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Five Sacred Rules for Buying Plants
updated: Feb 04, 2012, 9:30 AM

By Billy Goodnick

NOTE: I’ve got a very busy out-of-town speaking schedule in February. I told Ed I might have to scrape the mold off an old blog post and resuscitate it for this week. Instead of rerunning an early Edhat piece, I set the Wayback Machine a few years earlier.

I wrote my first blog post 4 years, 8 months, 20 days, so that makes today an important anniversary. Here’s how my writing career germinated at my then-freshly sprouted Garden Wise Guy blog on May 15, 2007…

Title: Saturday Morning Syndrome - Picking Plants
Content: “I'm sure I'll write something here, but my favorite TV show is about to start. Kinda leaves ya wondering, eh?”
(End of post)

You’re thinking, “Bold! Paradigm shifting! This boy’s destined for a Pulitzer!” Two days later, I hit my stride, offering meaningful insights and practical design tips.

Title Five Sacred Rules for Buying Plants
Content (with new pictures and captions)

My hope with this blog entry is to help you make good plant selection choices that go beyond whether the plant has cool flowers or not. Read on and you'll be a better gardener and accomplish the basic tenets of sustainable planting. The benefits include not only a better LOOKING garden, but also reduced maintenance, resource conservation (water, fertilizer, fossil fuels and the like) and all-around healthier plants.

Being a landscape design teacher in the loverly paradise of Santa Barbara, I have cause to reach a lot of homeowners whose idea of plant selection falls under the methodology dubbed Saturday Morning Syndrome. You've done it, I've done it, kids who climb on rocks have done it (I think that's from the Oscar Meyer hot dog commercial). Here's how it goes...

Sat. AM, crisp sunny day, fuel up at your favorite caffeine house, maybe a bagel with a schmeer (my Brooklyn roots) and cruise over to the nursery. Like any good retail organization, guess what you encounter at the gates? Yup, whatever is looking great this week. Luscious blooms beckon "take me home; I'll make you sooooo happy." Underlying theme includes "all your friends will say nice things about you" and all those other primal stimuli that make us garden.

Who can resist?

"Hmmm. Cool plant," you think, "but I told myself I'd wait until I had that master plan done before I buy another cell of chlorophyl." With resolve, you try to pass but the plant won't give up. Some hidden tentacle of this needy bush reaches out, finds that spot under your ribs and starts tickling. Now your left leg is spasming uncontrollably, kind of like that slightly sadistic thing you do to your dog when he's on his back, feet flailing. The pleasure center of your brain takes over, you pick up the new addition to your family and walk to the check-out clerk. Ching! New plant!

Pulling into the driveway, the excitement mounts as you drain the last of your coffee, unload the 1 gallon-size whatever (don't want to impose my taste on this tale) and head into the yard. Now comes the design process, following in the footsteps of legendary designers throughout time. You hold the plant out in front of you, like Martin Scorsese assessing the next camera position, pan from left to right while thinking "WHERE SHOULD I PUT THIS?"

So let's stop the playback here and rewind to what should have happened back at the nursery. Yes, there was a mystical spell overtaking you and you might not have had your wits about you, so we'll give you a break. Consider these to be the 5 sacred steps to smart plant purchasing. The concept is RIGHT PLANT / RIGHT PLACE and it's the basis for creating a sustainable garden.

These are your Miranda rights.

1) Know thy plant! Did you read the label that was stuck in the soil? Are you already familiar with this plant? Did you ask a KNOWLEDGABLE employee? Did you check a reference book at the nursery. Being familiar with the genus isn't enough. Check the genus (first name, like Acer, or Juniperus, or Hemerocallis - that's just the big category) but also the species and perhaps the cultivar or variety of the plant. A rose might be a rose, might be a rose, but not all maples or junipers or daylilies are created equal. Plants of the same genus and even species can vary greatly in their mature size, cultural needs (sun, water, soil, etc.). You want to be sure that the plant you're taking home won't just grow there, but will thrive! Do some research.

It's like trying to fit a Great Dane in your Austin Mini

2) Visualize. Before you put that plant in your car, do a mental tour of your planting areas. Using the information you now have about the plant, picture a location where you can plant your new baby and have it grow to maturity without running into its existing neighbors. Why?

This is a whole other posting, but let me summarize: We plant because we like Nature and nobody goes out into Nature with hedge trimmers and loppers and shape Nature into balls, cubes and discs perched on brown, woody legs. That's not a garden; it's plant torture and you might save yourself some time and money by instead carving interesting shapes from styrofoam, painting them green, attaching silk flowers here and there, and scattering them hither and thither about the beds. We're trying to create a bit of natural beauty, and Momma Nature has already figured out how to program her kids to look best (Hint: It doesn't include shaping them into submission). So, when you put the new plant in, give it room to grow without having to be shaped.

Beautiful and useful

3) What can that plant do for you? This is called the plant's function. Yes, we're buying it because it's drop-dead-gorgeous. However, what if the plant can also help make the yard more comfortable (provide shade), screen a view we don't like (your neighbor's car repair hobby), block uncomfortable winds, or just be the punctuation mark in a highly visible bed (focal point). Doesn't it make sense to think on a few levels? Yup.

Even without flowers, this combo has impact.

4) Are you thinking year 'round? It was the flowers that grabbed your attention, but that won't last all year. The plant's "architecture" (general form, outline, density, etc.) is more permanent that the flowers. So think about how this beauty's other characteristics will contribute to the garden scheme for the rest of the year. Create contrast with foliage colors and shapes; pair a low-growing dense plant with a wispy vertical bamboo! You get the idea.

These plants all like the same amount of water.

5) Hydrozones ("Huh? He's making this up.") Yes, a fabricated word we use in the green industry, but it's a good one. Basically, it means grouping plants with similar watering needs together for the convenience of watering. In other words, you can water them all on the same irrigation valve, or set up a hose-end sprinkler or soaker hose, let it run for the prescribed time, and ALL the plants in that "zone" get the same and correct amount of "hydro." Seems logical, eh?

So, if you thought about some or all of these ideas before the swiped your card at the counter and swaddled that container in the back seat, HURRAY FOR YOU! If not, you've got something to think about next time.

I hope to keep this blog moving and might have some announcements to make that could be of interest to you. Like any new blogger, I crave feedback, so be kind, be generous, or challenge what I've put down here. We'll learn together.


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