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.
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.
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!
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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