Nobody’s perfect — Not even the gardening ‘experts’

Here’s an example of a happy accident. This Salvia canariensis self- seeded itself at the base of a fig tree. They now grow together making the plain green fig tree look showy with Salvia blooms. Nature follows her own rules. PHOTO BY JANE GATES / THE SIGNAL
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We like to believe that the garden experts (yeah, like me) who write the books we buy, direct us with what we should do on television or on the internet, and write knowledgeable articles will always give us the right information.

We forget that people are only human and can make mistakes, too.

So, what are some of the more common misconceptions or poor advice I’ve run into from experts I’ve worked with? Here are some that surprised me.

“What has grown well for the experts will grow well for you.” Or maybe not. I’ve spoken with a couple of top garden book writers who are positive which plants will grow well and which won’t — anywhere. Yet after gardening for many decades, I can say for certain that just because a plant flourishes in one area does NOT guarantee it will be happy even in an area that appears to be similar. You can underline that for Santa Clarita!

One expert — with several top-selling garden books — assured me that a plant I know will not grow well here, MUST thrive because it does so well in the inland San Diego area. This person is highly respected in professional gardening circles — and wrong! But then, she’s never lived and gardened in Santa Clarita.

“Famous landscape designers and architects don’t make big mistakes.” Most of us who design gardens work hard not to make mistakes. A good designer or professional gardener will stand by his or her work and make right any errors. But things happen.

There are a few designers who are highly esteemed (and extremely well paid) who prefer to keep up the illusion they know everything. I have been called in to fix these mistakes all too many times. I do not know if they genuinely believe themselves to be perfect or that is part of their effort of branding themselves. Just don’t buy into the illusion. People with talent and a lot of experience will likely perform way better than those without. But nobody’s perfect!

“Aphids have spindly legs and cannot climb back up stems once washed off with water.” I have been guilty of giving out this advice myself since it has been chanted by garden gurus forever. While washing off some aphids in my greenhouse a friend pointed out several of the little insects boldly trundling straight up her arm. “Those legs seem to be climbing up just fine on me,” she observed. I had to agree.

“Ladybugs will solve all your aphid problems.” I was directly assured this by arguably the best known television garden celebrity some years ago. Ladybugs (and their immature forms) are excellent control for eating pests like aphids. They have ravenous appetites for many insects and are great garden helpers. Still, not only do they tend to miss insects hidden in tight folds of leaves, but they often fly off to other feeding areas before finishing at yours. Enough pests can be left behind to spawn a new infestation all too soon. This is also true for other natural predators, too, like the praying mantis. Welcome nature’s helpers, but don’t expect magic!

“My gardener can prune my trees.” Trees are large and special organisms. Proper treatment and pruning is a science. If you want yours to grow strong and healthy, lasting for many decades, spend the extra to hire a good arborist. There is a reason these people spend years in their specialty. It may look easy to just chop off limbs, but trees take a long time to mature and how they grow can impact their health and the safety of your house and family. Just because someone is willing to climb your tree with a saw does not make him or her into a tree expert.

“Nurseries know all about the plants available.” Most nurseries do know about the plants they stock, but they can’t know everything. A very fine tree grower recently assured me that the ultra-dwarf fruit tree variety I have doesn’t exist. Happily ignorant of this misinformation, my fruit tree is thriving, fruiting and growing just fine as the tree it really is.

“If you follow the rules, your garden will always look great.”

First of all, rules are always changing. Secondly, all living things are always changing. Even plants need to take a rest every now and then when they don’t look their best. Nature makes her own rules and will always send the unexpected — and often uncontrollable — bit of weather, genetic weakness, pest attack or plain old serendipity to interrupt your plans. Love your garden for the amazing, constantly-changing beauty it has to offer. Nature doesn’t do “perfect” either!

Speaking of “perfect” gardens, don’t be fooled by photos of all those fabulous gardens seen in print and online. I remember seeing a garden with awesome looking garden photos. But on close examination you could see spring and autumn flowering plants blooming side by side in the same picture. And on further scrutiny, a shot of a gorgeous pond revealed plastic pond lilies growing in non-existing colors!

Horticultural photographers will take pictures of the best areas of landscapes and individual plants when they are in their prime. A properly maintained garden with good design will show well year round despite the fact that some areas may look better than others at times. Even glamorous public gardens with a full-time staff of gardeners occasionally must close off areas for renovation!

The moral of this story is you need to do your homework. Research your questions. Experts are people who have put much of their life into learning their trade. But they are not infallible. So get multiple answers when you have questions and accept that much of the fun of gardening is in the experimentation and the lessons you can learn from trial and error. Use advice from others for guidance (most of it is very helpful), then focus on your own learning journey as a gardener. Experimentation can be fascinating. And fun!

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