When the Elite Dig in the Dirt . . .

digging in the dirt

digging in the dirt

“Dirt” (Dell Publishing; $18.95) is a book that says as much about the trendy crowd for whom it was written as it does about plants.
”Mine is the fast-lane, quick-gratification approach to creating something of your own,” confesses the author, Dianne Benson. Her advice is ”to participate in your landscape the same way you position furniture in your house.”
Benson’s concept of landscaping is not unusual. After looking at a dilapidated yard for years, a person suddenly is overcome with the desire to landscape. Established plants hurriedly are moved – like furniture – from one place in the garden to another, only to die of transplant shock. New plants are brought in and placed incorrectly. Shade plants get too much sun and develop yellow leaves; sun plants get too much shade and never flower.
“Dirt,” subtitled “The Lowdown on Growing Plants With Style,” comes
from the mind of someone who spent years in the fashion industry and once owned boutiques in New York City. Benson insists that background has no influence on success in the garden, but I disagree.
The best gardeners nearly always come from farming or gardening families. If you learn to plant and prune as a child, you will do so with finesse, if not from instinct, in later life. Great musicians come from musical families. If you want your kids to develop a love for growing things, get them into the garden now.
What is most disturbing about Benson’s attitude is her focus on the end result rather than the process. “This is not about laborious toil . . . or a lifelong love affair with ecosystems.” Yet nothing of greatness – including a great garden – is created without toil, and gardeners are keenly aware of the ecosystems they create. If the gardener is successful, butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds abound, even as snails and slugs disappear. This will not happen overnight, but patience – the gardener’s outstanding virtue – has no place in Benson’s ready-made universe.
Not surprisingly, Benson is a believer in the efficacy of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, whereas experienced gardeners know that these chemicals provide no long-term benefits, and may actually be harmful to soil life. To her credit, she does recognize the wisdom of using compost and mulch.
As an advocate of ready-made landscapes, it is understandable that bulbs would be the mainstay of Benson’s garden. Bulbs could be thought of as complete, self-assembling plant “kits,” since everything is included in one compact package. Ordering up to 750 bulbs at one time, Benson plants them with the help of a bulb auger, a boring bit that attaches to any electric drill. With this power tool, she can make holes all over the garden, drop in hundreds of bulbs, and not even get “particularly tired or sore.”
Regardless of her gardening philosophy, Benson’s enthusiasm for certain plants is hard to resist. She is thrilled with the giant, flowering alliums (onions) such as globemaster, which produces a 10-inch spherical flower composed of 1,100 star-shaped florets. She also raves about clivia, the kaffir lily, which produces clusters of pale orange flowers in Los Angeles gardens this time of year, and displays handsome dark green foliage. Clivia is a plant for places that are too shady for most other flowering perennials.
Benson has primarily a shade garden, and it is instructive to note the many exotic species she has grown successfully there. What is true for her more humid New York garden must be all the more true for us. The hot, arid weather we get in Los Angeles, particularly in the valleys, can be perilous to the health of almost any plant. By creating shade, or at least offering protection from the heat, you will exponentially increase the number of different plants you can grow.

Micah Taylor / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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