Real Estate

Garden Tips

The art of control

What is the essence of gardening? Some think it is the connection with the earth; others think it is a complement to building architecture. Others still see it as a means of food and flower, herb and fruit production.

I think it is a form of control, a way to manage something alive in a way that gives pleasure and on occasion provides for the table in forms we recognize as sustaining. The success or failure is due to my skill, or lack thereof, and it is a test of my ability and knowledge.

Don't get me wrong: I make my share of mistakes. For example, during an especially dry time I put a saucer under one of my potted azaleas to catch and wick back into the root ball any excess water. The only problem is that I didn't remove the saucer when the rains started and virtually drowned my poor azalea. Being diligent would have saved a significant part of the root system from rotting.

There are hundreds of these little tricks that make gardening what it is. Of course, a healthy knowledge of the plants one has as well as their needs plays a significant role in finding techniques for meeting those needs. A creative and adaptable mind helps enormously.

Lastly, a spirit of forgiveness for mistakes made, while learning from each and every one, makes for a happy demeanor. I've known grouchy gardeners and, beside their being unbecoming, found them insulting to an otherwise splendid craft. Let's all keep learning and growing as spring comes and inspires celebration.

Here are the tips.

1. Grow new plants. Not just young plants but plants that are new to you. Try Tillandsia (sometimes called air plants) by hanging them around the garden or on a tree. All they need is something to either sit on or hang from, preferably in shade. They live on moisture in the air and occasional rain or mist.

2. Think of the environment. I had a friend named Dan Rossett who was a cactus person. Dan loved all kinds of cacti and had many different kinds. There was always a cactus of some variety in bloom in Dan's collection. As a matter of fact, Dan would bring a blooming cactus to Peet's Coffee and Tea in Menlo Park and put it on display, receiving a complimentary cup or cups of coffee for his flower service. Dan couldn't grow cactus outdoors, though; it is too cold and wet here in northern California. He had to create a new environment for his cactus in order for them to thrive; he used green houses. With green houses he could control the temperature and the water needs in order to have the ideal environment for each type of cactus. This is a lesson for all of us. By controlling the plant's environment, any plant can be grown, even desert cactus.

3. Make micro-climates. Want to grow a rainforest during a drought? The same principle as above applies. Build a greenhouse and your water stays where it's the most useful for the plants you have. Evaporation creates humidity, which waters the plants through their leaves. Runoff is collected and re-used to water the soil. It is called a micro-climate, and this particular micro-climate can grow orchids, ferns, house plants extraordinaire, bird of paradise and even start seedlings for your vegetable garden.

4. Control in gardening requires work sometimes. Not just digging, pruning, weeding and harvesting (all of which are important) but the work of learning and study. Most important is plant identification. By knowing the plants you have (Latin name, genus and species) you can and will learn about their cultural needs, like how much sun or shade they need, how much water, what kind of food (plants need to eat, too) and how to care for them. You will also learn what to expect from your plants and how to diagnose a problem if it shows up. Learn about your plants, and you will meet their families of plants. This way you will grow your knowledge and be a better gardener.

5. Also learn about your weeds. This is very helpful when these unwanted invaders enter your garden. By identifying the weeds you learn how to control them. Of course just knowing their names won't teach you their origins or characteristics, but it will give you a big head start in an Internet search engine. Once you have the Latin name of your weed the fun begins. Some are from different countries; some are trying to take over this whole country. Some weeds are quite vulnerable and easily managed.

A landscape architect I know had a garden almost completely devoid of weeds. He knew what they were when they showed up and knew how to direct his workers to get them out so they wouldn't return. Take Oxalis for example. Oxalis creates nutlets in its roots. If you pull the plant out and you miss one of those nutlets, the Oxalis will come back. It is necessary to dig out the whole root system -- nutlets and all -- to stop this common weed in Palo Alto. Note: Oxalis looks like clover with three lobes on each leaf and has a yellow flower.

6. Know what to transplant. One of the best ways to fail at gardening is to transplant plants that are too old. Many have tried it only to find the old plant died a few weeks later. On the other hand, I know people who do "plant rescue" and have wonderful gardens. What is the trick? Again, knowing which plants will re-root and which plants won't make it. Some of the easiest plants to "rescue" are succulents. Aeonium, Sedum, Crassula and Aloe are all plants that can be divided or broken off and stuck in a new location with a good chance of survival. Bamboo divides easily, and willow branches can be stuck in the ground (especially if it is moist) and take off like crazy.

7. Be creative. Doing an unconventional design can get you famous and might get you in trouble. If your garden is chosen for a garden tour, you might get your name in the papers or on TV. If on the other hand the neighbors cannot stand it, there could be problems. I recommend trying something new. We only live once, and if you have a creative spirit, it's important to put it to use. One tip might be to let your neighbors know ahead of time before you put the 10 foot ivy-covered elephant topiary in your front yard.

8. Make your plans. There are roses, fruit trees and plenty of new spring plants in nurseries now. Plan for their placement and care before you buy. I typically recommend making two trips to the nursery, the first with a note pad and the second with your check book.

9. Give plants a new home. One form of control that some gardeners have is thinning out the plants they no longer want or need. It is much more easily done than one thinks. I try to give away plants that are still viable (and able to survive a transplant). The simplest way to do that is to put them out by the curb with a "Free" sign. Most good plants will be gone in a day or two. If not, then they can go in the green waste bin and will be made into compost.

10. Tidying up is not just for you. Keeping a garden tidy is a reflection of those who own or manage it. I encourage estate owners, development and residential gardeners to be on purpose and attentive to the health and appearance of their landscape. Not only does it make you look good but it makes the city a better place to live.

Good gardening.

Jack McKinnon is a garden coach who can be reached at 650-455-0687, or

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