Why Neighbor’s Grass is Greener Than Yours

lawn“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”
This American proverb, born in the 1920s, was recently discussed by Wolfgang Mieder in “De Proverbio: An Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies,” which originates in Tasmania. All you need is a computer and an on-line service to get instantly to the farthest corners of the Earth.
The grass is truly greener – or at least more exotic and transfixing – on the other side of the Internet. You can get pleasantly distracted grazing the lush pastures of botanical lore that grow in cyberspace. Then again, you may come upon an ethereal orchard, whose fruits are so fine and rare as to make gardening columnists giddy – or obsolete. With fingertips dancing on computer keyboards around the globe, everything about everything, including plants, is available to everyone.
The earliest formulation of the grass is greener proverb may come from the 16th century, when a saying of Erasmus – the famous Dutch philosopher and satirist – was translated into English as “The corn in another man’s ground seems ever more fertile and plentiful than doth our own.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, corn is a member of the grass family (Poaceae).
Citing an article from ecologist James Pomerantz, Mieder points out that the grass is greener proverb is literally true, since “optical and perceptual laws alone will make the grass at a distance look greener to the human eye than the blades of grass perpendicular to the ground.”
This time of year, when seed and plant catalogs start showing up in gardeners’ mailboxes, it is easy to be seduced by what is pictured behind other people’s fences. Luther Burbank, the famous plant breeder, not only developed the Shasta daisy, the seed potato and the Santa Rosa plum, but was the originator of the mail-order seed and plant business. He was also the first to make exaggerated claims, in catalogs, as to what his plants looked like and how they would perform.
Remember that the perfect plants you see in catalogs may not look that way for more than a week or two during the year. When a plant description reads “flowers all summer long,” it may mean that there are always flowers visible during the summer, but maybe only two or three at a time.
Bear in mind that certain plants may also have a longer bloom time back east – where most plant catalogs come from – than in Southern California. The low humidity and nonexistent rainfall during our spring and summer make it difficult for us to grow many of the flowering perennials – consider foxglove, delphinium and Japanese anemone – that are common in Eastern gardens. Our Los Angeles winter is seldom cold enough to bring plants such as forsythia, peony and weigela into bloom.
Californians’ desire for English gardens is a classic case of seeing greener grass on the other side when you consider that it was Theodore Payne, an Englishman, who first brought the world’s attention to California natives as potential garden plants.
The grass is greener syndrome is the downfall of most gardens. People select plants because they look good in someone else’s yard – a natural impulse, to be sure, but a limiting one. There is as much room for creativity in garden making as there is in any other pursuit, yet most gardens look the same. We are aware of about 5 percent of all the plants that could be grown in our gardens. Many of the plants in the “Sunset Western Garden Book” are a lifetime mystery – and source of frustration – to those of us who read about them but find them virtually impossible to locate.
It remains for some enterprising individual – perhaps through a monthly mailing list of unusual species – to bring a greater selection of plants into our gardens.
Compost pest: Now that more people are composting, more letters are coming in about a compost pile companion: the fat, iridescent green fig beetle. This time of year, the beetles are in their larval stage and are discovered in the compost pile as plump white grubs.
Perry Jaster of West Hills, whose composted soil is the envy of his neighbors, cannot get rid of these grubs, even with chemical spray. Deke Dietrick, Southern California’s leading expert on insect pest management, has no tricks up his sleeve for instant control of the fig beetle. He recommends sifting your compost to find the grubs that live in it. By eliminating the
grubs, no adults will emerge next summer to suck juices from figs, peaches or other fleshy fruits.
The beetles do no damage per se; they appear on fruit that you already should have harvested. Daily surveillance of your figs and peaches as they begin to ripen will assure that you pick them before they are discovered by these beetles, which are partial to overripe fruit.
Tip: If your peach tree had curled, contorted or puckered leaves this past year, prepare to do something to stop this disease – known as peach leaf curl – from recurring. A month from now, just before buds open, spray lime sulfur on your tree. As someone who rarely sprays anything in the garden, I make this recommendation because it’s the only method I have found to control Taphrina deformans, the fungus that causes peach leaf curl.

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