The other day I was in the dentist’s office reading a gardening magazine where I came across the word “ubiquitous” to describe silver lace vine (Polygonum aubertii). Webster’s helped me out with that one. It means present everywhere at the same time. It’s a perfect description because this vine sprawls everywhere.
Then I began to think about how, in gardening, as I any other occupation or hobby, there are certain words and phrases that become a part of your vocabulary. You can’t help it. Dig a bit of soil, plant a few flowers, pull a weed or two and you will find yourself using words like cultivate, prune, mulch and compost.
The best place to find examples of “gardenese” is in seed or plant catalogues. This is where they pull out all the stops to charm you into buying. They use phrases like: “haunting sweet fragrance,” “an abundance of colour,” or “masses of rich blooms.” They often include some innocent-sounding comments that can be deceiving to the unsuspecting buyer. As you peruse your next catalogue be on the lookout for some of these:
Good for erosion control: Beware of root invasion! Some erosion-control plants such as staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) have underground root systems that may crop up anywhere – in your lawn, your walkway, your living room. Be careful where you put it.
Informal growth habit: You actually thought you could control this one? Ha! Go ahead prune all you like. For every shoot you cut you’ll get two more.
Popular: (synonym: boring) This is the plant that shows up in every garden (eg. marigold). The one good thing that you can say about it is that it is dependable.
A challenge to grow: Be prepared to spend some time with this one. Your loved ones will miss you. Be sure to write. The plant will be moody until you provide the perfect growing conditions. Definitely for the experienced (and patient) grower.
Vigorous: Are you really sure you want to plant this one? Before you do, take compass bearings on your front door then stand back after you plant it. Now you want to get rid of it? Good luck! A similar adjective to watch out for is “majestic”. Clear another acre for this one. Virginia creeper (Parthenicissus quinquefolia) is a good example of vigorous.
May require support: Call in an engineer. No flimsy wooden trellis for this plant. Keep it away from anything that isn’t well-attached and small children.
In the catalogues, another thing to watch out for is the care descriptions. The amount of care is directly proportionate to the number of adjectives used. Look for simple words like “a good performer” (hold the applause until the end of the season), “easy to grow” (Ozark sundrops or Oenothera missouriensis is one of these), or “tolerate poor soil” (Sedum sp. would work here).
If you are looking for easy care plants look for “low maintenance” but beware of maintenance-free. Nothing is really maintenance-free but it can be close to it once established. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) is a good example of a low maintenance plant. After the first year there should be little or no weeding necessary.
When a plant is recommended for naturalizing it is probably a weed, but I mean that in a nice way. It will grow with little attention and spread quickly, usually in a spot where nothing else will grow. Be prepared to ignore it.
I could go on, but you get the general idea: catalogues should be read with a wary eye.
By Elaine Vida
Horticulturist and landscape designer