Do as I say, not as I rue

  • Article by: NANCY ROSE , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2004 - 10:00 PM

I am a professional horticulturist. Once people find that out, they assume that I have a lush, bloom-filled, weed-free, immaculate yard and garden. That's ridiculous, of course. Does your dentist have perfect teeth? Does your mechanic drive a perfectly tuned car? And I bet even the most talented chefs sometimes just grab a cold Pop-Tart for breakfast.

My yard isn't perfect. But it is unique. I have very little lawn, instead my yard is composed of big plantings of ground covers, perennials, shrubs and trees with some annuals, bulbs, fruit trees and a small vegetable plot thrown in. But despite a graduate degree in horticultural science, more than 20 years of experience and the ability to easily pronounce names like Ampelopsis brevipedunculata and Metasequoia glyptostroboides, I still do plenty of things wrong in my garden.

With an eye toward making resolutions for the coming new year, I will now confess my gardening faux pas in hopes that you -- and I -- can learn from my mistakes.

Waiting to weed: "Oh, it's small," I think to myself, "I'll pull it later." Seemingly overnight, a tiny weed grows to the size of a Volkswagen, blooms prolifically and sends out thousands of seeds that will lurk in the soil for years to come.

Yes, it really does pay to catch weeds when they're small -- before they have a chance to seed or to spread their sneaky rhizomes throughout the garden.

Planting too close: When deciding where to plant anything -- a tree, a shrub, a perennial, a tomato plant -- you have to consider how big that plant will grow over time. I warn people about this all the time, so you'd think I would know better.

That adorable little flowering shrub in the one-gallon pot will not stay that size forever. And if you plant it too close to the house, right under a picture window or a foot away from three other plants, it will cause problems when it reaches its mature size of 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Sometimes overcrowded plants can be moved, but it's much, much easier to plant in the right place to start with. I know that. Really.

Keeping sick plants: Whether it's a mealybug-infested African violet that doesn't bloom any more or a marginally hardy shrub that barely manages to regrow a few stems each year, sometimes you just have to pull the plug.

Over the years, I've gotten more ruthless about tossing certain plants, but I still have a hard time throwing out others. I can't discard extra flower and vegetable seedlings when I transplant them from their seed flats to small pots in early spring. I know I don't need 15 eggplants, but the seeds all germinated, and the little plants are so cute, and it would be a shame to throw them out ...

Watering by hand: Watering with a sprinkler is much more effective than standing there with a hose in your hand. Virtually all plants, including grass, prefer infrequent but thorough soakings (applying about an inch of water) rather than frequent light sprinklings, which is what hand watering usually produces.

But even though I know it's impractical to water large areas by hand, I still like to hand water at least small areas of my garden. There's something Zen-like about watching the leaves glisten and the soil darken as you apply a shimmering dance of water. That is, until the height of mosquito season, when the appeal of standing still with hose in hand is negated by the arm waving and slapping. At that point, I wisely set up the sprinkler and beat a hasty retreat indoors.

Ordering too many seeds and plants: The scenario: It's the third week of January. In Minnesota. Leaves have been off the trees for nearly three months. It will be nearly another three months until new leaves emerge. I've been receiving armloads of glossy, colorful seed and plant catalogs since November. I want to believe that spring will come eventually. So I order seeds and plants.

In the depths of winter, every flower and vegetable pictured in the catalogs looks enticing. I must order a new packet of snap peas and I really am out of spinach seeds. And as long as I'm ordering I think I'll get this cool purple variety of Brussels sprouts. And so it goes.

Will I mend my ways in 2005? I might.

The recent invasion of prickly lettuce and the ceaseless spread of chickweed in my garden already have made me more conscious of weeding. I replaced several foundation plants last year and I think I actually gave them enough room to grow. I'm sure I'll still do a bit of contemplative watering by hand, but it gives me an opportunity to observe and enjoy my garden, even if I do have to set up the sprinkler later. And ordering too many seeds? Well, that's a fairly minor vice. Besides, anything that gets me through winter is well worth it.

Nancy Rose is a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. To ask her a gardening question, call 612-673-9073 and leave a message. She will answer questions in this column only.

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