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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - November 8, 2013

Garden Tips

An important skill: learning to i.d. plants

by Jack McKinnon

This month the garden tips will be about how to learn plant identification. I think it is the single most important skill any gardener can have. With a working knowledge of a hundred plants the possibilities are enormous for having a unique and exciting garden. Design skills, how to care for your plants and personal stories make for a lifetime of wonderful interactions with other gardeners and friends.

Here are the tips:

1. Get a good plant encyclopedia. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. What is important is a good description of each plant, its sun and shade tolerance and a good photograph or an accurate drawing.

2. Divide and conquer your learning. Know first the differences between trees, shrubs, ground covers, annuals and perennials. With this information you narrow down your identification search significantly.

3. Try to learn at least two new plants a week, ideally five. This gives you a goal and will increase your plant knowledge by hundreds of plants a year. Don't worry about learning all of them, there are tens of thousands.

4. When you find a plant new to you, take its picture. Take at least three photos of each plant — one of the whole plant, one of a leaf close up and one of the fruit. This will help you remember the plant better when you file it.

5. Start your own plant-identification file. In this file be sure to have the Latin name of the plant (Genus and species), a common name or two, some identifying characteristics, sun and water requirements and your photos.

6. Exercise what you have learned. Take someone for a garden walk and see how many plants you can identify. If there are some you don't know then these can be added to your next list. I advise doing these walks in an arboretum or garden where the plants have accurate name tags.

7. Start with the plants at hand. Learn the names of plants in your yard or on your block first. If you have a community garden you can learn what is being grown in all of the plots. If you are there when one of the gardeners is there they are usually happy to identify all of their plants and their neighbor's as well.

8. When you learn a new plant, learn something memorable or unique about it. This kind of focus will help you remember each plant better. I have forgotten more plants than most people ever learn but the ones I remember have memorable characteristics.

9. With colder weather here and more time indoors it is really nice to have a library of gardening books. I usually get mine used and have more than I will ever finish reading. Of course the best books are new with hard covers and a good jacket. These can be passed on from generation to generation.

10. Lastly, there is no better way to learn and know plants than to grow them oneself. Buy healthy plants at your local nursery, plant them according to directions in your encyclopedia or other books on that genus and care for it on into maturity. The rewards are priceless and quite memorable.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-879-3261, by email at Visit his website at


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