My cousin, Kenneth, who has built a successful career in advertising, once related to me how heavily we rely on our vision. According to Ken, vision comprises about 75% of our sensory perception while touch, hearing, taste, and smell combined make up the other 25%. Naturally, Ken works hard to produce advertisements and logos that are visually appealing. I became acutely aware of the obvious truth of my cousin’s statement as I opened my own business as a retail nursery.
My previous experience with plants and horticulture had taught me that the most important part of any plant is the root. Unfortunately this is the part we cannot see. However we have all had the experience of tenacious weeds that will not die until we extract the roots. If you will think about it a moment you will realize that in order to survive, plants absolutely must have the ability to regenerate from the roots. In Nature we have freezes, ice and snow load, fire, flooding, hail, and strong wind events that can seriously damage or completely remove the top of any plant. Yet as long as the roots remain, the plant will grow back eventually. Even though most of us are aware of these things, we seem to lose sight of it (literally) when we shop for plants.
If I am showing someone a group of plants that are just beginning spring growth they will choose the one with the most leaves. When buying flowering plants, they will choose ones that have open flowers instead of buying the ones that are just beginning to form buds. When discussing growth habit I will make it a point to explain that this particular tree or shrub usually grows as a crooked multi-trunk as opposed to a straight single trunk but the customer will pick the straightest one in the bunch. Another amusing example is peach and plum trees. The average person will usually select the straightest and tallest trees only to find when they get interested in proper pruning technique that it is recommended to cut these trees back to 2 or 3 foot tall to encourage an open (yes, that means crooked) multi-branched growth form. Perhaps the best example of all is sod. Most people want to buy fresh sod that appears to be healthy. Sod becomes increasingly harder to sell as it starts to yellow and finally brown yet the greenest freshest sod there is still has had most of the roots cut away. Therefore it is destined to turn brown anyway unless the customer waters constantly until the roots begin to heal.
The eyes tend to overrule that other sense, our common sense, when faced with what appears to be exactly what we want. Plant growers and garden centers are well aware of this. Why else would each and every tree you find come strapped to a pole to keep it straight? Is this really good for the tree? It certainly is not. Why else would most flowering plants be grown in the controlled environment of a greenhouse, pampered to perfection, and force fed chemicals to make them appear healthy? Take one of these lush beauties home to the real world and neglect it. You’ll find it really wasn’t as healthy as it looked. Most growers will go to great lengths to produce healthy looking plants. Why else would a big name wholesale outfit in the Houston area spend $30,000 a year on fungicides to keep leaf fungi off their red tip photinias?
Our eyes are very important and useful when shopping for plants. Just don’t let them fool you into making a poor choice. For instance, we know that magicians are really just good at misdirecting our sight. Still the fact that we usually don’t actually see the sleight of hand makes the act entertaining.
In other words, when buying plants just coming out of dormancy, it may be wiser to choose the one that hasn’t begun to leaf out. The early bloomer just may get caught in a late freeze. Likewise, buying flowering plants that are just budded and not blooming will mean that the flower will open after you plant it instead of fading quickly as the plant puts more energy into growing. When buying a tree or shrub that has a multiple trunk, go ahead and get the really crooked one. Those generally grow to make the most interesting specimens as they mature. When buying peaches and plums, select the short stout ones with good lower branches as opposed to the tall ones. If you are buying bedding plants out of a greenhouse, at least be aware of where you are and what it will take to acclimate your pampered transplants. And yes, even yellow or brown sod can be brought back to life, plus the nursery may be willing to let it go at a fraction of the cost. Basically what I’m saying here is that with a little knowledge and common sense you can learn to temper what your impulsive eyes are telling you.
What cousin Ken would tell you in a heartbeat is that it is especially hard for us to deny what our eyes can see, even if our common sense deems otherwise. A very good example occurs each and every Spring when people become anxious because their tree, shrub, or perennial of some kind has not shown any new growth yet. Here in North Texas we usually see some winter damage each year. Experience has taught me that winter damage can cause the plant to begin top growth much later depending on the severity of the damage. My stock answer is to advise people to wait at least until mid-May before going to the trouble of replacing the plant. Sometimes it does take that long for plants to struggle back from a long or abnormally cold winter. Yet more often than not, people will insist that the plants are well and truly dead even though they have just asked for my professional opinion. Their eyes have seen that dead top already and I assume they are merely calling me for confirmation. I once had a person actually email me a photo of a “dead” plant that had new growth plainly visible at the base of the plant. Still I could not convince them that it was still living.
Always temper your vision with a little common sense. Never lose sight (forgive the pun) of the fact that plants need deep strong roots as well as healthy leaves and stems. A little bug damage, weather damage, or a few spots on the leaves should be considered normal. Plants are rarely perfect in their natural habitat. Don’t expect perfection in your garden. What you see is NOT ALWAYS what you get!!!