Vague terms can frustrate gardeners



Ever come across an old, handwritten recipe that called for a smidgen of an ingredient? If a vague word like "smidgen" makes you slightly uneasy, then reading gardening columns probably sets your teeth on edge. Unfortunately, the countless variables that make each landscape unique force garden writers to draw from the well of nebulous phrases when providing descriptions, instructions and suggestions.

I'm sure the seemingly simple topic of shade, for example, can be confounding to some readers. Expressions like light shade, moderate shade and deep shade are bad enough because one person's light shade is another person's moderate shade. But when I advise installing plants in dappled light, filtered light or part shade, novice gardeners must shake their heads in bewilderment.

Cold hardiness may be the most difficult plant characteristic to inform readers about. That's because the cold tolerance of an individual plant — say a hibiscus — depends on variety, size, degree of establishment, location in a landscape, soil moisture, wind velocity during a cold snap and too many other factors to mention. Which explains why garden writers resort to generalizations like hardy, half-hardy and tender.

Yet another subject that's impossible to discuss without employing indefinite and admittedly fuzzy language is drought tolerance, a trait already muddled in the minds of folks who equate native species with drought tolerance. That's a misconception: Many of our most attractive native plants are adapted to damp sites.

Luckily, a few plants can unequivocally be declared drought tolerant, even if they're not well established. Plants such as Spanish bayonet, prickly pear cactus and a handful of others are, indeed, almost impervious to drought. Others, including oleander, cardboard plant, devil's backbone and bougainvillea are wonderfully drought resistant once established. But the drought tolerances of most other plants, both native and exotic, have to be described using wiggle words due — again — to variables that include soil consistency, wind exposure, light intensity, plant size and the presence or absence of sufficient mulch.

Even the seemingly basic expression "well-drained soil" has different meanings for different people. Once, at a nursery, I asked the proprietor what he meant by well-drained potting soil. His explanation: "If all the water drains off the surface within 10 minutes after we irrigate, I consider it well drained." Well, I consider that a miniature rice paddy.

Charles Reynolds, a Winter Haven resident, has an associate degree in horticulture and is a member of the Garden Writers Association of America.

Last modified: May 16, 2013
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