Garden Goofs : A dozen expert gardeners admit their first (and worst) planting mistakes

TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Even the best of gardeners make mistakes, but they learn from them and grow. You can too. Here, then, are the goofs some of the Southland's best gardeners made when they were beginning:

Although her garden is practically the first one that visiting English gardeners want to see on their swings through Los Angeles, landscape designer Christine Rosmini remembers many mistakes made as a beginner. "It's hard to single one out, I made so many," she said.

These should be reassuring words to novice gardeners, coming from one of the acknowledged best, whose garden appears in many books, including the new "Gardens of California" by Nancy Goslee Power.

One of her worst gaffs was carefully cultivating two noxious weeds "until I realized their imperial ambitions." She thought false garlic, Nothoscordum inodorum , was a dainty white-flowered ornamental allium, or onion, like the kind you see in English gardening books. She had similar thoughts about the nutgrass already growing on the property. Soon both were coming up everywhere.

She finally got rid of the false garlic by painstakingly digging up every bulb, including all the little baby bulbs that are so easily left behind. She got rid of the nutgrass by moving to her present house and garden. (The only other way is to fumigate the soil, killing everything else, or starve the plant by constantly pulling off every leaf, which can take years).

"You tend to forget those first fiascoes," said Jack Christensen, who developed some famous roses, including Mon Cheri, Gold Medal and Voodoo, and writes the "Garden Q&A;" column for The Times. But he does remember not thinning vegetables in the ground and fruit on the tree.

"I just couldn't bring myself to thin my first fruit trees, and so I got a lot of small, tasteless fruit and a few broken branches." Now he thins the trees around his Victorian home in Ontario so each fruit has plenty of room to develop and no branch is overladen.

As for the vegetables, he says to read the seed packet and thin to the recommended spacing.

"I remember having all the leaves fall off a rubber tree when I fertilized it dry," said Lili Singer, who publishes "The Southern California Gardener" and is a garden consultant and radio host. "I soon learned to make sure that plants got watered before they got fertilized."

"You learn," she said, remembering how she tried for years to grow tomatoes with only three or four hours of sun. "It doesn't work, even in the San Fernando Valley."

Mike Evans, who runs Tree-of-Life Nursery, a large San Juan Capistrano wholesale nursery that specializes in native plants, remembers a truly disastrous mistake.

In the early 1970s, he was teaching horticulture at the Regional Occupation Center in Orange County and building up a rare collection of orchids, bromeliads and other exotics in one of the greenhouses.

On a greenhouse shelf were two nearly identical white plastic jugs, one filled with a very mild algaecide that is safe enough to be used in restaurants and hospitals, the other with a potent herbicide named Montar.

"There was a lot of green algae growing on the greenhouse walls and benches, so I reached for the algaecide but grabbed the Montar instead," he said. "I got about 100% kill in that greenhouse; nearly the entire collection was dead.

"The lesson," he said, "is to carefully read the label, starting with the name!"

Kathleen Brenzel, editor of the "Sunset Western Garden Book," remembers planting a young rhododendron that "looked so cute and small in its one-gallon can" in a tiny three-by-three-foot space by the front door; it soon "looked like an elephant in a phone booth."

"It's crucial to know how big a plant will grow and then give it room," she said, which is perhaps why that information is so easy to find in the new edition of the "Western Garden Book."

Every expert gardener we talked to had made, or is still making, the mistake of planting things too close together. One explained that nursery plants "look so small and lonely with all that bare ground around them," but patience is a virtue in gardening.

While plants grow, a good mulch can help keep a new garden from looking like a vacant lot, or temporary fillers can be placed between the more permanent plants.

Brenzel also remembers pouring quantities of Vitamin B-1 into every new planting hole. "I don't believe it did any good, but it sure was expensive," she said. Tests have since shown that the benefits of B-1, supposed to encourage rooting, are mostly psychological, good for the gardener's sense of having done something but not helping (or hurting) the new plant.

Gardening author Pat Welsh warned: "Don't plant anything that grows fast." Almost all such plants have major drawbacks, she said. They may be short-lived, brittle, greedy or just plain ugly when they grow up.

"When my family first moved to California, my father, who was a knowledgeable gardener, planted young blue gums on either side of a picture window," recalled Welsh, author of "Pat Welsh's Southern California Gardening." Those trees eventually ruined the garden--killing the lawn, clogging pipes, even sending roots up into the drainage holes of flower pots. "Yet I did the same thing in my first garden, planting fast Monterey pines that grew too big and have been sick ever since," she said. "There are so many good trees, why plant a troublemaker?"

"Some mistakes still burn into my heart," Welsh said. Like the time she cut off all the new canes on a climbing rose, thinking they were suckers from the roots. "A landlady had told me to be sure and cut off any suckers, but I was embarrassed to ask just what 'suckers' were," she said. (Suckers are growth coming from the roots, below where the plant was grafted onto its rootstock).

Tom Nuccio, whose family runs Nuccio's Nurseries, the camellia and azalea specialists in Altadena, also remembers making planting mistakes, though growing up in a nursery family, he wasn't allowed to make many.

"We gardeners are always planting the wrong thing in the wrong place and then just plant too much. Way too much," he said. "Gardeners have got to leave room for things to grow, otherwise nurseries are going to have to give away a free machete with every purchase."

Planting horsetails and thinking he could keep these invasive plants under control was a more recent goof. "I should have known better," he said. "I planted it here and suddenly in was over there.

Several other experts also mentioned what a big mistake planting potentially invasive plants can be. As well as horsetails, other pesky plants mentioned included agaves, some running bamboos, Mexican evening primrose, even the beautiful native matillija poppy.

"These plants are simply too aggressive for the average garden," said Gary Jones, who runs Hortus Nursery in Pasadena, and he would add creeping fig, Ficus repens , to the list. He is still trying to get it off his house. Though it starts out as a delicate tracery, it soon grows much larger, with coarser leaves and stems capable of pulling stucco off the house.

Jones has been gardening since he was a child (his graduation present was a greenhouse), but even with a degree in landscape architecture, he's made his share of mistakes, though he can't really be blamed for the one having to do with California's seasons.

He grew up in Utah, and it took a while after moving here to discover that there are two distinct seasons in California--winter and summer, the "cool season" and the "warm season."

"I can't believe no one sat me down and said, 'Look, you plant peas, pansies and lettuce in the fall, not in spring,' " he said. Years later, he sees people making that same mistake at his nursery and tries to point out that they are planting things in the wrong season.

Those new to the Golden State should know that spring is when we plant the flowers and vegetables that do best in warm weather, like tomatoes and marigolds. Fall is when we plant the peas, pansies and others that prefer the cooler winter weather.

Skimping on soil amendments was a goof by Agatha Youngblood, whose glorious Rancho Santa Fe garden appeared in the premier issue of the new magazine Home Garden.

"You can't spend enough time preparing the soil" is her advice to beginning gardeners. "You can't give it a lick and a promise and think things are going to grow nicely."

"I thought I had tilled in enough amendments when I began, but I had to do it over and over again before the soil really became good," digging up and replanting everything in the process. She's adamant that "soil amendments are all-important. That's what makes healthy plants, not the fertilizers or anything else."

Soil amendments are composted bark products that physically improve a soil, making it easier to dig in, easier to water, even easier to weed. They are often sold as "planting mixes" and shouldn't be confused with potting mixes, though they contain some of the same ingredients.

Youngblood now adds a lot of amendment, so her soil ends up being about one-third amendment, and she digs it in by hand with a spade or spading fork, thoroughly mixing it.

Jan Smithen, who teaches the popular Fanatic Gardeners classes at the Arboretum in Arcadia, agrees that soil preparation is the key and the first thing she had to learn in gardening.

"I made the mistake of thinking that all you had to do to have a garden like those in the magazines was to sit back and choose the right plants," she said. "I got the idea it was like decorating the house," she said.

"The reality--what the magazines don't tell you--is that you have to get in there and dig and then keep your hands in it all the time."

Actress Julie Newmar, perhaps best known as the Catwoman in the original "Batman" television series, had everybody's favorite garden on the recent Brentwood garden tour, and it will soon appear in Victoria magazine.

She thinks mistakes can actually be exciting, like the time she accidentally purchased some outrageous orange tuberous begonias to plant with blue lobelia in hanging baskets, instead of her usual pink. "I planted them with blue lobelia and they were shocking," she said, "but now I adore the combination and the pinks look so drab.

"I think it's healthy to make mistakes. That's how I learn and I look forward to trying again next season. I bless my mistakes."

"I couldn't understand why the flowers on my roses were getting smaller and smaller and smaller," said Christen Fusano about her first attempts at growing roses 20 years ago. She is now the horticulturist at Roger's Gardens in Corona Del Mar and teaches their standing-room-only rose-pruning classes.

She remembers doing just about everything wrong when first pruning roses, cutting only the tops so they produced nothing but small twiggy growth from increasingly elderly canes. "There was nothing new to work with," she said. "I didn't get it."

Now she prunes to encourage strong new growth, in winter completely cutting out old, woody canes, even if it means leaving only three strong canes on each bush (though she says five are ideal). She prunes the remaining branches just above a big, swelling bud, even if it's low on the cane, to avoid that twiggy growth that sprouts from small buds.

She suggests not trying to save old, twiggy bushes, like she did in her first garden. "Even cutting them to the ground doesn't work, so just take it out and plant another."

She also remembers killing a lot of bedding plants by planting them too deep. "I'd buy a floppy lobelia and plant it a little deeper to support the stems," but once buried, the plant would rot and die.

"I didn't have a clue what I was doing wrong," she said, but soon learned to "plant a little high," so the root-ball actually sticks out of the soil a fraction of an inch and there is no way any of the above-ground parts of the plant can end up below ground.

"I should know better," said landscape architect Shirley Kerins, "but I still buy way too many plants impulsively, with no idea where I'm going to put them," but this can be forgiven because she runs the Huntington Botanical Gardens plant sale, where each May there are far too many irresistible plants.

"Another mistake I still make is waiting too long to pull weeds. I look at them and think 'I'll do that tomorrow' and by the time I get around to it, their roots are four inches into the soil and they're hard to get out," she said. "It's so much easier to pull weeds when they're only an inch tall."

Avoiding Mistakes

* Spend time preparing the soil.

* Plant at the proper depth.

* Don't plant too much.

* Give plants room.

* Beware of fast-growing plants.

* Learn how to prune.

* Watch out for weeds.

* Read all labels carefully!

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