The lone voice of horticultural reason

Let The Games Begin

4-10-08 — THAT WAS IT, there’s the bell, April 10th and I don’t care where you live, the 2008 gardening season has begun. You cheaters in USDA Zones 7-10 will be out in shorts this weekend, I can see you, ripping out old shrubs, flinging soil, a quick stop at Starbucks then a beeline to the nursery, oblivious to the fact that most of us don’t have it so good. Stock up on those gruesome painted plants for me.

Heartier horticulturists across Zones 5 & 6 can start making a decent dent in their plans for a veggie patch; one positive thing about the curiously irritating “localvore” trend (can’t quite put my finger on it) is that vegetable gardening is hip again, never a bad thing. Try your hand at lettuces this year, especially ‘Onondaga,’ a hot new variety from plant breeders at Cornell University. It’s resistant to mosaic virus, corky root rot, and tip burn, plus early test results indicate rabbits love it.

Meanwhile, up here in Zone 4, sun and mild temperatures have banished all snow, meaning we can go out and at least rake our lawns clean of late fall debris, winter snow spot, and late spring dog-drop. We shouldn’t, it’s too early, it rips hell out of the tender, tenuous, still-dormant grass plugs, but we do it anyway. The bell rang—we have to do something.

Can you tell I’m excited? You betcha. Can you tell I’m excited in a snide, pissy, patronizing way, my radar up, my expectations down, my heart heavy with hubris? Good. Surly to bed and surly to rise. It all started this morning…

Greed is Good

Good for the gardening industry anyway, terrible for us gardeners. This morning I heard that infernal ad for the first time this year, the same one they play every April. It features the folksy spokesperson for a major fertilizer and lawn seed manufacturer, waxing charming about the merits of his company’s spring boost lawn fertilizer, then telling me, and I quote, “Now is the perfect time to put some down.”

No, wrong. It’s April 9th in Minneapolis, Minnesota, old-timer. Now is exactly the wrong time to put down lawn fertilizer. And that’s as true in zones 5, 6 and 7 as it is here in zone 4, although the colder your climate, the more harm you’ll be doing. There are certain subjects that bear repeating on this site, and this is one of them.

You’re applying too much nitrogen, too early in the season, for lawns anywhere except zones 8-10. The nitrogen stimulates shoot growth—your lawn greens up, alright—but it depletes energy from the dormant (or barely awake) roots. In zones 6 & 7, you’re better off fertilizing your lawn only three times, late spring (after the first few cuts), mid-June (before the heat wallop), and fall (about three weeks prior to dormancy). Your fall application is sucked up and stored by the roots, and that is your early spring application.

In zones 2-5, two applications of lawn fertilizer are all that’s needed, one in late spring, one in fall. You gain nothing from the third, and a fourth application rammed in there somewhere can be detrimental to lawn health. Come to think of it, it would be perfectly wise to try only two applications of lawn fertilizer in zones 6 and 7, if you are concerned about cost and the amount of fertilizer you spread on the planet. Oops, that could spawn a new one, I can see the Euphorian bloggers hot for us to start calculating our “fertilizer footprint.” Sorry.

For further reading, check out The Myth of the 4-Step Fertilized Lawn.

No Wine Before Its Time

That was a good advertising line, for Paul Masson wines, the late great Orson Welles intoning, “We will sell no wine before its time.” Bullshit, of course, I puked up plenty of that cheap, fruity grog in my teens and twenties, and while California wines have certainly advanced to the point where now they compete with the finest wines in the world, Masson in the ‘70s didn’t.

No photos this Current Column, by the way, I’m home for twenty-five minutes, fly out to Detroit tomorrow morning, so in between pecking away at this update, I have to pay a slew of bills, finish my taxes, and hopefully catch a bit of the Twins game on TV tonight. Photos take too long to find and place. Luckily you’ve entered the lair of the Renegade Gardener, where a word is worth a thousand pictures. Sometimes?

Anyway, about the wine thing. That advertising line popped into my head as I was thinking about the number of truly useless plants foisted on gardeners year after year—you know, the hot, new, can’t-miss, must-have varieties of perennials and annuals the industry heaps on us year after year. I wish the nursery industry would adopt the slogan, “We will sell no plant before its time.”

And mean it. This is why I hate writing “Best New Plants” articles—when the industry sells us so many lemons, how the hell do I know if some new introduction will do well in your garden or not? I’ve learned my lesson the hard way, extolling the virtues of the ‘Endless Summer’ hydrangea in a magazine article published a few months before the plant was first made available to the public. Since then, some people love it, some are disappointed, and some good gardeners can’t get ‘Endless Summer’ to bloom (or even keep it alive for more than a few years) to save their souls.

It’s not a case of the nursery industry flat-out ripping us off, to be fair. There’s not an annual, perennial, tree or shrub on the market that hasn’t been carefully cultivated, grown, and literally field tested (in some cases, for decades) prior to hitting the retail nursery racks. What bites the nursery industry in the butt is the heaping helpings of hype loaded on by their marketing departments.

Or over-hype, to be more exact. The classic of all classics in this regard is the Stella de Oro daylily, of course, a mainly useless perennial, widely proclaimed as blooming “all season long,” when in most parts of the country it blooms in June with a second, mild wave of lazy blooms in late summer. Small, plain yellow, unattractive flowers barely held above flat green, reedy foliage combine to create little to admire, while the promise of season-long bloom has made it the best selling perennial of all time.

Other favorite plant disasters that come to mind include the dwarf Alberta spruce debacle, a tight, cool, cute, conical little full-sun tree that was planted everywhere for two years until it was discovered that, whoops, it burns up into a copper wire sculpture during winter in zones 3-5. Then there was the Great Flower Carpet Rose Scare of the late 1980s, another terrifically hyped plant (“Hardy in Calgary, Alberta!”) that in northern zones proved to be little more than an expensive soil additive. Calgary gets Chinooks.

Of course, these last two examples are hardiness issues—what about plant integrity in more temperate climes? Cruising the garden chat rooms on the ‘net, I found gardeners in zones 6-8 gravely lamenting the performance of varieties of coreopsis, Shasta daisies, hibiscus, monarda, tall phlox, hardy fuschia, clethra and sambucus, among many others.

Undoubtedly, in some cases the perennials and shrubs that disappointed weren’t grown well. What percentage of gardeners across the US takes the time to create good gardening soil? Do you think it’s fifty? That might be high. This points to the problem that most plants in production testing plots are grown in good soil, or at the very least, better soil than the plants will encounter later in the average garden.

An industry strong on ethics might be tempted to damper down the hype it gives so many new introductions, realizing that trial performance is not a fair indicator of how the plant will perform in your garden.

My advice? Perennial, tree, shrub, let these hot, new, must-have varieties steep at the nursery for a couple, three years, until you learn from friends, local media, and good nursery owners how they have been performing in gardens in your area. My favorite perennial nurseries in the Twin Cities are all run by persnickety coots and cootettes who don’t even start stocking a plant until they’ve either grown it themselves for three years, or heard good reports in the trade.

By the way, full updates this time around, be sure to check out the new Top Pick, Plant Spotlight, Myth of the Week and Don’t DO That. They at least have photos. Again, sorry about no photos with this column. But the column is done, my bills are paid, the Twins are beating Chicago 12-3 in the sixth, and I owe the Fed $3,200.00.

Happy spring.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener