Having been on the cutting edge of the current landscaping revolution has given me the privilege of gaining an insider’s perspective on the industry. Like any other industry, the nursery and landscaping trade is driven by profit. Profits are generated by selling products that people are willing to purchase. Much of what the public is led to believe concerning plants and what is needed to achieve the American “dreamscape” is simply not necessary. Some of it is actually counter productive and some of it is nothing more than marketing strategy aimed at increasing sales. That being said, I am going to use my allotted space this month and “shoot myself in the foot,” as they say, by revealing some basic truth regarding the industry as we know it today.
The belief that we must constantly water, fertilize, mow, or meticulously prune on a regular basis is just not true. It is only true if totally controlled landscaping is your goal. This type of landscaping culture became popular after WWII with the population explosion that resulted in suburban housing where one was expected to maintain their landscape in the same fashion as their fellow suburbanites.
Water has been and will be the driving force in the current landscaping revolution. The term xeriscape (dry landscape) was coined in the 1990’s to introduce the public to the concept of landscaping without the constant use of water. The seven basic principles of xeriscaping can be applied to any part of the country and will significantly reduce your water bill plus save our valuable water resources for other uses. Of these seven principles the most critical is plant selection. If we do everything else right but insist on planting our landscape full of water guzzling plants then the term xeriscape means nothing.
The average person still tends to purchase plants on the basis of looks alone. Looks are genuinely important but our first consideration should be, “Can this plant survive our climate and thrive on rainfall alone?” If you are one who believes that the local nurseries just sell plants that are proven winners for your area, go back and read the first paragraph again.
In truth, the number one attribute a plant must have to be accepted into the common nursery market is that it must look good at the point of sale. Who is going to buy a less than perfect looking specimen even if it comes highly recommended? Secondly, that plant must also be easy to reproduce. The best plant Nature has to offer doesn’t stand much of a chance unless growers can reproduce it in high numbers. Third, but not near as important, it is desirable that this same plant be adaptable enough to grow in a wide climate range. The industry has always sought plants that look good in a pot, grow well in greenhouses, and can survive practically anywhere provided we (the consumers) are willing to give them whatever extra water or other care they require.
Furthermore, if you look at where most big wholesale growers are located, you will see that they are mostly in areas of high rainfall and mild temperatures. That means the bulk of the plants offered by the industry require a minimum of 30 inches of rain or more per year. What that means to consumers who live in low rainfall areas is that they must supply that extra water to engage in the one-size-fits-all suburban dreamscape. Add to this the rapid swings in temperature, plus high winds with low humidity that most of us who live in the western and mid-western United States experience and you will understand perfectly why we must water so much. We are simply attempting to grow the wrong plants because of standards set in the 1950’s by a generation of homeowners who had access to cheap water………Not any more! Time for a change.
Gardening products (soil amendments, fertilizers, pesticides, pruning and mowing equipment, etc.) present huge opportunities for advertising and marketing. I remember when I was much younger and still just a weekend gardener I came across a sale on soil amendments. The products were labeled as peat, humus, and cow manure. I decided to buy ten bags of each. When I got home and opened the bags I found to my surprise all three products contained the exact same material which appeared to be composted wood chips. Being a Texas boy, I knew for certain what cow manure looked like. There didn’t appear to be any manure present in the bag marked as such so I wondered why the company could be so irresponsible as to totally misrepresent their products, but I learned a valuable lesson…………Buyer beware!!
Just look at all the different types of fertilizers for the lawn. There are specialty fertilizers for Spring, Summer, and Fall, even a Winterizer. pre-emergents, post emergents, fungicides, and pesticides are also added to fertilizers to further enhance sales. There are also boutique fertilizers for roses, azaleas, house plants, even cacti and the list goes on and on. You’ll notice these specialty fertilizers are more expensive so that you may spend as much for two pounds of “rose food” as a twenty pound bag of lawn fertilizer. Yet when you read the labels (and you should) you’ll find that many of these are merely different formulations of the same basic ingredients (N, P, and K). This is not to say that all packaged and pelletized, or liquid fertilizers have no merit. I know some of these people who produce such things and most are very serious about their work. Fact is, some fertilizers are really good, some are not so good, and some are seriously toxic.
As far as the macronutrients N, P, and K (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, the three numbers on all fertilizer bags) are concerned, it has been known for more than a century now that all plants use these elements. Then there is a long list known as micronutrients that are added to some fertilizers (read the label) and the latest addition that compliments the current research of soil science that are collectively called soil microbes. The question any astute consumer will ask when faced with all this is, “How much of this is really necessary, or do certain plants really require special fertilizers?”
The answer is, emphatically, yes and no. If you are growing a crop for production or a vegetable garden then you should learn all you can about specific nutrients for specific crops. You should use soil inoculants, foliar sprays, and have your soil tested periodically. The same would hold true if you are growing roses for competition, or perhaps producing flowers for the florist industry. However, for general landscaping where we are growing a broad spectrum of grasses, trees, shrubs, and flowering plants the answer then is no, it is not necessary to go in to all this detail.
There is one fertilizer that contains adequate NPK, all micronutrients, living microbes, and is also the absolute best soil amendment known to man. It is also pound for pound the most affordable fertilizer on the market. That fertilizer is called compost. Composting is simply a speeded up version of the life/death/decay/new life process that combines with minerals (mostly from rocks) that has created the topsoil that has sustained all plants for the hundreds of millions of years they have been on this Earth.
Now I know that this is not making some of my friends in the nursery business very happy. Nonetheless, it is undeniably true. I am also in that business and therefore I have shot myself in the foot too. My goal is first and foremost to help my customers become successful gardeners. I sell products but I make it my business to make sure those products have merit. When you walk in to my garden center you will find we offer remarkably few products compared to most garden centers. Yes, I realize I could make a lot more money by subscribing to the myths associated with the controlled dreamscape, but I choose not to.
I have run out of space for now but I’m just getting started at debunking the system. Should I shoot the other foot? Give me some incentive by responding to wvlandscape.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Facebook. Thanks!!