Retail may be in a drought, but for many garden supply stores, it's been a green season in more ways than one.
We're paying a lot more attention to beautifying our own backyards, perhaps because we're traveling less. Americans are spending about 20 percent more than last year on planters, benches and outdoor accessories, according to online sales tracker CSN.
That's what often happens during a recession, apparently. Sharon Acocella, manager of Tony's Nurseries in Larchmont, N.Y., remembers her old boss saying years ago, "Economy's doing badly; we'd better buy heavy." She reports that while there's been a falloff in some categories -- notably statuary and fancier items -- there has been vigorous activity on other fronts.
"Blue and black glazed pots are more popular than ever," she says. "We've re-ordered those, and many of our square and rectangular containers, too."
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Next door at Larchmont Nurseries, Gloria DeMatas and Donna Bianco echo the positive assessment. They've done well with wind chimes, window boxes and pottery. "We've sold lots of cobalt blue pots. They're so eye-catching; they stand out nicely in the garden, and all flowers look beautiful in a blue pot," DeMatas says.
Birdbaths are another brisk seller.
"Right now, people are enjoying staying at home," Bianco says. "Inside and out, they want to surround themselves with things that make them happy."
People investing the last of their discretionary cash in their gardens probably want to enjoy them beyond the summer.
Pam Brooks, president of online retrailer Arizona Pottery, likes the durability of polyresin planters, which resist the stresses of freeze and thaw and are conveniently lightweight.
"They're crack-proof, weather-proof, and will never fade like plastic," Brooks says.
A wide palette of hues, and styles ranging from classical to modern, make these a versatile choice.
For something a little different, Brooks suggests Vietnamese river clay pots, known for weather hardiness.
Terra cotta often is rejected by consumers as delicate, but Brooks says "clay's a natural material that, more than any other, creates a perfect ecological environment." Plant roots maintain an even temperature in clay, which absorbs excess moisture. But the pots can dry out, and do need to be protected in winter.
Try painting the pots inside and out with an insulating liquid resin. And make sure your plantings are well "crocked" by adding a bottom layer of pebbles or broken pottery for drainage. Set saucered containers on pot feet and keep watering whenever the soil feels dry. Move potted perennials to a sheltered spot when the harsher weather arrives.
Firebowls and pits are increasingly popular in colder climes. Tabletop and floor model propane-fed heaters, long popular in the Southwest, have found a wider audience. There are many versions of the firepit, some incorporating a coffee table or at least a ledge to support a smores stick.
For something more unusual, consider the chimenea, or chimneyed outdoor oven; it serves well in the wind, and channels any excess smoke skyward. Online retailer Teak, Wicker and More has some attractive cast-iron designs.
There are other intriguing garden accents sturdy enough to take on the elements. Target's copper rain chain, an Asian garden fixture, channels runoff down its links from the edge of a structure.
Temple bells or laminated wood wind chimes provide soothing tones when the weather turns gloomy.