Nature, Negligence & Negotiations

August 2013

To be considered a good gardener you have to have killed some plants along the way. I have killed lots of them” Dr. Michael Dirr. Dr. Dirr spoke these words at a lecture earlier this year in Princeton, NJ. Dr. Michael Dirr has earned the admiration and respect of almost every gardener around the globe, has obtained numerous horticultural accolades, and has his Ph. D in Plant Physiology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Assistant Professor of Ornamental Horticulture at the University of Illinois, Urbana, a Mercer Fellow at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and one time professor at the University of Georgia, his current company, Plant Introductions Inc. has introduced dozens of new cultivars into the nursery trade. He has published over 300 publications and authored many books. So, this had me thinking… if this guy has killed plants what does that say about gardening?

Gardening is a hobby, a lifestyle, a passion and a profession for some. Much the same way golf is. There are those who find the sport frustrating, pursuing their perfect game, trying to sink that little white ball. Well my friends, there are many who find gardening just as frustrating. The ambiguity on nursery tags, at your local garden center, often says sun to part shade and well-drained soil. But what does that really mean? Every plant really is case specific. Too much sun for one and not enough for another really is trial and error. The same can be said for the water requirements of a plant. Some prefer more and some prefer less. How do you know? The answer… it’s simply gardening! There is no exact science to this. You can be sold a near perfect plant, free of disease, free of insects, in peak performance and it could fail. Not because of where you bought it or what you did necessarily, but simply because you have to learn the right equation for your specific property. I know there are many who want this answer to be easier, but it’s not. It takes time, patience and much energy to create a thoughtful garden. “Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are (Alfred Autin).”

Often I use the following examples about guarantees: Do doctors guarantee the health of your newborn baby? Does eating right and leading a healthy lifestyle ensure that you will be free of disease? In the past I have been quoted as saying, in, guarantees vary from garden center to garden center. Some provide no warranty other than the plant is true to name and others go so far as to guarantee it for a year or more. Our own experience is that if you educate the customer both in the vernacular as well as a physical demonstration you can eliminate most problems. Couple that with teaching good watering habits and the return of plant material is infinitesimal. Planting properly means asking questions and learning from other’s mistakes. Look for the root flare, not planting too deep or too high, avoid those nasty mulch volcanoes, monitor the soil’s moisture… in short, pay attention to your plants! Think of a sponge in a sink. If you keep the sponge wet all the time you will get mildew. Conversely, should you go away for the week, on vacation, you could snap the sponge in half as it will have dried out. Wring the sponge out and you will have something cool and moist. Your soil, surrounding your plants should feel cool and moist too. The only way to know this is to put your hand in the soil and feel for yourself. Sodden, thick, heavy soils and chalky dry soils should both be avoided.

Finally, negotiations! Many garden centers have sales this time of year. Hugely discounted plant material could be a good deal, however here are a few things to avoid. Chlorotic plant material, torn root balls, plants sitting in mucky soil, plants that are root bound and those showing severe cosmetic and or physical damage should be avoided. Just as you would not consider a painting that is torn, a bottle of wine whose cork was damaged or fish that smelled funny, so too should you avoid the obvious signs of damaged or stressed plant material. There is no substitute for doing something right the first time. “Remember that children, marriages and flower gardens reflect the kind of care they get” H. Jackson Brown Jr. Start with a good product, learn as much as you can about it, cultivate it and your expectations should be met. After all, at the end of the day… it’s gardening and it’s not perfect!