Daddy’s Garden

Truly sustainable plants are less lucrative to the nursery industries.

My rhubarb really has been around a while! My father’s father’s father and mother grew it quite some time ago, and shared some shoots of it with my father. He then shared it with my maternal grandmother, who shared it with her mother, another of my great grandmothers, who thought it was something really exotic. Along the way, it was undoubtedly shared with friends and neighbors all over the place.

My great grandparents with the original rhubarb also grew old varieties of grapes, oranges, lemons, walnuts and all sorts of vegetables. Their two (‘Carpathian’ English from Persia) walnut trees were remnants from an orchard that was already old before their home was new in 1940. The few ‘ornamental’ features of their garden included such old fashioned but resilient plants as junipers, callas, pelargoniums (geraniums), dahlias and roses. Yes, the stereotypical Italian American garden. My great grandfather even gave me my first nasturtium seeds.

My maternal grandfather likewise grew all sorts of traditional vegetables, as well as cherries, peaches, avocados, blackberries and raspberries. My grandmother competed for limited garden space to tend to her many roses, as well as lilacs and bearded iris that she got from her mother. My mother still grows a large herd of the original iris, several lilacs and a copy of the peach tree.

My very first experiences with gardening were in the old fashioned but remarkably sustainable gardens of my parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Such gardening with so many old fashioned plants would seem primitive by modern standards, but really demonstrates how sustainable proper horticulture is.

Of course, as a horticulturist, I work with all sorts of exotic plants and modern varieties. Although some are fun to work with, the best and most sustainable plants are the old classics and simpler ‘unimproved’ plants, especially those that can be propagated from seed, division or cuttings from established plants.

Many modern varieties of plants are more beneficial to the retail nursery industry than to home gardens, since they do not last too long. They are generally either not well suited to local climates, or are genetically weak from extensive breeding or mutation. (Many of the mutant characteristics that some varieties are selected for, such as variegated foliage or compact growth, compromise vigor.) As they come and go, more new plants are needed from nurseries to replace them. This is actually contrary to the sustainability fad that so many nurseries claim to promote.

Perhaps our parents know more about gardening and sustainability than we give them credit for.

Sustainability Is A Contradictory Fad

60706The original Dodge Dart, with the slant-six engine, was not much to look at, but was built to last. While cars were expected to last ten years or a hundred thousand miles, Darts easily lasted twice as long or twice as far. A few are still going now! Such resiliency really made a reputation for Dodge. The problem was that those who bought Darts had no need to buy another car for a long time.

That is a problem with sustainable plants too. Those that last too long, or are too easy to propagate, eliminate the need to buy new plants from nurseries. Many of the most traditional plants that have been popular for a long time probably earned their popularity by being so reliable and sustainable. These are the plants that the nursery industry would prefer to replace with newer varieties.

Good old fashioned lily of the Nile is about as tough and reliable as a perennial can be. If it gets crowded after a few years, it can be dug, divided and replanted over a much larger area, and even shared with friends. Kangaroo paw has been a fad for a few years because it is purported to be tough and drought tolerant too, but like a 1982 Oldsmobile Omega, it dies out in only a few years.

Kangaroo paw is certainly worth growing for striking blooms, even if it is enjoyed for only a few years. It is not too demanding, and can be sustained longer with a bit of specialized grooming and plugging (replanting shoots slightly deeper than they naturally grow). It is just important to realize that kangaroo paw sustains the nursery industry more than it should be expected to sustain itself.

Many of the trendiest modern varieties of old fashioned plants are not so justifiable. Perennials are the most notorious, especially if they are labeled as annuals. Sensational labeling with buzzwords like ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-freindly’ or ‘riot of color’ (seriously!?) can sometimes be a clue. Plants that seem to be ‘doped up’ (blooming with ridiculous profusion) might look their best when first planted, only to decline afterward, instead of growing into their garden space.