I’ve been in this gardening game for a long time. And during that time I’ve heard a lot of claims and I’ve seen a lot of crazy things done. Some of them defy common sense, and I thought it might be useful to highlight a few of them.
▪ “This tree will grow 10 feet in one year!” Yes, there are trees that grow that rapidly, and you’ll see them advertised online and in print. The companies hawking them will rarely post botanical names. They won’t even use recognizable common names. On those rare occasions when they do, you’ll realize that they’re talking about willows or cottonwoods — trees you really don’t want in your yard.
Fast growth, remember, is a very poor criterion in the choice of a shade tree. It’s far better to have “adaptability,” “attractiveness,” “pest resistance” and “longevity.” Without any of those, it doesn’t really matter how quickly a tree species will grow.
▪ “Add this and your garden soil will be miraculously improved.” That’s usually not the exact wording, but you get the idea. These are questionable products that greatly overstate their value in soil improvement. Texas has almost no regulations on claims that are made in this area. You can sell just about anything and say that it will improve the soil as long as you don’t claim that it will improve fertility or kill insects or diseases. Those claims do require proof. Quack soil additives: no validation required.
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▪ “I just want to use natural products.” I do understand the concern completely. No one wants to introduce toxins into the environment. But as a practical, middle-of-the-road horticulturist, I do want to point out that just because a product is natural doesn’t ensure that it’s not toxic. After all, if you’re using it to kill an insect or weed, there must be some toxic property involved. And just because a product is manmade and inorganic, that doesn’t condemn it as being harmful and dangerous.
There is a stringent testing process by which all products are examined multiple times. I’m comfortable in recommending them when I know that they’re going to be used according to label directions. For the record, many of our household products deserve our attention as well. Things you have in the bathroom and kitchen can be more dangerous than what you find on the garden shelves out in the garage.
▪ “Native plants are better adapted to local conditions.” That sounds harmless enough, but you need to define the word “native.” My dad was a Ph.D. botanist teaching range management at Texas A&M, and I learned as a very young gardener that “native” meant that the plant would be found growing naturally where you were standing. You could move a plant 50 miles from one type of soil to another and it might not survive. That’s why dogwoods and loblolly pines from East Texas don’t survive in our alkaline black clays here in the Metroplex.
He taught me early on always to choose plants that were adapted to local soils and climatic conditions.
▪ “Shrubs around a house’s foundation will likely cause problems.” We’re back into a drying trend, and there are those among us who are afraid to have plants near their homes’ foundations. The fact is, however, that properly planted and managed landscapes don’t need to threaten slabs, drives and patios. Soaker hoses around a house’s perimeter can keep the soil properly hydrated, and root barriers, when needed, can stop roots from growing where they’re not wanted. Landscape contractors and arborists can give you the benefit of their years of experience if you have them survey your situation.
▪ “Crape myrtles bloom better when they are topped.” Anyone who knows me knows that that’s one of the fastest ways to put me on edge. I’m a native Texan, so I take license in chastising my fellow Lone Starians who practice this butchery. There is no logical reason ever, under any circumstance, to top a crape myrtle.
It ruins their natural growth form forever, and the flower heads that result from this barbaric whacking are over-sized and top-heavy. Plus, topped plants usually don’t bloom until August, which means they only bloom once. Plants that haven’t been mutilated usually bloom two to four times each season. If you have a crape myrtle that’s too tall for its surroundings, either move or remove it. Don’t top it.
▪ “Ornamental grasses are beautiful in winter.” Finally I come to a statement about which I’m willing to negotiate. There are very good gardeners (and birders) who like to leave the dried foliage and seedheads of their ornamental grasses in place through the winter. To my eye they look dead and drab, but that’s just a personal opinion, and I do realize that small songbirds do feed on the seeds. Many fine gardeners like the sound of the rustling leaves in the winter winds. So on this one, I’m more than willing to let you decide.
I’m just not a big fan of the widespread use of ornamental grasses in place of shrubs in our gardens. I’d rather have the steady good looks of evergreen shrubs 12 months a year. But again, that’s just one guy’s opinion.