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Garden Goofs : A dozen expert gardeners admit their first (and worst) planting mistakes

August 13, 1995|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Even the best of gardeners make mistakes, but they learn from them and grow. You can too. Here, then, are the goofs some of the Southland's best gardeners made when they were beginning:

Although her garden is practically the first one that visiting English gardeners want to see on their swings through Los Angeles, landscape designer Christine Rosmini remembers many mistakes made as a beginner. "It's hard to single one out, I made so many," she said.

These should be reassuring words to novice gardeners, coming from one of the acknowledged best, whose garden appears in many books, including the new "Gardens of California" by Nancy Goslee Power.

One of her worst gaffs was carefully cultivating two noxious weeds "until I realized their imperial ambitions." She thought false garlic, Nothoscordum inodorum , was a dainty white-flowered ornamental allium, or onion, like the kind you see in English gardening books. She had similar thoughts about the nutgrass already growing on the property. Soon both were coming up everywhere.

She finally got rid of the false garlic by painstakingly digging up every bulb, including all the little baby bulbs that are so easily left behind. She got rid of the nutgrass by moving to her present house and garden. (The only other way is to fumigate the soil, killing everything else, or starve the plant by constantly pulling off every leaf, which can take years).

"You tend to forget those first fiascoes," said Jack Christensen, who developed some famous roses, including Mon Cheri, Gold Medal and Voodoo, and writes the "Garden Q&A" column for The Times. But he does remember not thinning vegetables in the ground and fruit on the tree.

"I just couldn't bring myself to thin my first fruit trees, and so I got a lot of small, tasteless fruit and a few broken branches." Now he thins the trees around his Victorian home in Ontario so each fruit has plenty of room to develop and no branch is overladen.

As for the vegetables, he says to read the seed packet and thin to the recommended spacing.

"I remember having all the leaves fall off a rubber tree when I fertilized it dry," said Lili Singer, who publishes "The Southern California Gardener" and is a garden consultant and radio host. "I soon learned to make sure that plants got watered before they got fertilized."

"You learn," she said, remembering how she tried for years to grow tomatoes with only three or four hours of sun. "It doesn't work, even in the San Fernando Valley."

Mike Evans, who runs Tree-of-Life Nursery, a large San Juan Capistrano wholesale nursery that specializes in native plants, remembers a truly disastrous mistake.

In the early 1970s, he was teaching horticulture at the Regional Occupation Center in Orange County and building up a rare collection of orchids, bromeliads and other exotics in one of the greenhouses.

On a greenhouse shelf were two nearly identical white plastic jugs, one filled with a very mild algaecide that is safe enough to be used in restaurants and hospitals, the other with a potent herbicide named Montar.

"There was a lot of green algae growing on the greenhouse walls and benches, so I reached for the algaecide but grabbed the Montar instead," he said. "I got about 100% kill in that greenhouse; nearly the entire collection was dead.

"The lesson," he said, "is to carefully read the label, starting with the name!"

Kathleen Brenzel, editor of the "Sunset Western Garden Book," remembers planting a young rhododendron that "looked so cute and small in its one-gallon can" in a tiny three-by-three-foot space by the front door; it soon "looked like an elephant in a phone booth."

"It's crucial to know how big a plant will grow and then give it room," she said, which is perhaps why that information is so easy to find in the new edition of the "Western Garden Book."

Every expert gardener we talked to had made, or is still making, the mistake of planting things too close together. One explained that nursery plants "look so small and lonely with all that bare ground around them," but patience is a virtue in gardening.

While plants grow, a good mulch can help keep a new garden from looking like a vacant lot, or temporary fillers can be placed between the more permanent plants.

Brenzel also remembers pouring quantities of Vitamin B-1 into every new planting hole. "I don't believe it did any good, but it sure was expensive," she said. Tests have since shown that the benefits of B-1, supposed to encourage rooting, are mostly psychological, good for the gardener's sense of having done something but not helping (or hurting) the new plant.

Gardening author Pat Welsh warned: "Don't plant anything that grows fast." Almost all such plants have major drawbacks, she said. They may be short-lived, brittle, greedy or just plain ugly when they grow up.

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