Soil is the Solution

A crucially important trend in climate change news focuses on soil.

In the United States, the greatest contributors to climate change have been the energy and transportation sectors, so federal responses have focused on emissions that result from burning fossil fuels. The resistance to regulated changes has come from private interests with business models that depend on fossil fuels (and politicians that support them).

The U.S. priority on fossil fuels makes sense, and it engages a good fight, but it’s not the entire story.

For at least the past ten years, public interest organizations have been pointing to Nature’s plan for moderating climate change. That plan depends on forests and soils, both of which are very good at absorbing and storing (sequestering) carbon.

Climate change has been accelerated by cutting down vast areas of forest to free land for agriculture. The negative effects of deforestation have been recognized, and initiatives (never enough) have been launched to control this practice and let the trees do their work.

Nature’s plan also as been compromised by agricultural practices, beginning with deforestation and continuing with a variety of poorly conceived land-use and land-management practices.

The good news on this front is that almost all the countries that have joined in the Paris Climate Agreement have stated that they will improve agricultural practices in their efforts to curb climate change.

According to the World Resource Institute, agriculture contributes 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and, with land-use changes, 24 percent of net emissions.

Agriculture is not as important as a climate change factor in the U.S. as I developing countries, but it’s still a significant contributor. California, which has a huge role in agriculture, has recognized this reality and initiated the Healthy Soils Initiative, discussed in a recent column (see ongardening.com/?p=2680) .

In this regard, California has been well ahead of the federal pace: U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended that farmers voluntarily adopt carbon-capturing practices, but has done little more in deference to policies on energy and transportation.

In more good news, the U.S. position is changing, In December of 2016, the National Science and Technology Council (NTSC) released the report, “The State and Future of U.S. Soils: Framework for a Federal Strategic Plan for Soil Science.” The NTSC is “is the principal means by which the Executive Branch coordinates science and technology policy across the diverse entities that make up the Federal research and development (R&D) enterprise.”

To see this report, visit www.whitehouse.gov and search for “soils.”

In related actions, on January 11th, Regeneration International, a coalition of consumer groups, launched its “Soil is the Solution” briefing for members of Congress. A team of experts will seek opportunities to talk to our elected policy-makers (or their staffs).

Also, on January 19th, Former Vice President Al Gore will unveil a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” his 2006 climate-change documentary. The new film surely will emphasize the role of agriculture in climate change. The sequel will debut at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be released in theaters later in 2017.

Efforts to control climate change must begin with large-scale actions, but they are also appropriate for home gardeners. We all have a stake in the future!

Future Uncertainty

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, we enter a historically extraordinary period in which a single political party controls the House, the Senate and the White House.

“Control” should be taken with a grain of salt, because little is absolute in our nation’s capital.

While absolute control doesn’t happen in Washington, the political arena does have constants. During the past several years, a great constant has been the confrontation between opposing perspectives.

Under the new administration, that confrontation focuses on the struggle over the separation of power written into the U.S. Constitution. The incoming political majorities seem determined to reduce the power of the executive branch of government, meaning to constrain the president’s ability to use executive orders and the authority of administrative offices to write and enforce regulations based on legislation.

The lobbyists are out in great numbers, speaking on behalf of either public or private interests.

There are many issues on the table. A recent report in the New York Times observed, “The most powerful and ambitious Republican-led Congress in 20 years…plans to leave its mark on virtually every facet of American life…”

With that in mind, we examined the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s December 2016 report, Free to Prosper: A Pro-Growth Agenda for the 115th Congress. This 193–page report addresses many aspects of American life, and consistently calls for the reduction of federal regulation with the intention to “unleash America’s entrepreneurial, wealth-creating potential.”

In this column, we focus on issues related to gardening, a topic that easily includes food, so we will comment on only this report’s section, “Food Drugs, and Consumer Freedom.”

Due to space limits, we can only list the report’s food-related objectives:

  • Ensure consumer access to genetically engineered (GE) foods
  • Streamline (“fast-track”) regulation of (GE) plants and foods
  • Repeal the national standards for labeling GE foods
  • Oppose overregulation of food additives (particularly trans fats)
  • Oppose recommended limitation of sodium (salt) content of foods

This section also contains objectives to reduce or roll back federal regulation of (a) drugs, medical devices, and treatments, especially the new and experimental, (b) tobacco substitutes, (c) soft and pliable plastics (phthalates), (d) flame retardants (organohalogens), (e) online gambling, and (f) sports gambling.

Finally, this section recommends federal defunding of “activist research,” such as research on the safety hazards of BPA (bisphenol a) lining of metal food containers.

These are industry-sponsored objectives, not actual legislation. Their basic message is expressed in the report’s title, which translates to Make Money.

At the same time, consumer groups are vigorously organizing their defense of regulations that are intended to protect public health and safety. In California, the governor and attorney general are prepared to resist federal actions that would obstruct the state’s progress on several important issues.

The debate over the appropriate balance between public and private interests will continue during the coming four years, with an opportunity at the mid-point of this period to review the actions of some of our elected representatives.

Meanwhile, the political environment must be regarded as unsettled at best.

Urban Agriculture

Gardening of edible plants occurs in many different circumstances. Home gardening will be most familiar to most people, including gardeners of edibles, gardeners of ornamental plants and those rare people who don’t garden at all.

Next most familiar might be farming. Residents of the Monterey Bay area will at least drive by acres of many kinds of edible plants, and a significant number of our neighbors have spent time in the fields.

Then we have community gardens. Some fortunate people have direct experience with managing a small allotment of space within a community garden, to grow a personal preference of vegetables or, in some cases, ornamental plants. These small parcels often are borrowed spaces within urban surroundings, making good but temporary uses of the soil for a few people to enjoy the cultivation of plants and benefit from bringing the produce to their own tables or the tables of friends.

Too often, we hear about such gardens in our communities when the landowner decides to build on the land and requires the gardeners to abandon the soil they have been improving, perhaps for years.

My early exposure to such events was in Berkeley, in May of 1969. During a work-related visit to that city, in a multistory building with oversight of what was called the People’s Park, I observed a confrontation between armed police officials and peaceful people who wanted to maintain their occupancy of a small parcel of land. Using helicopters and tear gas, the officials won that day, but today, part of that parcel contains community gardens. This history perhaps demonstrates the dedication and persistence of gardeners.

A more organized approach to making productive use of otherwise idle urban lands is being demonstrated in Santa Clara County. The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority recently awarded substantial grants to community organizations for projects with goals in selected areas:

  • Environmental Stewardship and Restoration
  • Parks, Trails, and Public Access
  • Environmental Education
  • Urban Agriculture/Food Systems

This program represents a positive move toward protecting the natural environment and humanizing the urban environment.

Some communities have adopted policies to encourage and support community gardens. Good examples can be found in the western cities of Washington and Oregon. In many areas, however, community gardens are authorized and managed ad hoc, without a long-term perspective. The status of local ordinances in the Monterey Bay area would be an interesting study.

Street Farm coverA recent book inspires interest in a constructive approach to community gardens. The book is Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier, by Michael Abelman (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016. 239 pages).

In this book, Abelman describes his several years of developing small farms (up to two acres) in urban areas in California and Vancouver, Canada. He and his colleagues managed to gain access to underutilized parcels in urban areas, often after considerable effort to secure permissions and meet local ordinances. The parcels typically were either paved parking lot or contaminated land, so these prospective farmers constructed raised beds to make agriculture possible.

Raised-bed gardening is a better strategy than attempting to improve native soils with an excess of clay or sand.

Abelman approached his street farming adventures by assembling crews of workers from the community’s homeless populations, including people who were distressed for various reasons. In this respect, his projects have a constructive social purpose as well as the goal of producing organic food of good quality for sale. Their sales were typically through farmers markets, but have also included direct sales to restaurants, including Alice Waters’ the highly regarded Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

Abelman’s operating model generated enough income to pay his workers and meet the day-to-day expenses of urban farming. It also produced good will for the cooperating landowners and demonstrated the value of the persistent pursuit of a creative vision. Street Farm includes impressive photographs of highly productive farms in urban settings.

The stories in Street Farm culminate in Abelman’s “Urban Food Manifesto,” in which he expresses his visions, both “radical and terribly obvious,” of how we feed ourselves. He offers good and solid ideas that could be pursued in every community.

This book brings to mind Santa Cruz’s Homeless Garden Project, which will be a future topic.

California’s Healthy Soils Initiative

This week, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture reported progress in implementing the state’s Healthy Soils Initiative. This matter might seem esoteric for home gardeners, but it’s worth our attention for several reasons that are listed below.

First, by way of definition, let’s review the initiative’s goals, as stated by the CDFA:

  • Improve plant health and yields —contain important nutrients that improve plant growth and yields.
  • Improve biological diversity and wildlife habitat — at least a quarter of the world’s biodiversity lives in the soil; healthy soils improve habitats and other natural resources.
  • Reduce sediment erosion and dust — improve aeration, water infiltration, flood management and resistance to erosion and dust control.
  • Sequester and reduce greenhouse gasses — carbon stored in soil reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • Improve water and air quality —affects the persistence and biodegradability of pesticides and other inputs.
  • Increase water retention — healthy soil has the ability to hold up to 20 times its weight in water.

These goals encompass a “basket” of interconnected issues: agriculture, an important part of California’s economy; biodiversity; erosion; climate change; water & air quality; and drought. These issues are concerns of several state agencies, all of which are engaged in the operation of this initiative. Promoting interagency coordination and collaboration, which is never easy, is among the principal actions to advance this work.

The state’s 2016 budget act includes substantial funding for the Healthy Soils Program. The CDFA has defined five primary actions for carrying out its responsibilities under this program. Its recent report of progress focuses on Action #2: the identification of sustainable and integrated financing opportunities for (a) promoting greenhouse gas reductions, (b) sequestering carbon, (c) increasing water-holding capacity of the soil, and (d) increasing crop yields. The CDFA has drafted a framework for this program and will be inviting public comments beginning in January 2017.

The Healthy Soils Initiative and Program clearly target California’s agriculture industry. Why should home gardeners find this work interesting?

  1. It addresses issues that are important for every resident of the state, and that require long-term, comprehensive strategies for effective action.
  2. Home gardeners could (and should) adopt their own Healthy Soil goals and action plan to pursue within their respective gardens.
  3. By adopting the Healthy Soils Initiative, California both acts constructively to improve the quality of life within the state and provides a practical model for other states and indeed for the world. Everyone has a stake in this program’s success.

The CDFA has recently updated its website for the Healthy Soils Initiative. This site offers complete and succinct information on this program. Gardeners should visit the site and consider how they could pursue an equivalent program in their own gardens. Unless the CDFA quickly produces a “Healthy Soil Initiative for Home Gardeners,” watch for it in this column. Your ideas will be welcome!

Pruning Roses (and Trees & Shrubs)

It will soon be time for dormant pruning of your trees and shrubs. Pearl Harbor Day (December 7th), which reminds us first of when our gallant sailors and soldiers were attacked in Hawaii, also “triggers” rose pruning season. This day might be early for some, but noted local rose grower Joe Ghio has for years started his pruning on that date. He cultivates a lot of roses, so pruning is not a one-day event, as it might be for your collection. Still, this day reminds us to start pruning our roses, or at least to start thinking about this annual task.

I have written about pruning roses before, and do not want to repeat the guidelines for gardeners who are already experienced pruners. Instead of detailing the process, I will offer some broad suggestions.

First, if you are unsure of your pruning skills, visit the website of the American Rose Society for a refresher. Scroll down to “Pruning Roses” to find eight articles by experts on the subject. You will also see numerous articles on all aspects of the cultivation of roses.

Second, let your roses teach you how to prune. After you have absorbed some basic ideas from the ARS, a book, or some other source, make mental or written notes of how you prune your roses, then monitor their responses over the next growing season. You might even tie ribbons on selected branches to remind yourself of what you did, and to help in watching the plant’s growth.

Third, if you learn best from demonstrations, plan to attend one of the Monterey Bay Rose Society’s free rose pruning classes in January. The Society’s 2017 schedule includes classes at the Alladin Nursery (Watsonville), San Lorenzo Garden Center (Santa Cruz), and the Society’s Display Rose Garden in the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds (Watsonville). In addition, Joe Ghio might present his popular “Anyone Can Prune a Rose” workshop during the Society’s January meeting in Aptos. For information on times, dates and locations, visit the Society’s website.

McShane’s Nursery (Salinas) also provides free workshops on rose and fruit tree pruning. Visit the Nursery’s website for more information.

***

Fruit tree pruning also can be challenging for backyard gardeners. The dormant pruning season for fruit trees begins when leaves fall and before buds swell, roughly January through March. I recently attended a workshop on pruning fruit trees, conducted by a long-time friend, Peter Quintanilla, who is a UC Master Gardener, an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist, and a teacher of Arboriculture and Landscape Pruning at Cabrillo College. Peter spoke at a recent meeting of the Monterey Bay Iris Society (the members of the MBIS are interested in more than irises!).

I will write more on this subject as we near the pruning season, but now is a good time for gardeners to get “up to speed” on this subject. Find good information in your local public library or bookshop or on the Internet. For information on selected trees or shrubs (apple trees for example) try a Google search for “pruning apple trees” to find both article and YouTube demonstrations.

Seasonal pruning of roses and fruit trees will optimize their appearance, health, and productivity. This task, when done in a capable and timely manner, also can be a satisfying exercise for the gardener. If you are unsure of your pruning knowledge, make a New Year’s resolution to master at least the basic techniques. And be sure to let Nature teach you about pruning.

UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley

Recently, a group of cactus & succulent gardeners car-pooled to the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, for a tour of the Garden’s collection of cacti & succulents.

The 34-acre Garden holds one of the largest and most diverse collections in the United States, with most plants organized geographically in several regions of the world. In addition to the Geographic Collections, the Garden includes Ethnobotanical Collections and Taxonomic Collections.

These collections include nearly 17,000 different plants, called “accessions,” each of which is documented thoroughly in a computerized database, which can be searched online. The Garden’s website has this information about its database:

“Detailed records are kept for each accession, including their place of origin, which enhances their scientific and educational value considerably. Each accession is accompanied by a public display label including accession number, family name, scientific name, and place of origin, and where appropriate, common name.”

Such records are essential for a research collection, and a good idea for any garden. The Garden’s plant database is searchable online.

This group headed for the Arid House, which is one of Taxonomic Collection. The Arid House is a climate-controlled space that includes a cacti & succulents collection open to the public, with a diverse collection of plants from multiple geographic locations. Each plant has an informative label, and the room includes interpretive signs with broader information.

This public space is connected to a staff-only large room with a large research-and-conservation collection of mostly small plants. The specimens on one side of this room can be viewed from an adjacent walkway, through a security barrier.

Our group tour was led by Bryan Gim, the Horticulturist for the Arid House collection. He noted that the majority of the plants in the Arid House are succulents (which includes cacti) and also includes other plants with similar climatic requirements.

Many succulent plants grow well outdoors in the UC Botanical Garden’s environment, which is similar to that of the Monterey Bay area. So, many of the Garden’s succulent plants can be seen outdoors, in several regional collections, particularly Deserts of the Americas; Mexico and Central America; Southern Africa; and Mediterranean Collections. Most of these are close to the Arid House.

Agave stricta

Agave stricta (Hedgehog Agave, Mexico)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aloe plicailis (Fan Aloe)

Aloe plicatilis (Fan Aloe, South Africa)

Boophone Disticha

Boophone disticha (Veld Fan, South Africa)

The UC Botanical Garden is an exceptional resource that is easily accessible to all in the Monterey Bay area. It offers unique opportunities to study plants, or just to enjoy a walk through a fascinating collection of both exotic and familiar plants and escape the concerns of the day. The site, although fairly limited in size, presents a great resource for both avid gardeners and all who appreciate nature’s bounty.

 

 

Visit the Garden’s website for more information. Explore the page “About/The Garden” for a timeline of the Garden’s since its establishment in 1890, and “About/Collections” for an introduction to each of the individual collections.

My visit was with the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society;of course, the Garden welcomes all interested individuals and groups year-round.

GMOs Revisited

The battle over genetically engineered foods goes on! The latest salvo deserves your attention.

First, some background.

GE foods are referred to, incorrectly, as “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs), but that term encompasses natural and human-made hybrids, while “GE foods” refers specifically to foods created by introducing foreign genes.

No one resists actual GMOs, because everything we eat has been genetically modified, either by hybridization managed naturally by bees and other pollinators, growers who do the work of bees in an organized way, or farmers who select and replant seeds from the best-performing plants in their fields. These practices all modify genes.

On the other hand, the vast majority of consumers has been—and continues to be—strongly resistant to GE foods, typically concerned that there must be bad consequences from “fooling around with Mother Nature.”

Consumers have demanded labeling GE foods, so that they could avoid them at their discretion. Federal regulations allow labeling foods as “organic” when they meet certain standards, including not being produced through genetic engineering.

However, federal regulators have agreed with the Monsanto Corporation, the major source of GE food seeds, that GE foods are no different from conventionally produced foods, and therefore do not require labeling, as such. Critics dispute this conclusion, because corporate interests have controlled most related research.

So, consumers with concerns about GE foods have always had the option to buy only organic foods. Still, consumer groups have pressed for labeling of GE foods (called GMOs).

In late July of this year, Congress, under pressure from agribusiness, approved compromise legislation mandating a national standard for labeling GE foods, and President Obama signed the bill. The problem with this standard is that it doesn’t require such foods to be identified plainly in print, but instead allows labeling to be done through UPC codes or website addresses. Consumers were disappointed and even outraged.

Congress was motivated to adopt this industry-friendly approach for various reasons, including the claims that genetic engineering is needed to feed the world’s growing population, and reduce needs for agricultural chemicals.

My view has been that the impacts of GE foods on health have not been demonstrated convincingly, and the actual problem with GE foods lies with their unproven benefits, corporate control of seeds and increased uses of synthetic chemical herbicides.

The latest salvo in this struggle is the report of investigative journalism, “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops,” published very recently in the New York Times. The reporter, Danny Hakim, compared historical yields of crops in the U.S. with those in Europe, where GMOs have been banned in agriculture.

U.S. farmers use GE seeds almost always in growing corn, and European farmers do not, so this is a crucial comparison. Hakim found that yields of corn crops were about the same in Europe and the U.S., indicating no benefit from GE technology.

Hakim also compared yields of crops of rapeseed (used to produce canola oil) and sugar beets, and also found zero benefit from GE technology.

Hakim’s research also found that herbicide usage in the U.S. has grown dramatically over the past ten years, primarily in the use of Roundup, which kills weeds and other plants other than those grown from “Roundup-Ready” seeds produced with genetic engineering. Critics note that uses of synthetic agricultural chemicals are poisoning our soils, getting into our foods, and fostering the evolution of “superweeds” that resist the chemical attacks.

Another report of investigate journalism, by Krista Holobar, “Does Big Ag Really Feed the World? New Data Says Not So Much,” was published recently online by Civil Eats. She found that U.S. agribusiness does very little to provide food for undernourished people, and concluded that helping those populations should emphasize economic development, education, health and nutrition training, and an end to warfare.

The best strategy for U.S. consumers is to Buy Organic!

Cultivating Cannabis

The stunning results of this week’s vote include a significant change for gardeners:
removal of a long-standing ban on growing cannabis for personal recreational use by adults.

Voters approved Proposition 64, which legalizes “growing up to six marijuana plants and keeping the marijuana produced by the plants within a private home.” This column provides a brief introduction to the cultivation of marijuana; interested gardeners should read all of the proposition’s provisions related to personal uses of marijuana.

Cannabis (Marijuana), a herb with psychoactive properties, is a genus of the Cannabaceae family. Other genera in this family include Celtis (Hackberry), Humulus (Hop) and about eight other less familiar plants.

There are three species of Cannabis: C. sativa, C. indica, and C. ruderalis. There are many C. sativa x indica hybrids that combine sativa’s productivity and indica’s more compact size.

The plant grew originally in mountainous regions northwest of the Himalayas, and is now indigenous to central Asia and India; it grows well in much of California.

Cannabis is dioecious, meaning the genus has separate female and male plants. Only about 6% of flowering plants are dioecious; the great majority is monoecious, having both male and female flowers.

The flowers of well-grown female plants (called sensimilla, meaning “without seeds”) of both C. sativa and C. indica secrete an abundance of chemical compounds (cannabinoids), mostly tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive constituent, and cannabidiol (CBD), which has a range of medical applications.

Growing cannabis for personal use would be well within the skills of typical gardeners: the plant grows so vigorously that it is commonly called “weed.” The reasons for growing your own marijuana include controlling expenses, avoiding synthetic chemicals, and selecting preferred cultivars (“strains”). Growing the plant for optimal production of THC involves some care, so the challenge to succeed could be satisfying in itself.

Local garden centers are unlikely to offer Cannabis seeds or seedlings in the near future. Two local garden center managers told me they would stay out of the Cannabis market at least until federal laws allow personal, recreational use of the plant.

For this reason, the best way to begin is to buy seeds online. A search of the Internet for “Cannabis seeds” will yield links to several vendors offering various strains, each with features of potency, productivity, fragrance, taste, disease resistance, etc. Generally, seeds are offered online in small packets, with prices ranging around $5 to $10 per seed. Growers claim germination rates of 90-95%, so two or more gardeners might share the cost of a seed purchase.

Cultivation of the Cannabis plant proceeds through stages:

  • Sprouting Stage. Germinate seeds in the spring by placing them in a damp paper towel. The seeds should show a small white taproot within 72 hours. Plant the seeds ¼-inch deep in planting mix with the root pointing down in a small biodegradable container, e.g., a peat pot. Keep the soil slightly damp with de-chlorinated water (leave tap water in an open container for 24 hours to release chlorine gas). Leave for 1 to 3 weeks.
  • Vegetative Growth Stage. Move the small plant (still in its biodegradable container) to a 3-to-5 gallon pot filled with planting mix plus compost. The mix should be kept slightly damp with slightly acidic (low pH) water, and the plant should receive maximum sunlight. If growing indoors, maintain 72–85°F, and provide a high level of light for 18–24 hours/day. Feed the plant with high-nitrogen fertilizer. During this stage, prune off about ¾ of the top growth tip to promote new top growth and additional buds. This is also the right stage to take cuttings for the propagation of clones.
  • Flowering Stage. Once the plant grows to18 inches or more in height, it will be ready for flowering. To stimulate flowering, provide strong light for 12 hours/day, and complete darkness for 12 hours/day. If the plants have been growing outdoors, this could require moving the plants indoors for the dark period each day. During this stage, the plants could double in size.
cannabis-plant-in-bud

Cannabis plant in bud

  • Harvesting Stage. Reaching this stage could take 5 weeks, during which the plant benefits from phosphorus (e.g., chicken or bat compost tea) more than nitrogen. As the buds develop, they will emit resinous trichomes that will change from clear to cloudy to amber in color. Using a low-power magnifier, watch for when about 50% of the trichomes become amber, indicating that the buds are ready for harvest. Cut each of the bud masses, keeping them large and intact.
cannabis-trichomes-magnified

Cannabis trichomes, magnified

  • Drying and Curing Stage. Air-drying is simplest and most popular. Suspend the bud cuttings upside down in a room with moving air for about seven days. Then, place them in airtight glass jars for at least 2 weeks. Longer is better. To release moisture, open the jars daily to during the 1st week, and every other day during the 2nd The marijuana should then be ready to smoke.

There is much to learn. Several “how-to” articles and short books are freely available online, revealing perhaps what generous marijuana cultivators do while their plants grow. To find and download these resources, search the Internet for “how to grow marijuana,” or visit selected websites listred below.

Growing your own marijuana is like making your own wine: it’s possible but not for every gardener. Let us know of your experience!

Online Resources

the-marijuana-grow-bible

marijuana-the-ultimate-organic-guide

marijuana-cultivation

I Love Growing Marijuana — An experienced cultivator of marijuana, Robert Bergman, maintains this website which offers many free or low-cost resources for cultivating Cannabis. The site also offers a variety of Cannabis seeds, with brief descriptions of their properties.

Seed Supreme — Another source of Cannabis seeds.

Ten Reasons to Buy a Plant

Many—and perhaps most—gardeners understand that a good practice is to buy plants in the fall, so that they can be irrigated by the rains while establishing their roots in preparation for a growth spurt in the spring.

That’s a better strategy than buying plants in the spring when garden centers offer plants with fertilizer-induced early blooms and a tendency to fade in common garden soil.

Another good practice: buy plants for specific goals. Purposeful purchases will be more successful than impulse buys, which can be based on an attractive name or an effective sales display.

With these ideas in mind for early planters, here are ten guidelines for visiting a garden center or opening a mail-order catalog,

  1. Fill a specific gap in the landscape. Look first for a plant with an appropriate size at maturity, and then consider the variety of secondary factors.
  2. Provide color when needed. You might want more color in the spring, or the summer, or the fall. With a bit of research, you can find plants that will show color on the desired schedule.
  3. Feed birds, bees, and butterflies. These winged creatures benefit from, healthy food sources, and will come quickly to gardens where the right plants are available.
  4. Develop a collection of plants. Different species within a genus, or different varieties within a species, add interest to the garden. Another rose, or another fuchsia, for example, will compare nicely with the existing selections.
  5. Extend a color scheme. A white garden, or a yellow and blue garden, for example, will look even better with an additional specimen that fits the scheme.
  6. Add a needed spot of color. A well-placed and well-chosen colorful plant can enliven a too-green planting bed by bringing an eye-catching contrast (but avoid adding color randomly).
  7. Create a focal point. A specific situation might call for an interesting plant, container or sculpture to be strategically placed to attract the eye of anyone walking through the garden.
  8. Fill a container. A large, empty container, or one with a plant past its prime, can become a strong asset in the garden with a well-chosen new plant or combination of plants. For a successful project, use fresh planting mix.
  9. Protect against pests and diseases. If diseases or gophers or any of several other pests invade your garden look for a pest-resistant plant, or replace one that’s not.
  10. Add a drought-resistant plant. A garden of succulent plants and others that evolved for a dry climate will grow well during the predicted future years of light rainfall.

You might have other specific reasons for buying plants. It’s most important to know the role the plant will play when you bring it to the garden. An Internet search or a reference like Sunset’s Western Garden Book can help with these decisions. If a plant also has an appealing name or a bright blossom, that’s a plus!

Enjoy a creative and purposeful browse through a garden center or a nursery catalog!