Garden advice even the experts get wrong



thinking cartoon

Nobody knows everything!

We like to believe that the experts who write the books we buy, direct us with what we should do on television or on the internet, and write knowledgeable articles will always give us correct information. But there’s plenty of garden advice even the experts get wrong. We forget that these people are only human and can make mistakes, too.

So what is some of the garden advice that even the experts get wrong? Here are some misconceptions or poor advice I’ve run into.

“What has grown well for the experts will grow well for you.” Or maybe not. I know some of the top garden book writers who are positive which plants will grow well and which won’t. Yet after gardening for many decades, I can say for certain that just because a plant flourishes in one area does NOT guarantee it will be happy even in an area that appears to be similar. I’ve found this true particularly in Southern California where soils, humidity and temperatures vary widely – sometimes even within the same piece of property. One expert – with several top-selling garden books — assured me that a plant I know will not grow well inland in northern Los Angeles County MUST thrive because it does so well in the inland San Diego area. The person is highly respected in professional gardening circles – and wrong!

“Famous landscape designers and architects don’t make big mistakes.” Most of us who design gardens work hard not to make mistakes. A good designer or professional gardener will stand by his or her work and make right any errors. But all are human. There are a few designers who are highly esteemed (and extremely well paid) who prefer to keep up the illusion they know everything. I have been called in twice to fix mistakes made by two of these. I do not know if they genuinely believe themselves to be perfect or that is part of their effort of branding themselves. Just don’t buy into the illusion. Nobody’s perfect!

edible front yard

Raised vegetable gardens can look lovely and be productive. This yard is grown by Rosalind Creasy.


yellow aphids

Yellow aphids infest milkweed

Aphids have spindly legs and cannot climb back up stems once washed off with water.” I have been guilty of giving out this advice myself since it has been spouted by garden gurus forever. While washing off some aphids in my greenhouse a friend pointed out several of the little insects boldly trundling straight up her arm. “Those legs don’t act spindly or weak on me,” she observed. I have to agree.

“Ladybugs will solve all your aphid problems.” I was directly assured this by arguably the best known television garden celebrity. Ladybugs (and their immature forms) are excellent control for eating pests like aphids. They have ravenous appetites for aphids and will be an enormous help in the garden. But not only do they tend to miss insects hidden in tight folds of leaves, they will fly away to other feeding areas, often before the job is fully done. Enough pests can be left behind to spawn a new infestation in no time. This is also true for other natural predators like the praying mantis. These are excellent Eco-friendly tools for the garden. Please do use these natural pest fighters! Just don’t expect miracles.

cutting tree limb

Major pruning of tree limbs is best done in the autumn and winter months, but different trees require different pruning techniques

“Most tree trimmers know what they are doing.” Certainly all the butchered trees I see daily deny this belief. Trees are large and special organisms. Proper treatment and pruning is a science. If you want yours to grow strong and healthy, lasting for many decades, spend the extra to hire a good arborist. There is a reason these people spend years in their specialty. It may look easy to just chop off limbs, but trees take a long time to mature and their growth can impact your whole property. Just because someone knows a few of the “tricks of the trade” does not make him or her into a tree expert.

“Nurseries know all about the plants available.” Most nurseries do know about the plants they stock, but even experts in specific areas – such as fruit trees – are sometimes unaware of what other growers or nurseries are developing and selling. A very fine tree grower recently assured me that the ultra-dwarf fruit tree variety I have doesn’t exist. Happily, ignorant of this misinformation, my fruit tree is thriving and growing nicely into the tree it really is.

“If you follow the rules, your garden will always look great.” First of all, rules are always changing. Secondly, all living things go through periods when they don’t look great. Even plants need to take a rest every now and then. Nature makes her own rules and will always send the unexpected – and often uncontrollable — bit of weather, genetic weakness, pest attack or plain old serendipity to interrupt your plans. Love your garden for the amazing, constantly-changing beauty it has to offer. Nature doesn’t do “perfect”!

The moral of this story is you need to do your homework. With the internet, you have a tool to research your questions. Experts are people who have put much of their life into learning their trade. But they are still only human and they, too, can make mistakes. So get multiple answers when you have questions and accept that much of the fun of gardening is in the experimentation and the lessons you can learn with your own experience. You can figure out how ‘you can grow that’  with your own trial and error experiments. Use advice from others for guidance (most of it is very helpful) , then focus on your own learning journey as a gardener.


Tips on how to create a beautiful garden for you and your pets

Pets are part of our family -- and garden.

Pets are part of our family — and garden.

We love our pets – until they tear our gardens apart. And our pets love us, until they get injured out in the garden.

Lucky the cat

Make the garden safe for cats and dogs.




Pets, gardens and owners can share a beautiful, safe and practical outdoor space with some guidelines kept in mind:

Border Collie Pepper

Paths encourage pups to stay out of more delicate areas.

Healthy pets are active animals; they naturally need space to run and play. If you don’t design space for them into your landscape they will create their own. You can have a lovely and successful garden for you and your pets. Build it with both your needs in mind.

Dogs often run along fence-lines, so give them a path where they will not damage anything. Offer them paths with thick plantings or fenced off areas to preserve growth between passageways. Cats love to climb. Give them big branches or tree trunks for scratching claws and curling up in high places. These can be decorative elements in the garden design.

Protect plantings that are precious to you. Raised vegetable gardens or garden planters can help avoid pet damage. Gates and fences can be colorful and decorative and keep more plantings safe. Cover soil with a grid-work of chicken wire or hardware cloth, or mulch with ¾ inch gravel to keep cats from using exposed soil as a cat box.

Keep your garden safe for pets by avoiding chemical sprays and powders. Don’t plant pointed or spiny plants that can injure playing critters.

cactus landscape

Spiny cactus is good for areas where pets don’t go!

You can even train your dog to use a specific area to eliminate or set up color-painted posts to entice male dogs to urinate rather than marking your favorite plants. Build a small sand box in a decorative shape for cat use.  Or dig a dog waste disposer to compost stinky poop.

When pets are outside, make sure there is always ample water and shade. If you live where your pets are vulnerable to predators, bring them in at night or when you aren’t around to watch them. Or provide protected runs, cages, pens or other areas where your animal friends will be safe. Fence in safe areas for them if you live where traffic can be a danger. There are some living spaces where it simply isn’t a good idea to let cats outdoors at all unless they are completely confined in a safe pen.

Colorful outdoor rugs and patches of artificial lawn can be both decorative and comfy spots for a pet to lay on. Shaded areas under trees or shade covers can be delightful for all — two and four-legged — on a warm summer day.

These are just some ideas that can create a peaceful co-existence between you, your garden and your pets.

wait at the gate

Attractive fence keeps Malcolm home

With some creativity and  imagination you can design the practical to become an artistic asset to your landscape.

Tips on designing an English garden

theme garden

Potting shed and wishing well in a drought-tolerant English garden.

One very popular style of gardening all over the world is the “English garden”. An English garden is simply a garden that is designed to look like it grows in the British Isles. The usual image is either of a somewhat wild, flower-filled cottage garden, or a carefully manicured formal estate garden. You can design an English garden along either of these lines. To get the effects you want, choose plants, materials and decor that not only follows the theme, but will do well in your own backyard climate. Immitate the effect you want but adapt it to the local environment for ease of maintenance.

For a cottage garden, plan an informal design.

Choose plants that mix mounding, sprawling and vertical growth habits and offer plenty of colorful flowers or foliage. Again, make sure these plants will do well in your own garden or you will have to continually replace dead or poor performers. Set plants closely so they form big garden bouquets rather than singly with space in between. When planting young plants, leave space for them to grow and fill in the surrounding area with annuals that will provide temporary fullness.

Add one or more of these features:

  • Meandering pathway
  • White picket fencing
  • Stacked stone walls
  • Rustic Bench
  • Stepping stones
  • Trellis
  • Cottage styled shed
english garden

Lush green of another English-styled landscape

Go more stately for a formal English design.

Ssketch out a design that is more controlled, with well defined edgings, neat lawns and optional symmetrical or geometrical layouts. Set plants neatly in groups of the same color or habit of growth so the effect is like painting larger swathes of color or neat outlines. Keep trees and shrubs properly pruned or clipped into shapes.

Add one or more of these features:

  • A formal gazebo
  • A knot or herb garden
  • Wrought iron or cement bench
  • A formal sculpture, fountain or topiary
  • Big classic pots or urns

Other things you can do in either kind of English garden is to construct a ‘garden within a garden’. Add a rose garden or an herb garden as a special area either enclosed by fencing, shrubs or delineated with an edging in a private part of your garden.

Surrounding gardens look good filled with typical English garden plants like these:

  • hollyhock
  • foxglove
  • hosta
  • columbine
  • rose
  • bellis daisy
  • viola
  • pans,
  • peony
  • johnny-jump-up
  • primrose
  • delphinium
  • wisteria

If you live where conditions are not ideal for these plants, look for locally happy plants that have similar looks. Most of the short-lived annual plants will grow in a wide range of climates since they will only last for the spring or summer seasons anyway. But make sure you give plants the soil, sun or shade that will allow them to thrive.

A good mix of permanent features (hardscape) and living plants (softscape) garnished with some English garden decor should turn your landscape into the kind of English garden you will enjoy using for yourself, your family and your friends.



Quick tips on growing radishes

root radish

Once a radish puts up a flower spike the root becomes too tough and stringy to eat.

Radishes are some of the fastest-growing vegetables you can plant. That makes them ideal for marking out rows where you seed other, slow-germinating vegetables. They also make an ideal choice for a child’s garden. The radish is the quickest and easiest root crop you can grow, so don’t let them stay in the garden too long.  Harvest them as soon as they are big enough to be eaten.

There are a wide assortment of radishes from long to short, in reds, whites, blacks, pinks and bi-colors, some hot and some mild. If you can’t decide which you want to grow, try some of the seed packets that give you an assortment or buy several packages of different kinds to find out which you like best.

Like most root crops, radishes are not fond of being transplanted. Many grow small enough that they won’t stunt their neighbors if planted closely, but try not to seed them too thickly. They often germinate in as little as a week under good conditions. Give them full sun, a rich soil and plenty of water.

Pull radishes as they are needed. They are good raw in salads, make colorful garnishes and some people even like them cooked.

May Garden Tips for Southern California

Artichoke plants

May and June are the best time to plant, clean the garden, build new features — and crop artichokes!

As we move into the dry, hot weather of summer, we only have a little while left to take advantage of cooler days for doing outdoor spring cleaning and landscape projects. Although we can possibly experience more cloud cover and maybe even a little rain, it’s likely we are done with the measurable rainfall so it’s time to start conserving water and getting the most possible from every drop. Sunshine will be growing stronger so now’s also the best time to get swimming pools and water features into top shape for the coming heat. Here are some garden tips for Southern California gardeners in the month of May:

Check on your watering systems and mend leaks and cracks so you don’t end up with geysers and floods when your systems are on. Consider replacing old sprinkler heads with low-water heads that should deliver a fraction of water to your lawn and garden even though you will be leaving them on twice as long. The lower volume of water should be able to penetrate slowly without washing off, making your plant roots happier and your water bills lower. Set your sprinklers to water slow and early. Sprinklers do not yet need to be as active as they will in a couple of months, so check your timers and adjust them as the weather changes.

Enjoy the last of the cooler weather for doing the more labor intensive projects outdoors. Big repairs and improvements will be more comfortable to do while it is still relatively cool. And getting projects built now before the summer means you will be ready for the heat.

It’s time to check out all your seed packets and take a trip to the garden centers. There’s nothing that can’t be planted at this time of year except maybe some of the cool season vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, fava beans, peas and lettuce. These cool season plants tend to bolt (grow flower stems and become bitter and tough), succumb to mildew or sunburn once temperatures rise. Artichokes should be cropping now and early strawberries might be fruiting on some plants. Get those peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, squash, eggplant and other warm season plants into the ground now so you can start harvesting in a month or so. You can plant pumpkins starting now and over the next month. They should be the last to go in the garden if you want to harvest them closer to Halloween rather than August or September.

California natives are best planted soon. You will have to give even the tough natives plenty of water over the summer until they can establish drought-resistant root systems.

If you have compost from your own pile, this is a good time to dig it into the soil. You can also mulch your soil with compost as a moisture-holding barrier that will help roots stay cooler in the hot sun. If you are buying bags of compost, you might want to consider buying or building a compost bin so you can make your own this year. Locate it far enough from the house that you won’t be attracting rodents to any structures, but close enough that you’ll still be willing to walk the distance to use it.

If you have fruit trees, you may want to net for early crops before the wild life steals everything. Some trees will be fruiting in June.

Consider taking out some of that water-guzzling lawn. This is the perfect time to use space for something more useful like a drought-tolerant garden, a raised vegetable garden, a play space for sports, children or pets, or an easy-care patio space built with permeable paving for enjoying outdoor meals.

Weed. Weed. And weed some more. Fire season will be here all too soon. With all the rain of this past winter our water storage levels have risen. But also have all the weeds. And all that green will soon be crisping into flammable brown. In past seasons we’ve seen how wildfire season is no longer waiting for the autumn Santa Ana winds, so don’t waste time clearing a safety zone. It is easiest when weeds are young and green.

This may be an ideal time to add something special to your garden like a pool or hot tub, a sport court, a barbecue or an outdoor room, a cutting or raised vegetable garden. Since it looks like housing values will not be shooting up any time soon, why not make your home a better place for waiting out the recession? Design it yourself or call in some professional help. You can book in gardening or landscape design coaching sessions to help you with your do-it-yourself projects, or you can hire an expert to do the job for you. Either way, a little extra help may make the job easier and avoid expensive mistakes down the road.

Keep the garden cleaned up. All the winter brown stuff can be removed whether it is lying on the ground or still attached to the living plant. This is the time the pests, large and small, will be glad to invade your landscape if they can find old dead leaves, stems and branches to requisition for making homes.

May is a busy time in the garden. And it’s a good time to get out and get some exercise, sunshine and fresh air. There are plenty of jobs to do in the landscape. Enjoy them while the weather is still relatively cool. Remember, around here even 90 degrees will seem cool come July and August!

Quick Tips on Designing a Japanese Garden

Water garden

The peace of a Japanese garden

A Japanese garden can be designed into landscapes in almost any climate. Work with plants and materials that will be best adapted to you own conditions for easy maintenance and longevity. Then blend your local choices into a peaceful, flowing oriental design using the basic elements of an Asian garden and artistically placed decor.

Start with a layout that will follow the natural flow of your garden. Use different levels and areas to design your picture. Paths are ideal to lead from one part of the landscape to the next while keeping in harmony with the theme of this kind of landscape.

Keep your plant selection simple. Most Asian gardens strive to make each plant into a statement. Fern, azaleas, Japanese Maple trees are some favorite plant choices, but the kind of plant is less important than the harmony created between the shape of the plant and the space in which it is planted. Choose plants that will thrive in your garden space. Struggling plant life does not create the serenity that is essential for a successful oriental landscape.

The goal is to strive for a sense of harmony. There is a lot of symbolism used in Japanese gardens, like adding a small ornamental bridge painted red for a ‘blessed pathway’, adding koi fish to your pond for strength and energy, or using images of a tortoise or crane to honor longevity. Water is an important element and can be used directly in a bird bath, pond or fountain or it can be represented by using river rock or gravel or designing in dry rivers and streams. The other elements of fire, air and earth all take part of the Japanese garden, too.

Color can help you add meaning to your landscape. Not only do certain colors have specific meanings, but you can add the element of ‘wood’ (earth) with greens and browns or ‘fire’ with reds or dark yellows.

You can study the proper details and transform your garden into a form of art. There is plenty of depth in the concept of the Oriental landscape design. Or you can just remember that there is little space in most of the small gardens in Japan, so the successful garden will simply celebrate the flow and beauty of nature in a clean, neat and harmonious picture that fits comfortably into your own space — large or small.