My wife says I don't spend near enough time working in our own yard," Winter said. "It is kind of like the shoe cobblers' children who have no shoes."

Norman Winter's radio show "Southern Gardening" can be heard Monday through Friday at 7:19 a.m, on PRM. He will be signing his new book Sunday, March 30, at Borders in Flowood.


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