Gardening: find your answers by searching in the right places

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Finding the best plants in a nursery can require reliable help from the employees who work there.

Special at the Star-Telegram

I was at the back of a large independent nursery many years ago.

I saw a sales rep from one of the biggest wholesale producers in the country – a man I have always had the greatest respect for. He had arrived early for his meeting with the nursery owner and his main buyer that day, and he was killing time.

He hadn’t seen me. Before I could approach to greet him, a customer walked up and hired him. Assuming he was a nursery worker, the customer started asking about the plants that were nearby.

My friend has never missed a step. He answered these questions honestly, pointing out the good and bad about each of the plants, including those that came from his own wholesale nursery. With my own ears, I heard this client say that a competitor’s strain was actually the best choice. But he never hinted that he was anything other than a worker at this retail nursery.

I stepped out of sight, but wanted to find him before he entered his sales meeting. I wanted to compliment him on what I had witnessed.

Wouldn’t it be great if all the advice we are given could have this objective?

When I started doing commercial gardening radio in 1978, I promised myself that I would always keep the advertising and editorial separate. My goal then, and now, has always been that you can’t tell who my advertisers are by what I say and write in my answers to questions and my newspaper editorial. Sometimes something new will happen that is a one of a kind product. I can mention it, but I will definitely let you know.

It is the same with the introduction of new plants. I’m slow to jump on the bandwagon of new brand releases.

There was a time when the most common new plants were All America Selections, both annual flowers and vegetables and roses. These were plants that had been tested repeatedly in many gardens across America. They had been subjected to rigorous judging tests before winning these prestigious designations.

Likewise, plants introduced by the United States National Arboretum, such as their crepe myrtles and althaeas, have undergone years of screening. The same goes for Earth-Kind designations from Texas A&M.

But, in recent years, in the rush to have something “new and shiny” for gardeners to buy, many exclusive brands have appeared on the market. Some are better than others. Some are little more than variety collections that a wholesaler can put together under a generic name. It could be 8 or 10 named varieties of azaleas or crepe myrtles, but a few years later, several of these might have been discontinued due to lower performance or sales. Personally, my fear is that they haven’t really been subjected to the same level of intense and lengthy testing.

I also see some of this happening in national chain stores where their buyers place orders for dozens of stores simultaneously. Unfortunately, plants aren’t like plumbing and paint supplies – they’re not universally suited. What works well in one part of America may not work well in another.

Wear it further. What works well in East Texas may not work well, even here in North Central Texas. Just because a plant is classified as suitable for the same USDA hardiness zone, it is assumed that it will grow just as well in Fort Worth as it does in Atlanta. It’s not always the case.

Where can you get reliable advice? Where else can you put your questions and know you’ll get the same kind of unbiased help my buddy was handing out in that nursery that day?

Land Grant University websites contain reliable information. It is the term used to describe the official agricultural teaching and research university of each state. Therefore, when I search the web for information on plants or topics that I am not sure about, I first enter the keyword “university” in my search.

Let me give you a concrete example: if I want to know what could happen to a Blue Point juniper to cause it to die off its top, I will google “Blue Point Juniper University Plant Pathology”. Such a search will reveal a bunch of good matches from Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, LSU, Clemson, and Auburn, among other universities.

They are all reputable horticultural research centers, and I will look for answers that appear on most or all of their sites. And, just to see if any bugs might be involved, I’ll also run this research: “Blue Point Juniper University Entomology”.

If I want someone to examine an actual sample of a plant, whether to name it or to identify a problem, I will seek out a certified Texas nursery professional. Better yet, if I find a Texas Master Certified Nursery Professional, I will ask him. These men and women will be in nursery members of the great Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, and their advice will be timely and reliable.

Of course, you can always call up my weekend radio programs. I would be flattered to try to help too.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and on WBAP 820 p.m. on Sunday mornings from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.

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