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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell!
Posted on : February 2, 2015

1. Lent Lily (1)The calendar may not say it’s springtime in the South, but I can assure you it is for at least three reasons. First of all, there are now garden seminars and symposiums every weekend. Secondly, the first daffodils are blooming. And last but not least, the endless abyss of stupid gardening questions hurled my way has begun in earnest.

Let’s not forget that gardening is still most likely the number one hobby in the country. When spring arrives, everybody wants their piece of the action, including those that don’t have a clue.

Yes, I know that I should be more forgiving and more patient with these dim witted questions, but you must understand the sheer quantity I’ve had to endure in my life. After all, my very first job (before master gardeners existed in Texas) was to field every gardening question that came into the Dallas County Agricultural Extension office. That included three different lines wringing non-stop from the time before I arrived until way past when I was gone. Each would start out complaining about how long they had been on hold then go on to ask why their unknown plant was dying and what they could do to save it. Naturally some wanted me to slide under their houses to sack up slithering snakes or shinny up trees to save stranded Siamese. That was the job where I learned to come home and unplug the phone; and later learned not to have one installed at all!

2. Calendar (1)Folks that ask gardening questions generally fall into one of three categories. The first group jots down the answer and immediately implements it. This group is precious and rare. A new member only joins every few years. The second group includes those that listen intently, then ask you to repeat the answer so they can write it down (actually they prefer that you write it for them). If the answer isn’t the one they wanted, they keep asking until I give their desired answer. If I steadfastly refuse, they completely ignore all my answers in favor of one they read in Madame Petunia’s Fortunarama newsletter. This second group has legions of members who actively recruit others. The last group has a limited membership; but each one of them is a deeply devoted member of my fan club. Their modus operandi is to immediately and vigorously dispute each requested answer, followed by quickly choosing some answer telepathically projected to them by aliens from planets without plant life.

Unfortunately I can’t recall any active members of the first group. My friend Julia, however, falls into category number two. She has a nice landscape and seems to enjoy working in it. Sadly, she pesters me incessantly for design or planting suggestions. I’m still waiting for her to actually implement one! Her husband recently asked her why she asked me what to do if she knew ahead of time that she wasn’t going to do it. Yes, Julia; I’m busy! I don’t care what you plant in your landscape or what pattern it’s in. It’s your landscape, it should include whatever plants you want in whatever design style you feel comfortable with. Personally, I think spelling your name across the front yard with golden leafed privet is a wonderful idea!

3. Julia's Bed (1)My friend Cindy is even more problematic, as she knows even less about gardening, and proceeds to argue my suggestions before I even finish them. She’s a very sweet person and really wants to grow container plants in her courtyard. Sadly, she, like many others, doesn’t realize how very different choosing plants is from choosing shoes or bath towels.

Plants are alive with each one needing a certain set of conditions to grow. But many home gardeners choose them based solely on what color they are and how pretty they look when they purchase them. This is a terrible idea, as many plants sold in big box stores are purely temporary and decorative. This is fine if you know this in advance and want to use them like cutflowers, but if one really wants to garden in the South, they have to realize that our plant palette is somewhat limited, and includes very few plants seen in northern magazines or on the Home Shopping Network.

But that’s just the beginning. Some plants prefer sun while others prefer shade. Some do fine in pots while others would rather be in the ground. And those that do tolerate containers may prefer a loose well drained mix or a heavier more moisture retentive one. I wish it was easy but it’s not. It’s always better to ask (and listen to!) somebody that knows. Cindy likes to quote the plant label to me. Having worked with both plants and labels for my entire career I can assure you that there are plenty of labels with misinformation on them or written for entirely different zones. I suggest only believing grumpy old gardeners, lifetime nurserymen, or trained University Cooperative Extension horticulturists. Otherwise you are probably headed for imminent failure which generally leads to disappointment or even worse, no more gardening. Everybody should garden and everybody deserves a bit of success to salve the inevitable outdoor failures that we all endure. After all, death is just as much a part of nature as life. Postponing it should be the goal however.

courtyard replacementMiss Cindy has several problems that she needs to address. First of all, her pots are mostly too small. Small pots have limited root zones; which means plants can quickly dry out between watering or get pot bound if something accidently decides it likes to grow. Pots sizes also need to be in scale with the landscape. Most gardeners choose pots that are much too small for the scale of their gardens. Your landscape needs to choose the pots, not you. Doll furniture will never look appropriate in a house.

In addition, Cindy’s courtyard doesn’t get enough sunlight for sun loving plants to thrive. She’s very tired of me telling her this but still hasn’t quite comprehended why things flop over with few blooms on them. While begonias, coleus, impatiens, and caladiums seem like logical choices, it might be that plastic and silk are her only alternatives. I’ve tried giving her wonderful plants that can’t be purchased but they are never the right size, shape, or color. It’s difficult to explain that she’s not picking out barrettes. The first thing to do is choose plants that will grow! That might limit the color choice to one or even zero.

5. Bark-PerliteShe also doesn’t realize that different plants need different potting mixes. Her struggling arbor vitae would be happiest in a composted black pine bark mix like most nurseries produce them in. Her ghost plants would prefer a well drained succulent mix with something akin to 75% composted bark and 25% perlite. Her delicate flowering annuals on the other hand need professional peat based potting soils like bedding plant growers use. Then the trick is to learn how wet or dry to keep them. Those kept constantly moist are most likely to rot while many that are allowed to become bone dry will wither and die or sport brown tipped foliage for months. Just like cooking, each plant has a recipe.Certainly one wouldn’t ask a doctor what diet is best then wonder why high blood sugar occurs after dining on ice cream three times a day. Or maybe they would.

Luckily Julia and Cindy won’t be reading this blog. Members of their groups are too busy to seek out sound written advice. It takes much less time to pester me on a regular basis! Until next month, remember that there is experienced advice and useless advice. Knowing how to tell the difference will get you growing. -Greg

Written by Greg Grant

Greg Grant is an award-winning horticulturist, conservationist, and writer from Arcadia, Texas. Each month he writes an article for the Arbor Gate Blog where he is given free range to write about any topic that interests him. During the week, he is the Smith County horticulturist in Tyler for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and on the weekends, he and his wife tend Greg’s grandparent’s dogtrot farmhouse, his Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary, a small cottage garden, a little flock of laying hens, four terriers, and two cats.

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