by Owen E. Dell
1. THE SATURDAY MORNING SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: The urge to venture forth on weekends to the local nursery, to seek out new, mysterious and cheap plants, to bring them home and to look for a place to put them. This leads to a mish-mosh of plants that has no purpose, no appeal and cannot be maintained. The technical term for this is a “mess.”
CURE: Plan before you plant. Consider that the whole must be the sum of its parts and the parts must serve the whole. Choose a look, a color scheme and a form for your planting. Use plants thematically, weaving them in and out of beds, repeating as music repeats. Never buy a plant unless you know what purpose it will serve in your garden. This also applies to garden furniture, plaster ducks and gazebos. Avoid impetuousness.
2. THE ONE-OF-EACH SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Related to the Saturday Morning Syndrome, this is the urge to grow every plant on planet Earth, all at the same time and in the same two thousand square foot garden. This, too, leads to a mess.
CURE: Limit the diversity of your plantings. For any given area, use one kind of tree, two or three kinds of shrubs, four or five kinds of perennials. Simple is beautiful.
3. THE SIXTY-SECOND SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: A sense of overwhelming urgency about the need to get it all done as soon as possible, resulting in action without prior contemplation, lots of expensive mistakes and nothing good to show for the efforts expended. Comes from watching too much television.
CURE: Spend time with your garden. God put together the Earth in less than a week, but then he’s a pro. Let your garden evolve. The best ones have been developing for decades, some for centuries. Slow down.
4. THE INSTABILITY SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: A murky understanding about what makes a garden really work. Bad decisions are made that haunt the gardener for years afterwards. Nothing ever settles down. The garden becomes more difficult to maintain rather than easier, as it should.
CURE: Take a lesson from nature. A natural plant community reaches a “climax” condition in which it remains stable and self-maintaining until a disturbance. Gardens should do the same; they can do the same. Most of the work of gardening comes from poor design.
5. THE KUDZU SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Planting plants that are invasive, too big for the space they’re in, susceptible to pests and diseases, thirsty, maladapted to the climate or the soil. They never thrive, or they thrive too well or they just plain die. This is no fun for anybody.
CURE: Choose plants carefully. Believe what the books tell you about their ultimate size, bad habits and needs. Don’t assume that a plant is easy just because you’ve seen it growing all around town – it may be a nuisance all around town.
6. THE SAVANNA SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Planting vast swards of lawn in a dry climate, most of it serving no useful purpose and all of it consuming enormous quantities of water, and needing constant mowing, fertilizing and fussing with.
CURE: Reduce lawn areas to no more than 800 square feet for an average residence. We need the water for other things. We Americans put more fertilizer on our lawns than is used in the entire third world to grow food. Shame on us.
7. THE GROUND COVER SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Assuming that there is some law that mandates the use of unbroken sheets of herbaceous, creepy plants everywhere there is not lawn or foundation plantings, and irrigating it with an overhead sprinkler system. Weeds poke through, bald spots appear, water bills strain the pocketbook and tempers fray. All for a boring expanse of one kind of dumb-looking plant.
CURE: Use individual woody plants on slopes; they hold the soil better, are tall enough to keep weeds down and can be drip irrigated. They’re cheaper to put in, too. Try Carmel Creeper, Bougainvillea, Baccharis, Lantana. Mix a couple of kinds for variety and a more natural look.
8. THE PARCHED EARTH SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Faithfully raking up all the fallen leaves, stuffing them into plastic trash bags and sending them to the dump. This leaves the soil exposed to drying wind and sun, overheats the root systems of plants, permits the topsoil to blow away, and makes it necessary to water constantly.
CURE: Use a mulch. Mulches help keep weeds down, keep the soil cool, are nicer to look at, and reduce water needs by as much as 80 percent. Shredded bark is a good choice, or crushed rock.
9. THE SPRINKLER SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Using sprinklers to water flowerbeds, borders, the walls of houses, passing cars and innocent children. Water runs off into the street and never soaks into the soil. Plants suffer, sidewalks become slippery, water bills go up.
CURE: Convert to drip irrigation wherever you have individual plants. Sprinklers are for lawns only. For ground cover areas, see syndrome 7.
10. THE SUCH-A-DEAL SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Hiring the cheapest person to do landscaping, assuming that any derelict with a pickup truck and a shovel is good enough to do the job. Almost always results in serious regrets and wasted time and money.
CURE: Hire qualified, licensed contractors. They’re tested and licensed by the state and are the only people legally permitted to do landscaping. They have insurance in case somebody gets hurt. You have recourse in case something goes wrong. Choose carefully, relying on references as well as the charming personality of the contractor. Never hire the lowest bidder. You get what you pay for.
11. THE BUILDER’S EMPORIUM SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Related to Syndrome 10. The compulsion to buy the cheapest materials to do the job. These are put in at great effort and break down/die/stop working soon afterwards. It costs four times as much in the long run to remove the offending materials and replace them with something of quality.
CURE: Buy the best, forget the rest. Shop where the pros shop. Pay top dollar if you must; it’s far cheaper and more satisfying in the long run.
12. THE PLASTER DONKEY SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: After the job is finished, adding gratuitous tacky knick-knacks and incongruous plants that have nothing to do with the original design. These touches ruin the intended look and functionality of the garden and serve no purpose other than to trumpet the bad taste of the perpetrator to all who visit.
CURE: Think of your garden as if it were a fine work of art. Suppose you owned a Van Gogh — would you get out your paints and add a few flowers here and there to jazz it up a bit? Of course not!
13. THE BAYOU SYNDROME
SYMPTOMS: Watering every day, or every Tuesday, or when the surface of the ground is dry, or when it’s hot and you just feel like watering. Bad for plants, bad for the water supply.
CURE: Watch plants for signs of water need – loss of shine, slight wilting, yellowing of older leaves, then water. Not before. Everyone overwaters; it’s unnecessary, wasteful and inconsiderate.