Friday, May 9, 2008

It's the Genetics, Stupid!

I’m not a geneticist. I don’t even play one on TV. I did pass my high school biology class (C-minus counts) and retained a pretty impressive archive of knowledge on the subject. As I recall, years before the dinosaurs arrived, ferocious Nucleotides stalked the primeval forests, warred with and eventually wiped out the friendly, but passive Peptides and became the dominant life form on the planet. One thing led to another and pretty soon, humans started buying plants at nurseries, paying no attention to the label in the container. That’s when the inexorable slip into stupid gardens started.

Sorry, didn’t mean to flaunt my expertise, but there’s a lesson lurking somewhere in this muck. Let me don my hip waders and see if I can pull out something worthwhile. Back to genetics…

Giving credit where credit is due, my TV partner, Owen Dell, reminds us that every plant has its “genetic destiny” (hereinafter abbreviated at GD) . Think about it…contained in the seed of a spreading chestnut tree are instructions to grow a certain way – height, width, branch structure, leaf shape, (ask the kids to leave the room – ready?) reproductive structures, you get the idea. So if we ignore the GD of the loverly Castanea dentata, plant it in a window box and try to talk it into behaving like a Petunia… Well, you get the point.

Thesis statement – “Ignore a plant’s genetic destiny and you will be a sorely disappointed, hard working gardener.”

I’m a label reader. I was an avid reader of cereal box labels when I was a kid. Mayhap it was because the sight of my dad eating soft-boiled eggs made me want to wretch, so I’d build a wall adorned with the Trix rabbit, or Cocoa-Puffs toucan. Anyway, when I go to a nursery and pick up a plant I’m not familiar with, I read the label. Of course the skeptic in me cross-checks with other references, but hey, it’s a start. I want to know how tall and wide the plants gets, what kind of cultural conditions it needs, whether it snores. I want to be an informed consumer.

So how do you explain the following images without assuming that either a) the label was written in Arabic; b) the person read the label but thought they could sweet talk the plants into growing contrary to its GD; C) they looked forward to endless weekends of pruning, resulting in a hideous green box flanked with dead brown branches; or D) they ignored the label?

These delightful specimens are both in the genus Juniper – hearty evergreens (conifers) that will grow just about anywhere. The lower, mounding one is genetically programmed to achieve a height of 18 inches and a spread of about 8 feet across. “Cool, I think I’ll plant it a foot from my driveway and three feet from the next juniper! I’m sure if I talk to it nicely, it will behave as I instruct it. Maybe enroll it in plant obedience school.”

Dude – the bed is three freakin feet wide! Do you think there might be, oh, I don’t know, a few hundred attractive plants out there that will thrive in your climate with little or no care, look drop-dead-gorgeous, and grow to be a couple of feet tall and three feet wide?

Better yet, here’s its big cousin, Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (Hollywood Twisted Juniper).

My book says, “15 feet tall by at least 8 feet wide. Attractive, twisted form; give plenty of room.”

“Sounds like a great plant. I have a two-foot wide bed under the eaves, next to a narrow walkway. Let’s take it home!”

Continuing my rant: Just as we have societal rules about what constitutes public decency, can’t we make some effort to end horticultural blight? Can I be deputized to arrest the perpetrators and initiate the gardening equivalent of the Darwin Awards? Can't these people be put out of my misery? It's ugly, it's wasteful, it hurts the plants.

So do us all a favor. Read the label, ask a knowledgeable nursery employee (yes, there are many) for more information about the plant. Realize that short of taking night school classes in genetic engineering and messing with the DNA, the plant’s gonna do what the plant’s gonna do. Life would be SOOOOOOOOOOO much better for all of us if you’d pay attention to the genetic forces that are completely in command.

Gotta take some Tylenol. Later, skaters.


Ewa said...

Billy, half of those people is careless, the second half doesn't have imagination. They see 3 feets, they feel it is 6.

No Rain said...

Some of the worst examples I've seen are people who plant juniper bushes close to the house, and as they grow they lean out to get more sun. Then, when they are 10 years old they prune them into the ugliest trees I've ever seen. I have also come to the conclusion that once something is in place, many folks are reluctant to take it out, no matter how overgrown or ugly. Maybe they don't think it's ugly. I've never figured it out.

Jean Ann said...

I here by deputize you Garden Deputy...go forth and conquer!

I have to admit, I hate junipers, whether they are in the right spot or not...evil things...once they are there, they are there forever...

Yolanda Elizabet said...

LOL The kids are still gone right? In that case: why are you so surprised by this kind of behaviour? We live in an age when people treat their pubic hair and their poodles like topiary so why not a freaking conifer? Nuff said!

BTW I teach genetics (among other thngs). :-D

Lin said...

Enjoyed your post! Too true! I guess some people/non-gardeners are hesitant to move/replace plants even if they're obviously poorly placed or ugly. Perhaps they're living their GD?

Sue Swift said...

What? You mean I can't have one on my balcony? Oh bother ....

The Garden Faerie said...

Just like it isn't wise to try to change a person, it isn't wise to try to grow a plant in conditions it doesn't like. You would figure this is obvious, but it isn't. It kind of leads to a rant of my own, "landscaping is the opposite of gardening," but that's another story. And isn't the whole DNA replication thing awe-inspiring?!
~ Monica

WiseAcre said...

Failed Bonsai attemps seem to get you all worked up :)

Who knows what goes on in the heads of people who plant like that. Hard to imagine they don't think things will grow larger no matter what the tags state.

My big beef is those who plant shrubs right up against the house foundation.

germi said...

I'm guilty!

When I was a baby gardener, I treated gardening labels and books the way I've always treated most authority figures - get off my back and let me PLAY!!!

Needless to say, I learned that a 10ft plant in a 2 ft bed was nothing to play with... so I began to pay attention to adult sizes and plant accordingly. One thing that confounds is how different plants grow in different climates and microclimates - for me, scented pelargoniums and rosemary can be grown into hedges; for my client across the country, they are annuals. But mine don't grow anywhere near as big as my friend who live further inland. How can a home gardener who doesn't want to devote themselves to learning the arcana of gardening be expected to do the right thing?

You bring up a very important garden rule - but why do I constantly rebel against it? I LOVE big plants; in my fairly small garden I have so many plants that will outgrow their space and invade that of their neighbor. I do pay attention to keep these large plants out of pathways so that pruning won't destroy their form - but I am still breaking the rule. I like to think of it as 'my style'.

Am I fooling myself?

Thanks for the great post!

Ewa said...

I just gave you the award, whether you like it or not :) details on my blog.