A new start prompts a look back at gardening trends

I'll be wrapping up 30 years and two months of broadcasting from KRLD/1080 AM this weekend. Starting next week, I'll be moving to WBAP/820 AM and 96.7 FM. I'm not at all sure how this Sunday's final hour will evolve as I near 11 a.m., but I'm looking forward to a new beginning once my time at KRLD has been served.

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about how my industry has changed during those 30 years. The shifts have been gradual, but when you look at only the start and end dates, the horticultural industry has really taken on a new look. Let's look at a few snapshots of then and now.

Where we buy plants

In 1980, most of the plants that we bought were from independent retail garden centers. A major Texas-based chain (Wolfe Nurseries) was the big player. But, over the course of those 30 years, it left the scene. A Fort Worth-based group opened Calloway's in the 1980s, and other nurseries opened second and third locations.

The really big shift in where we bought plants, however, came when the national home centers and discount giants moved in. Their names would change, but it was soon obvious that this type of mass-market retailer would be here to stay. Their impact on North Texas plant sales has obviously been huge. The independent retailers scrambled to find their identity, and many discovered that there was an important niche of customers who sought variety, utmost quality and service, even if the plants and products cost a bit more.

The plants that we buy

In 1980, waxleaf ligustrums were our bestselling shrubs. Miles of waxleaf hedgerows lined the front of houses and the base of fences all across Texas. Then, the Great Winter of 1983-84, which included 192 hours of below-freezing temperatures, killed the ligustrums. Few people ever went back to them.

Redtip photinias and nana nandinas also figured heavily into those '80s landscape designs. Entomosporium fungal leaf spot soon began taking a toll on our redtips, enough so that wise landscapers aren't using them any longer. Indian hawthorns have now started showing serious problems with the very same disease. As for the nanas, they proved they weren't happy with our soils and sun, and many of us decided against planting more. Wax myrtles are going through that same love/hate relationship now, and odds are that we'll not be using them much longer. Bald cypress trees may follow the same path, as people realize how unhappy they become with shallow, alkaline soils and dry summer conditions.

As we've moved away from a few old plants that proved to be disappointing, we've also made some wonderful new friends. EarthKind roses, and antique roses in general, have become mainstay plants. Chief among those: the original red Knockout roses. They've become the bestselling roses of all time.

During those 30 years, the epic work done by Don Egolf of the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., has paid off like a slot machine. We've been blessed with 30 spectacular named varieties of mildew-resistant crape myrtles. To help you know what to look for, each bears the name of a different American Indian tribe. Equally importantly, Egolf's work also has resulted in nurseries selling crape myrtles by variety names, and not just by colors.

In 1980, few patented trees and shrubs were being sold in retail nurseries; now they're more the norm than the exception. Where you once had two or three types of abelias or nandinas, you suddenly find a dozen or more, each with its own special hang tag. That trend has given us much greater choice in the look of our landscapes.

Bedding plants were sold in packs and flats. Now they're sold in 4-inch and larger containers. You got perennials either from one or two specialty retailers, from mail-order sources or by mooching from friends. Now, every nursery showcases perennials of every type and size.

Products have changed

We had several products then that we don't have now. Vapam soil fumigant. Kelthane for spider mites. Diazinon and Dursban insecticides. We had borer-preventive products that worked (we really don't have any now), and MSMA was there for control of grassy weeds in Bermuda turf. MSMA is going away, though. No more can be made, and all supplies must be exhausted by the end of this year. But, with those changes, we've also seen research toward pest controls that are more environmentally sound, so once again, change is good.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens Magazine and hosts Texas Gardening on WBAP AM/FM Saturdays noon until 1 and Sundays 9-noon. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.