It takes hard work and scientific planning to coax tiny bluebells and violets out of the ground and into a lovely, untamed tangle of blossoms and greenery, but one Northern Virginia couple seems to have found the secret.

Retired Rear Admiral Donald Baer and his wife Phoebe, of McLean maintain an impressive wildflower garden in their backyard of about 3,200 square feet, with 83 different wildflower plants mixed in among cultivated azaleas, plaques labeling each variety, a winding pebble footpath, trees and a bench.

The Baers' garden was one of four recognized as exemplary by the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Wildflower Preservation Society, which took a tour group of 40 to see it recently.

The chapter admired the Baer garden "for its use of wildflowers within a cultivated setting," according to Potowmack president and retired landscaper Edward B. Ballard of Annandale.

The Baers like their garden for another reason. They like wildflowers.

"I think of wildflowers as shy plants. Suddenly the leaves come, then the flowers. The next day they're gone. That's part of the fun; the changes are so mysterious," said Phoebe Baer.

Admiral Baer enjoys gardening in the shade, and since certain wildflowers fare best in a woodsy atmosphere, they seemed a natural choice. Also, "wildflowers aren't limited in color. You get more variety with them than with cultivated plants," he said.

The admiral is an environmentalist who refuses to buy wildflowers displaced from their natural habitat. "I believe in preserving these plants in the wild," he said. He buys from a select few nurseries, mostly in New Jersey, that he knows cultivate their own wildflowers.

He will uproot wildflowers from their original habitats only if the sites are slated for development. To this day his garden hosts the descendants of wildflowers rescued from properties that became Rte. 66 and the Dulles Access Road. "I collect them wildflowers before the bulldozer," joked Baer.

The garden features seven types of violets, from the Canadian white to a special purple-speckled variety and two different kinds of yellow lady's slippers. Four kinds of trilliums, which bloom with tri-cornered flowers, as well as blue-eyed grass, which looks deceptively like regular grass but sprouts a blue flower on the tip of each stalk when it blooms, also make their home in the Baer garden.

The collection includes lesser-known and exotic varieties, such as the exquisitely rare white bluebells that Admiral Baer discovered by chance, and a Japanese wildflower called the toad lily.

Some of the wildflowers' names, such as jack-in-the-pulpit and Turk's-cap lily, evoke physical pictures that, with a little imagination, resemble the plants.

Baer and his wife bought their McLean home in 1954, when the area was so undeveloped they had only one set of neighbors. Two years later, the Baers began to develop an interest in gardening.

Baer landscaped his wildflower garden, a greenhouse, herb garden and Japanese shade house.

While the gardens are commonly considered low-maintenance because they don't require replanting every year, it's the Baers hard work in the garden that ensures the plants will re-emerge every spring.

Baer said he and his wife sometimes each spend as much as seven hours a day for a one- or two-week period in early spring, clearing the leaves, weeding and testing the soil's acidity.

Through the fall, they weed, monitor the soil and transplant new wildflowers, taking caution to group those requiring the same amounts of soil acidity together.