botanical books with illustrations of plants, old camera, old map

Misled by Experts?

When things work out badly, there is a tendency to blame someone else, often those who give advice.

“Gardening is a vocation like any other—a calling, if you like, but not a gift from heaven. One acquires the necessary skills and knowledge to do it successfully, or one doesn’t. The ancients gardened without guidance from books, by eye and by hand, and while I am a devotee of gardening books and love to study and quarrel with them, I don’t think they are a substitute for practical experience, any more than cookbooks are.”
Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: a writer in the garden.

At the very least, gardening advice may contain mixed messages.

Case in point: Italian arum. Henry Mitchell, a garden writer I admire, praised it but omitted to mention its smelly flowers and spreading tendencies. The Royal Horticultural Society gave it an Award of Garden Merit, but now I learn it’s labelled an alien invasive here in southern Vancouver Island, and in Washington State as well.

Italian Arum

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) are both touted as gardenworthy native plants, deer- and drought-proof, BUT both sucker like mad and aren’t suitable for small gardens unless situated so sucker control is doable. I think the Mahonia is also an RHS award winner.

One web site describes Mahonia aquifolium as growing 3 to 6 feet tall with a 2 to 5 foot spread. Hah! The oldest parts of mine are more than 10 feet tall, and I’ve dug up their suckers several yards from the parent plant. The site makes casual mention of suckers, recommending that they be removed if one does not want the plant to naturalize (which means “take over”). It claims the plant needs “moist but well-drained” soil. Not true; it will grow in bone dry soil once established, but it does need good drainage.

When I was making this garden in the early 1990s, the internet was just getting going. I did my plant research in books. If an author conveyed their enthusiasm about a plant in eloquent prose, I was convinced. Especially if the plant was native to my region; native plants are always good. So I can’t blame the experts entirely. It’s quite possible I skimmed over or ignored mentions of these plants’ less desirable qualities.

A forest of Oregon Grape suckers

My advice: before rushing out and planting something, especially a tree or shrub, ask gardeners in your area about their experiences with it, and/or observe the plant in nearby settings if possible. As Eleanor Perenyi said, there’s nothing like experience, but the experience of digging and sawing out a thicket of Mahonia isn’t one I wish to repeat.

A search through my archives reveals that I’ve whined about Oregon Grape and Snowberry nearly every spring for years. I hope this will be my final post of this type. But any gardeners contemplating these shrubs as additions to a small garden, take note!

Silky Gomtaro Root Saw

On the plus side, I’ve finished most of the amputations pruning projects I described a few weeks ago. The root-cutting saw I bought last year had a good workout and lived up to its billing. It powered through some fat Mahonia stems and roots quite impressively.

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    1. The new dahlia sprouts may need protection from slugs and snails, but they grow pretty fast if the weather is warm. I wouldn’t plant them outside until May. I’ve read about sprouting dahlias indoors and rooting cuttings of the new sprouts to get more plants.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. As an ‘experimental’ gardener, especially as I’m now custodian of a handkerchief sized slabbed plot, I’m trying to grow lavender from seeds in an incubator in my lounge, to plant outside in a couple of months. Also onions from shop bought offcuts. (An idea from youtube) But my main thing will be a new crop of wildflowers from seeds which is is up to nature which thrives and survives. My car tyre fish pond has three fine looking goldfish which have survived the winter and the two pond plants will take off as the weather warms up and the wildflowers will surround the base of it.
    All plant based food scraps end up in my car tyre compost container which has produced a healthy usable rich compost. (youtube again) Gardening books would be wasted on me. I give things a go and just see what happens.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good morning. On a related note: in many or most neighborhoods there are huge trees overhanging/near some houses. Trees are great. But smaller ones, that won’t damage homes if they topple or if limbs break off, are better choices in these cases, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sage advice, Audrey and what a slog for you to minimise the snowberry spread! Because of the possibility of bamboo spreading in our medium-sized garden, we put one in a pot last summer – alas it now seems very thin and bedraggled – hope it recovers. Here the sun has been out and quite warm so lovely Sunday in the garden sorting out! Happy Gardening – and here is to research galore before planting new species!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is great advice, Audrey. In our climate, things GROW like crazy, so being aware of invasive species, spread, and suckers is essential. Here, it’s an endless battle and some species have such tenacious roots, it’s impossible to get rid of them. And good for you for getting your amputations done! Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah yes, the joys of gardening! I too have enthusiastically planted some lovely shrubs only for them to, five years later, explode with growth and threaten to take over my yard. Definitely further research is required before doing something as simple as putting in any kind of plant. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As a bit of ‘greenie’, I try to consider everything on an environmental scale. Are my actions having a positive or negative affect on the planet. So in my tiny plot I grow wild flowers for the bees and other insects like butterflies. But what about food? A little effort could have me fairly self sustained in vegetables. We have been warned here in the UK we’ll have a serious shortage of tomatoes due to the scorcher we had last year. But then I ask myself, just how much veg do I, as a single chap, actually consume? A bag of chopped mixed veg in the freezer (as nutritious as fresh apparently) lasts me a couple of months. A clump of cabbage, brocolli, or a handful of tomatoes or occasional fistful of carrots would see me through the summer. It simply isn’t worth my trouble unless I did it to give away to others. I don’t have an extended family to do this for. Same reason for deciding finally not to buy that bread maker. Just how much bread do I actually eat in a year?
    So, this summer will once again be about creating a blaze of colour for our wildlife.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No point in growing vegetables if you don’t need many and have no interest in canning, freezing, drying, etc. My garden is mostly ornamental because conditions here aren’t great. I do grow tomatoes in pots, though.
      All kinds of wildlife visit the garden, from bees, wasps and other bugs, to squirrels and rats, rabbits, raccoons and deer (who don’t have access to the fenced areas). And I have bird feeders out in the winter, so there are lots of birds too.


    1. Writing or at least the ideas are mostly created when we are doing things other than the act of writing. So on a subliminal level, as I tend my garden, I’m also cultivating my stories. At least that’s what I try to convince myself.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Damyanti. I admit I’m sometimes tempted to give up as well, but then I get out there and do a bit of work and it seems worthwhile again. But gardens are quite a commitment of time and effort.


  7. I had a blackberry bush in my backyard, just water it and it would take over the world. When I would mow my lawn, I swear the thing would reach out and grab me. Thorns were worse than roses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean, Patrick! Those blackberries are all over the place where I live (but not in my garden, happily). Our dog (a Newfoundland) got tangled up in one when we were walking down a back alley once.


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