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Grappling With Growing Pains : Good Advice and Attention to Detail Will Help Solve Mystery of Gardening


The symptoms were plain as day but carried no meaning.

A lone Mexican tulip poppy plant, properly stuck into the ground and watered, did three things: looked good for two days, then wilted and yellowed along the tips of its beautiful silver-green foliage another two days, then bent over and died.

The plant was returned to Green Thumb International nursery in Ventura and replaced free of charge. But the second plant did the same thing.

The plant's owner, my neighbor, had sought my counsel on the subject because I had successfully planted a row of the very same Mexican tulip poppies. As a result, I was intimately involved--right down to mixing the fertilizer--in the death of his replacement plant.

While I have no particular horticultural prowess, the conditions in my neighbor's yard had looked fine to me: sunny spot, decent soil and what appeared to be great successes with surrounding plants.

So we took this, and other garden mysteries, to one of the cheerful green-coated guys at Green Thumb. Actually, we sought out Eric Finkbeiner, the one attendant who had passionately and successfully coached me through previous mini-traumas in my own yard.

Finkbeiner, hands on hips and eyebrows cocked, listened closely. Politely, he cross-examined my neighbor. He wanted to know about the texture of the soil, frequency of watering, fertilizing--he even asked about something called pH. Then he started speaking in some alien tongue, a garden language so specific and terrifying that I have come to call mulchera :

"Your soil sounds hydrophobic," he said. "The clay particles are so fine and tightly packed as to be impenetrable to water. The water just beads up and bounces off it. If you're hydrophobic, you're watering the top of the ground, and it just runs off somewhere. If you're not, then the water's just sitting in the clay hole, without draining, and rotting the roots."

He paused for a moment, as if to let this sink in, then added:

"You do that, you croak it."

Well. While croak is no verb, its fresh use lent an especially clear meaning: Owing to some factor that I or my neighbor had not accounted for, we--not the righteous little plant--were responsible for those incidents of poppycide.


Welcome to the yard. Indeed, welcome to that saddle of time between winter rain and spring heat that inspires all of us to get the lawn and flower beds in shape.

Nurseries throughout Ventura County in recent weeks have been in mad-paced transition. Winter means bare-root planting--notably roses and fruit trees--while warmer days mean potted flowers, shrubs and, depending upon the variety, vegetable plantings. The nurseries have been stocking up on brightly colored spring plants but stuck with brooding backlogs of bare-root stock.

The transition was stymied by weather. January's pounding rains thwarted all but the most prepared home gardeners from carrying out their bare-root dreams. Those who didn't plan well ahead and prepare planting sites--that is, in early December, and purchase fresh stock at the turn of the new year--were left drumming fingers and looking out the window.

That would be fine were it not for the fact that nature--even in the form of dormant roses or Asian plum trees--starts responding to the warm, if rainy, days by growing right in the bag at the nursery. That's a bad development: The plant "thinks" it's spring and starts to flower from the cane but has not developed a root system to support growth.

Ironically, the very reason for bare-root planting is to give the unflowering, dormant plant a chance to develop roots that, come spring, amply support above-ground growth triggered by warm days. By mid-February, however, this presented Ventura County nurseries and customers alike a Catch-22: reserves of unsold bare-root plants at escalating risk from planting too late.

The few nurseries to avoid this predicament were those avoiding bare-root altogether.

"That winter market of bare-root plants has just gotten too competitive, as everybody's doing it," said Kyle Puerner of Green Meadow Nursery in Camarillo. "So we don't even sell bare-root stock. Instead, we plant it here in containers in a special mix, allowing the root systems to develop, and then sell fresh rose plants in containers for planting right through till early summer."

The difference is that Green Meadow's roses are 50% more expensive, on average--about $15 for a No. 1 grade rose instead of an average $10 bare-root price tag--but carry a far better survival rate this late in the game.

Of course, this does little to placate purists who want their roots to develop in the soil that will be home to their plants for years to come.

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