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!

Planting for Fall Color

Experienced gardeners know that the early fall is a very good time to install new plants. This timing anticipates our Mediterranean climate’s rainy season, during which Nature provides the moisture that new plants require, and the winter months allow time for them to establish their roots in preparation for above-ground growth in the spring.

It is quite natural in this season for gardeners to plant with spring flowers in mind, with their greatest interest focused on spring bulbs. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, especially when gardeners explore the lesser-known geophytes, as well as the always popular spring- and summer-blooming bulbs.

Still, this season is the ideal time to plan for next year’s fall season. This planning begins with a critical look at your own garden. Is it visually exciting and beautiful during the next few weeks, or does it appear tired and eager to enter dormancy? If it could be more pleasing to the eye, plant now to ensure a better look a year in the future.

An easy and reliable way to find plants to add fall color to your next-year garden is to take a walk through your neighborhood to spot attractive plants that look healthy and vigorous. By scanning gardens with growing conditions like yours, this approach automatically directs your attention to plants that are likely to do well in your garden.

Another productive strategy is to ask at your favorite garden center about plants for fall color. A trustworthy garden center will be ready to point out such plants and recommend winners for your garden setting.

Research also can identify good candidates. The Sunset Western Garden Book lists several trees, shrubs, and vines for fall color, and provides details for each in its Western Plant Encyclopedia.

Here are a few popular selections.

Trees

Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nattallii) A spectacular tree that can grow to 50 feet tall. It flowers white or pink in the spring and again in the summer> In the fall it displays yellow, red and pink leaves and clusters of decorative red fruit.

Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’) An ancient, actually prehistoric genus that can reach 30 feet tall. It produces gold-colored leaves that drop quickly in the fall to produce a golden carpet.

Flowering Crabapple (Malus hybrids) Small trees (usually 20 feet tall) that flower in the spring then hold their attractive fruit through the fall. Many varieties are listed in the Western Garden Book.

Shrubs, Perennials

Cotoneaster varieties (e.g., C. lacteus, C. franchetii) This shrub, native to China, comes in various sizes from groundcover to twenty feet tall and wide. Produces bright red berries in the late summer followed by fall.

Windflower (Anemone x bybrida) The popular Japanese Anemone (A. japonica) produces white, pink, or rose flowers on arching stems up to four feet high, followed by unusual cottony seed heads.

cotoneaster-anemone

Cotoneaster & Anemone

Aster (Aster x Frikartii ‘Monch; Symphyotrichum spp.). Only the European and Asiatic species are still called Aster officially; North American species have that long new name. Hundreds of varieties are available to produce an abundance of flowers from white to pale blues and pinks to deep scarlet and purple.

Vines

Chinese Wisteria (W. sinensis). This vine, the most common wisteria in the west, produces clusters of violet-blue, slightly fragrant flowers that open all at once in the fall.

Roger’s California Grape (Vitis californica cultivar ‘Roger’s Red’) A central California native often grown as an ornamental plant grows so vigorously that gardeners can boast of their green thumbs. Many American and European varieties are available for table grapes.

There are many more plants that can beautify your garden environment in the fall with colorful flowers, foliage or fruits. Plan and plant now, as we enter the planting season, to set the stage for attractive seasonal displays in future years.

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Another Garden Thug—Castorbean

I have observed recently that certain plants bring a mix of good and bad traits to the garden. In some cases, a plant’s positive characteristics can offset the negative ones. As a result, the gardener might want to include the plant in this landscape and accept the reality that it will require “special handling.”

One such plant is the castorbean (Ricinus communis), also known as the castor oil plant. This is a member of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), native to the southeastern Mediterranean Basin, Eastern Africa, and India. It grows as a large shrub that can attain a height exceeding thirty feet. The popular garden varieties, however, grow to ten feet or less.

The plant has several positive qualities, foremost being the striking appearance of its leaves, which are palm-shaped (palmate) and dark reddish-purple in color, becoming green with age. The shrub grows fairly quickly, and the gardener can control its shape with regular pruning. Also, being native to a Mediterranean climate, the castorbean, once established, is drought tolerant in the Monterey Bay area.

Castorbean leaves & seeds

Castorbean seeds, leaves and flowers

Another positive quality is the plant’s usefulness for medicinal, insecticidal, and industrial purposes. There are several medicinal uses, including as a laxative. The greatest commercial value of the beans (actually seeds) is for motor lubrication. These applications do not, however, contribute to its value in the garden.

The negative qualities must be acknowledged. First, the raw seeds are extremely toxic when chewed. They have been described as the most poisonous in the world. The seeds can be attractive and tasty-looking, but as few as four-to-eight seeds can be fatal to an adult. If you have this plant in your garden, you should ensure that neither children nor pets have opportunities to sample the seeds.

The plant is also strongly allergenic. Its pollen can trigger asthmatic attacks, and its sap can cause skin rashes.

Another negative quality is the castorbean’s tendency to propagate itself by dropping seeds. My plant has generated several crops of seedlings within a circle about thirty feet in diameter, centered on the mother plant. How the seeds plant themselves well beyond the plant’s drip line remains a mystery. The seedlings grow quickly up to three feet in height, but are easily uprooted. They do not transplant well, so I have not potted them for other gardeners. They might have inspired mixed reactions, especially by gardeners with children or pets.

Despite its toxicity and allergenic potential, the castorbean is grown for its ornamental value throughout the world in compatible climates. This reality demonstrates the appreciation of avid gardeners for plants that bring unique contributions to the landscape.

For at least some gardeners, the castorbean’s reddish-purple leaves are more important than the effort involved in protecting against the plant’s poisons and eradicating its unwanted progeny.

Each gardener must make such decisions for his or her own garden.

Garden Exchanges, Alstroemeria

My recent garden exchange experience generates thoughts about the ways in which gardeners share plants and other garden items.

In some Monterey Bay area communities, garden exchanges are infrequent occasions. There are successful events in Monterey and Seaside (and perhaps other communities) that local groups organize once a year. Santa Cruz has a low-key monthly exchange that is popular during the growing season.

Exchanges generally focus on plants as cuttings, bare-root specimens, seedlings (also called “starts”) in four-inch plastic nursery pots, and larger plants in one-gallon (or even five-gallon) pots. Empty pots and sometime other garden items also appear occasionally.

Most gardeners have plants that they could bring to an exchange simply because many good garden plants reproduce naturally and sometimes vigorously. While all plants that grow in a given area can be exchanged, this practice began with “passalong plants,” which are thought of as botanical heirlooms that have survived for decades primarily by being handed from one gardener to another. These plants might not be easily found in garden centers because they reproduce so easily that commercial growers choose not to compete with nature.

One example of such a plant is the Alstroemeria, commonly called the Lily of the Incas. This plant is also called the Peruvian Lily, although they are native to either central Chile (winter-growers) or eastern Brazil (summer growers). Central Chile, as you my recall, has a summer-dry climate very much like that of the Monterey Bay area, so these plants thrive locally.

Alstroemeria

Alstroemeria in bloom

The Alstroemeria reproduces by creating clusters of small tubers that are easily shared and grown. Plant the tubers horizontally, about eight inches deep.

This plant’s blossoms are available in many shades of red, orange, purple, green, and white, flecked and striped and streaked with darker colors. It produces long flower stalks and is a very good cut flower. To stimulate blossoming, tug the flower stalks instead of cutting them. They release easily.

The Alstroemeria produces large numbers of tubers, so many that it can be difficult to dig into a long-established bed. This growth habit exemplifies the passalong plant: desirable and prolific.

Steve Bender and Felder Rushing wrote Passalong Plants (2002), in which they describe 117 plants that have been shared for many years in the southeastern states. There are at least as many plants that are traditionally shared by coastal California gardeners, including both natives and imports.

I collected two free plants at last week’s garden exchange:

  • a seedling Tree Tomato (Tamarillo), a native of Chile that is a fast-growing tree that produces egg-shaped edible fruits with exotic appeal. It could grow quickly to fifteen feet, but can be limited by pruning. I’ll try it in my Chilean bed.
  • Mother of Millions (Bryophyllum delagoense), a succulent plant with interesting leaves. It is native to Madagascar that “escaped” to Australia, where is it considered a noxious weed. Each plant produces small plantlets along the edges of its leaves that detach and form new plants. This makes it difficult to eradicate. It is also toxic to humans, pets and livestock. I will not add this plant to my garden. Or share it.

Visitors to the garden exchange also presented a wide variety of other popular plants. These examples suggest that both interesting and troublesome plants might be available, so a brief inquiry on the Internet research is always appropriate before adding an unfamiliar plant to the garden.

The next Santa Cruz Garden Exchange will be at the Eleventh Annual Garden Faire in Scotts Valley, Saturday, June 18th. For information, visit http://thegardenfaire.org.

Acanthus: Love & Hate

Aside

There are plants that most gardeners hate and other plants that most gardeners love. It is a rare plant, however, that provokes both love and hate in the same people.

The Acanthus is one of those rare plants.

Let’s consider why it generates strong reactions, both positive and negative.

The genus Acanthus includes twelve species. Various species are native to Europe and the Mediterranean basin, Africa. South Asia, and Australasia.

Three species from the Mediterranean basin are cultivated in many American gardens: A. mollis, A. spinosus, and A. balcanicus and are popular in Monterey Bay area, where the climate resembles the plant’s native environs.

Acanthus spinosus

Acanthus spinosus (click to enlarge)

These popular species are similar in appearance, with differences primarily in the lobes of the leaves: some have more deeply cut lobes than others. Generally, Acanthus is a clump-forming perennial plant that is grown for its attractive foliage and bold flower spikes. It works best placed behind smaller plants, to provide a lush backdrop for the landscape.

Given a favorable climate and adequate drainage, the Acanthus adapts to various soil types, and is usually pest- and disease-free, except for an occasional snail that tries to nibble the plant’s hard and glossy leaves. It prefers partial shade, but in our moderate climate also does well in full sun. It will grow in one season up to four feet high and wide, with some flower spikes reaching above the leaves.

At the end of the season, the flowers fade and the leaves wilt, and new leaves spring from the base. It’s time to cut the old growth to the ground and welcome a new cycle of growth.

Everything about the plant seems fine, right? Let’s look at the sources of ill will.

Firstly, a relatively minor concern is the plant’s prickliness. The genus name comes from the Greek word akantha, which means spine and refers to the edges of the leaves. When we encounter A. spinosus, we have the addition of the Latin term for spine, and a plant that might be called “Spiny Spiny.”

Actually, the Acanthus’ common name is “Bear’s Breeches.” I have not found an explanation for that odd name.

Secondly, the Acanthus propagates too readily. It develops creeping rootstocks and drops seeds, and has been considered invasive in some agricultural areas, but the progeny are really not difficult to control in a garden setting.

Thirdly (and this is the big negative), a well-established Acanthus is very difficult to eradicate. The smallest piece of root left behind will sprout into a new plant. Gardens change by the gardener’s design or by Nature’s plan, but the Acanthus is forever.

Given the excessive persistence of the Acanthus, we might have mixed feelings about the introduction of a new hybrid form of the plant. But the recent appearance of Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ has generated enthusiasm. This plant has variegated leaves and blossoms in white and cream, aging into pink. A mature clump of this plant in the right setting could be a knockout. (The ‘Whitewater’ photo is from Terra Nova Nurseries.)

Acanthus 'Whitewater'

Acanthus ‘Whitewater’

I have struggled to eliminate A. mollis and found A. spinosus to be better-behaved, so I’m hesitant to plant ‘Whitewater’ in my garden. It’s striking appearance, however, invites a compromise: container planting. The pot should be large enough for the roots, the right proportion for the largish plant, and in a color that complements green and white with a touch of pink. I have begun looking!

A Not-to-Miss Event

As we enjoy the final days of winter, warmly, we begin thoughts of the arrival of spring and the reemergence of our gardens. With exquisite timing, the annual San Francisco Flower & Garden Show brings the season into focus and offers an unparalleled array of inspiration, information and products to help avid gardeners to launch the year’s gardening activities.

The SF Show began over thirty years ago as a fundraiser for the San Francisco Friends of Recreation and Parks, and soon evolved into a commercial event that features landscape designers, speakers on numerous topics in gardening, and exhibitors of plants and a wide range of garden products.

The Show ranks as one of the nation’s three largest annual events devoted to gardening and landscaping. The others are the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, which was held in mid-February in Seattle, and the Philadelphia Flower Show, which will be held March 5–13. Since 1829, the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has sponsored the Philadelphia Show as a fundraiser.

The world’s most significant competitor to these three garden shows is the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, to be held May 24–28, 2016, at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (near London).

This brief survey of major garden shows indicates that the SF Show amounts to a major event for gardeners of the west coast, and a great and accessible resource for gardeners of the Monterey Bay area.

This year’s SF Show will include 125 free seminars by gardening experts who have been selected as effective speakers. The seminar speakers and schedule is available on the SF Show’s website. The seminars are scheduled in five different stages within the San Mateo Event Center, so your attendance requires a little planning.

The Show also includes over 200 exhibitors in the Plant Market and The Marketplace. If you need any new plants or tools or garden art, you are likely to find them at the SF Show. One of the favorite exhibits is the large display by Succulent Gardens, from near Moss Landing. Early word is that this booth will be larger than ever, in response to enthusiastic collectors of succulent plants.

I will bring a couple mail order catalogs of garden plants and supplies for reference in evaluating prices at the SF Show. The prices are reasonable, I believe, but I always appreciate bargains.

The highlight for many visitors will be the Showcase Gardens, which will include nine full-size garden displays of the talents of landscape designers and craftsmen from northern California. The gardens often dazzle visitors by providing elaborate presentations of beautiful plants, stunning settings and unique concepts. These gardens present thematic designs that incorporate many ideas that can be adapted for your own garden. The designers of course will welcome new clients, and most will also be on hand to answers visitors’ question.

A day at the SF Show is really close by, not expensive, and an exceptional opportunity to bring gardening ideas and riches back home. It should be on your calendar.

If You Go

What: San Francisco Flower & Garden Show

When: March 16–20, 2016

Where: San Mateo Event Center

Info: http://sfgardenshow.com/

Drama for the Landscape

 

One of the most spectacular plants from South Africa, in exuberant bloom at this time of the year, is Aloe arborescens. It can be seen throughout the Monterey Bay area, occasionally having spread into impressively large clusters of plants.

The specific name means “tree-like,” because the plant can grow to close to ten feet high. Structurally, the plant consists of several branches, each of which ends in a rosette of leaves edged with small spikes. Each rosette can generate several flower stalks that produce cylindrical inflorescences (racemes). The individual flowers, typically a bright orange-red, are tubular and attractive to hummingbirds. The clusters of flowers resemble the flame of a torch, leading to the plant’s common name: Torch Aloe.

DSCF0022 DSCF0023 DSCF0024 DSCF0025

Several years ago, I planted my first specimen of this succulent plant, a single rosette, in a well-drained bed. It grew rapidly and extended runners (stolons) that produced new plants, ready to take over the bed. Not knowing its full growth potential, but realizing that it was too productive for that small bed, I shovel-pruned it, replanted three rosettes in front of a nearby compost bin, and placed most of the rest in the bin.

The replanted rosettes grew readily into a dramatic presence in my garden, and also shielded the compost bin from view.

A. arborescens is related to A. vera, a smaller, more familiar South African native that is popular for its ornamental, cosmetic and medicinal values: its juices reportedly have rejuvenating, healing, or soothing properties.

The Torch Aloe also reportedly has value in promoting good health. Some people advocate a drink made from the pureed whole raw A. arborescens leaf, unheated raw honey and 1% certified organic alcohol. This drink is claimed to support immunity from a range of diseases and provide general cleansing for the whole body. It is reported to be “bitter, but unctuous and savoury as well, thanks to the honey.”

I have plenty of leaves but have not tried the drink. This is not a testimonial.

A. arborescens is one of about 500 species of the genus Aloe, which includes natives of South Africa, tropical Africa, Madagascar, Jordan, the Arabian Peninsula and some islands in the Indian Ocean. Many grow well in the summer-dry climate of the Monterey Bay area. Most species, unlike A. arborescens, are stemless: the rosettes grow directly on the ground.

A smaller, yellow-flowered variant, called Golden Torch Aloe (A. arborescens lutea), can be found in limited numbers.

Another yellow-flowered form, Yellow Aloe, was discovered in a private garden in Santa Barbara. This plant might be a variant of A. arborescens, a hybrid with another species, or an entirely different species: A. mutabilis, which has red flower buds that mature into yellow.

Aloe arborescens can be an attractive and interesting addition to a landscape that has sufficient space.

Color in the Winter Garden

A good practice is to walk through your garden occasionally to see what is succeeding, and what might need changing. It’s rewarding to visit your plants in the spring, but the winter months (now) are when we look for dormant season instances of attractive color, form or fragrance.

In the Monterey Bay area, the dormant season brings nothing like the severe conditions experienced in some other parts of the United States, but our gardens still rest at this time, and might present only limited interest.

It doesn’t have to be that way! There are many plants that can enhance our gardens while other sleep, when we plan for all season interest.

A first step is to take note of plants that are already in your garden, and looking good right now. They might be providing attractive blooms or interesting foliage, taking the center of attention while others have dropped their leaves or died to the ground.

You could supplement the tour of your own garden with a walk through your neighborhood to see what looks good in nearby gardens. That approach automatically identifies plants that would thrive in the climate and soil conditions of your garden. It can also be a good excuse to meet new people, to ask them about their gardens.

My garden, while not a true all-season display, still has several plants that are attractive during the winter months. For example, succulent plants, which have done well during our drought period, can maintain their appearance during dormancy.

I recently renovated a small bed of Mexican succulents, and the plants are looking good. They will produce blossoms later in the year, but the forms and colors or their foliage works well year-round. The recent addition of a large Talavera bowl, recently added, serves to mark the bed’s Mexican theme.

Talavera pottery, offered by many garden stores, is a style of glazed ceramic pottery that dates to the Italian Renaissance. Authentic Talavera items are from the Mexican city of Puebla and nearby communities, but imitations (which includes my own piece) are widely available. Imitations from other parts of Mexico are properly identified as Maiolica, which refers to the decorative style.

Other plants that are starring during the winter include a Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violacea), an Australian native, now covered with small violet flowers; an enormous Candelabra Plant (Aloe Arborescens) from South Africa, blooming later than others in the area, and a favorite, a Variegated Winter Daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’), which offers both colorful evergreen foliage and a sweet fragrance that highlights the season.

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

When provided good drainage and afternoon shade, daphnes are reliable performers for years until they suddenly and without apparent cause, give up. An older specimen recently showed arrested development: flower and leaf buds simply didn’t mature for months. After quizzing three knowledgeable friends, without success, I removed the plant (making space for another fuchsia). By this time, I already had three replacement daphnes growing nearby, so I still could enjoy the wafts of fragrance this year.

Prepare now to bring new interest to your garden for next winter with more seasonal bloomers and evergreen foliage, either adding specimens of existing plants that you like or bringing in good performers that you have seen in nearby gardens. Winter gardens can be very pleasing environments.

More

A quick Internet search or a visit to your local library or bookstore could lead to useful lists of winter-blooming plants. For example, one good source of information is Dan Hinkley’s book,  Winter Ornamentals.

Adding Unexpected Plants to Your Garden

This column presents a case study of adding an unexpected and unfamiliar plant to one’s garden.

A friend gave me a plant that had outgrown its container, and no longer had a place in its previous home. My friend didn’t have a name for the plant, but a neighbor’s garden has a related species: the photo shows much longer leaves than my gift plant, and the potential to grow rather large.

Dyckia

I had never grown a plant like this one, so I was immediately interested. Here is a suggested intake process.

First, inspect the plant visually to check that it is healthy and free of disease or pests. This plant had some dieback from normal aging and outgrowing a large container, but otherwise looked healthy. I gladly accepted the gift.

Identification should be the next priority. I had seen this plant in four-inch pots, and knew it as a Dyckia, but learning the genus and species of a new plant can be challenging. This plant doesn’t appear in Sunset’s Western Garden Book, a convenient reference. In such cases, asking other gardeners or garden center staff can be the best strategy.

Then, examine the plant’s size and characteristics. This Dyckia develops several rosettes eight-to-twelve inches in diameter. Each rosette is comprised of many thin leaves up to eight inches long, with very sharp terminal spines and numerous sharp teeth on both sides. (My neighbor’s magnificent Dyckia has leaves up to two feet long!) The plant is attractive, but neither welcoming nor easily handled!

Considering both this plant’s mature size and hazards, I concluded that it should be should be three feet from any walkway, but still close enough to appreciate its intricate leaf structure.

Also, it should not be under a tree, as it would be difficult to groom dropped leaves from the Dykia’s spiny cluster.

Then, learning about the plant’s cultivation needs will guide planting and future care. An Internet search for “Dyckia” brought me these websites: Wikipedia; Bromeliad Society of Houston; Yucco Do Nursery; Annie’s Magic Garden; and Dyckia Brazil.

Dyckias, I learned, are native to Brazil, members of the Bromeliad family, and related to pineapples (Ananas comosus), Puyas, Tellandsias, and Bilbergias. There are some 158 species of Dyckias.

After comparing my specimen’s appearance with others on the Internet, I concluded that it is D. fosteriana, which is a popular species. This plant hybridizes easily in nature and in human hands, so many cultivars are available. Confident identification requires a specialist.

The Dyckia lacks internal water storage tissue, so it’s not a true succulent, but it will go dormant in response to a lack of moisture. It prefers full sun but will manage partial shade, and has exceptional tolerance for freezing weather. It is pest-free, although snails will nibble at tender flower shoots. Generally, the Dyckia is a sturdy and trouble-free plant.

Dyckias reportedly do not like transplanting during the winter, but I proceeded still to separate and pot up six offsets (”pups”) for gifts to others, and to put my new plant in the ground. I’ll learn how well it responds.

My garden lacks a bed for Brazilian plants. I accommodated this unusual new plant by redefining my existing Chilean bed as Chilean/South American.

Avid gardeners should welcome unexpected, unusual and attractive gifts to their gardens. A systematic process can help to place the plant well and to provide the care needed for its success. New plants are gardening adventures!