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Hankering to Plant? Get a License
updated: Feb 13, 2009, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Hankering to Plant? Get a License
by Billy Goodnick

"They have a bunch of really big fifteen gallon coast redwoods at Costco for only thirty six bucks!" One of my former students was excitedly calling for advice on whether she should pick up a few. That's when my smoldering rage began.

"Are you %#@^ing nuts?" I screamed at her. Okay, I didn't scream on the OUTSIDE, but my inner Lewis Black was pummeling my inner Gandhi.

"Billy, take a chill pill" you might suggest. "It's just a plant." True, and it's so alluring in its slinky little black container. Perhaps I wouldn't be so upset if there were at least a printed tag on the container with a little consumer information. Hot coffee cups say "Caution - Hot Coffee." How about at least a "Caution - ridiculously big, resource-hungry plant" label on the container?

I got to thinking—you need to pass a test to drive a car. Makes sense. You don't, however, need to pass a test to make babies—just working plumbing or a cooperative doctor. Take the current dust-up about the octuplets. There are wildly divergent opinions regarding the ethics of the doctor, whether the mother did this for twisted psychological reasons or if the government should regulate fertility treatments.

I'm of the opinion that there's more potential harm from putting a perfectly lovely, but inappropriate plant in the wrong location than from the imperceptible impact of adding eight more consumers to the planet.

Here's where the licensing comes in. Shouldn't a plant-owner-to-be at least demonstrate that they'll be a thoughtful, responsible caregiver? Consider this simple proposal to regulate plant purchases for the benefit of all.

    1. Read a one-page synopsis of the plant's genetic propensities—in this case, how redwoods grow to one hundred feet tall, continually drop leaves and twigs, and have aggressive surface roots that can crack house foundations;

    2. Answer a simple ten question multiple choice test indicating your understanding of the plant's needs and growth habits;

    3. Post a bond for the life-cost of maintaining the plant. Did you know that only 20% of the cost of a landscape is the installation; 80% goes into maintaining it?;

    4. Provide a scaled drawing of the location where the plant will be installed, showing that there is adequate space for it to achieve its mature size without undue pruning;

    5. Submit to a site visit from a plant-welfare agent to see whether the existing plants around your home are being consciously cared for; and

    6. Obtain a consent form from your immediate neighbors stating that the selected plant will not become a nuisance by interfering with views, creating debris, or casting unwanted shade on their property.

Piece o' cake. We'll cover the program's administration with a 200% tax on the cost of the plant. Not unlike cigarette taxes, the excessive price will deter people from buying plants on impulse.

When I was a gardener, people would visibly recoil when quoted a price for taming a forty foot long overgrown eugenia (Syzigium paniculatum) hedge. Perhaps it was the fact that this wasn't the first, nor would it be the last time they'd have to shell out for the Herculean task.

Did they know when they bought those adorable one-gallon plants that each one was genetically hard-wired to get sixty feet tall with a twenty-foot wide canopy? If they'd done a bit of investigation and thinking ahead they could have found a plant that would grow as high as they needed, then stop growing.

Sometimes problems stem from a case of wishful thinking or simple ignorance about a particular plant. That's why there are references like the Sunset Western Garden Book—so you can look up a plant before you put it in the ground. Then there's that wacky internet thing.

These photos tell the story...

Our old friend, eugenia, gets stuck in every possible crack and crevice along property lines. The image on the left is what it looks like with frequent pruning, usually administered with air-polluting gas-powered hedge trimmers. On the right is the plant when turned loose—about sixty feet high.

A symbol of Hollywood-era mid-20th century homes and Florentine villas, the Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) looks so expressive flanking a doorway (left). On the right, the awesome power of "Cypress Unchained!"

Wanna create a house that looks like a Chia Pet while continually working to keep the plant from covering your windows and doors? Have I got a plant for you! Creeping fig (Ficus pumila) looks so dainty when it's just a toddler. Then the curse is unleashed—the leaves quadruple in size, the stems grow to the diameter of your wrist and you start checking the Craigslist for a used flame thrower. Here it is swallowing a 40-foot high wall at Costco.

Speaking of Costco, ten years ago dozens of tipu trees (Tipuana tipu) were placed in generous parking lot planters surrounded by concrete curbs. Someone was thinking ahead, looking to shade parked cars from summer heat. Now, the surface roots of these still-juvenile plants have started to bust through the asphalt. The mature specimen in the center is at Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden and is still going strong at about eighty feet tall and wide. The roots in the parking lot have just gotten started.

The moral of this diatribe: right plant / right place. I'm fishing for analogies here, but imagine you got caught up in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. You're dumping your twelve-bedroom Manhattan flat and moving into a cute silver Airstream trailer in Newark. Your family has deserted you and, in a need for companionship, you drop by the pound to rescue a little puppy. Given the close quarters you'll be sharing, wouldn't you at least ask whether it was going to grow up to be a Shi-Tzu or a Great Dane? It's the same idea before you plant

I see a huge disconnect—people plant gardens, I assume, because they want a touch of "nature" around them. But then they make design decisions that result in anything-but-natural plant hackings around their homes.

The solution: A plant is a living, growing thing. Get educated and quit impulse buying just because a smart retailer put the pretty stuff near the entrance. Only buy where there are knowledgeable salespeople who ask YOU a lot of questions. That way you put the right plant in the right place.

BTW: If you're hankering for a bit of planting design education, I'm teaching a one-day class at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden on April 4. It even includes a scavenger hunt! Stop by their website for more info (www.sbbg.org - then click on Classes).

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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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