Gardening Come-Ons - The Rest of the Story

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You’ve seen those ads that show up every spring and promise fabulous plant perfection. You know the ones – – the ads that promise us “fruit cocktail” trees, year round indoor strawberries, 60 pounds of tomatoes from one single plant, shade trees or vines that grow “roof high” in just one year, rainbow-colored tomatoes “all on a single plant” and tomatoes “as big as cantaloupes!” Well – – – I don’t know about you, but if I was not a skeptic, those ads might make my gardener’s heart beat a little faster. Instead, my mind answers these come-ons with a “Wait a minute – you say what?” My curiosity comes to play and I need to know the whole story.

Those ads get me up out of my chair and send me over to my wall of gardening books where I know I can find the whole truth. I might Google for my answers but so much of what I find is contradictory and confusing. My research has taught me to keep in mind that maybe the words in the ads are true but those come-on words don’t tell the whole story and that I need to keep in mind that old saying “if it’s too good to be true” – well???

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When I worked at The Ohio State University Extension I spent my days answering homeowner horticultural questions. I put together a file titled “Too Good To Be True”. That file was filled with ads that touted unbelievable plants. Attached to each ad was a page of research about that particular plant. When I had a call asking questions about those ads I would pull out my file and give well researched answers. I could share the”rest of the story” so homeowners could make fact based decisions.

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I found that, often, the words used in the ads were “true” but in reality the spin on those words was pretty wide. What is not in the ad might just be the problem. Because I know that these ads will begin to show up as spring gets closer I thought I would show you how I figure out the whole truth about the plants advertised in those clever ads.

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Flora’s Plant Names from Timber Press is usually the first book I go to when I research plants. This book is an alphabetized list of cross-referenced common and botanical names. Because most of the ads give you common plant names, figuring out the whole story about each plant often begins by figuring out the plants botanical name. Common names are a dime a dozen. The common name for the same plant can vary from state to state or country to country. On the other hand, as stated in Flora’s Plant Names . . . . . “the only unambiguous and reliable name for any plant is its Latin-based name” . . . or it’s botanical name. The only way to be certain that you are getting the plant you want is to have its proper latin name. I also use Michael Dirr’s wonderful book Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. When you know the botanical name you can research the proper plant and know that the information you find is correct.

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For example – these ads for “The Royal Empress” or “Royal Paulownia” tree show a man leaning against the trunk of a glorious, purple flowering tree. The ads tell us that this tree is a “super growing flowering shade tree” that “zooms another foot higher every time you water it!” “Grows more in a month that any other shade trees grow in a year!” “Zooms up to 12 feet in one season”. “Produces bouquets of richly-scented flowers”. “A King’s ransom for only $4.98 per tree!!!” The ad goes on to tell us that with this tree we can “turn a bare lot into a royal estate”. “Grows in virtually any soil, needs no babying, no special care, hardy to -30. “Turns even the barest spot into shaded Garden of Eden” and . . . “supplies are still extremely limited – SO ACT NOW!” Well now – – all I can say is Wow! But – let’s do a little research.

The botanical name, found in Michael Dirr’s book, for the Royal Empress Tree is Paulownia tomentosa. Using the botanical name of this tree as a reference I can find reliable information and decide if I want this tree in my yard or not. What I found: this tree will grow 14 to 17 feet in 4-5 years and can grow as much as 8-10 feet in a single year. The wood tends to be somewhat brittle. Mr. Dirr tells us that “this is the wonder that appears in Sunday supplements and the actual fact is that it does not . . . . soar 23 feet in two seasons, flower continuously from spring to summer or withstand -25°F.” Cold is its biggest enemy and flower buds are often seriously injured or killed between 0 and -5° F. It is intolerant of competition and will give way to other species with time”. My research also showed me that there are supporters of this tree – The American Paulownia Association. The tree is grown by farmer-gardeners for its lucrative, durable, light wood. I also learned that this tree can be considered invasive and is labeled an “ecological threat” because it grows rapidly in disturbed areas. It is listed as an “invasive species” in Tennessee.

With this information you can decide if this tree is a good choice for you or not. If you live in the north you might grow the tree but lose the flowers to late frosts. You might think about contacting your states Exotic Pest Plant Council and see if the plant is considered an invasive species and should not be planted. If you have a few acres you might contact the American Paulownia Association and plant your own plantation for future income. All this information came to me because I learned the botanical name of the plant in the ad.

Learning the variety name of plants such as tomatoes and some fruits will help you find the best information about them.

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This ad for “Rainbow-Colored Gigantic Tomatoes” taunts us with amazing news of tomatoes up to 3! pounds each, tomatoes as big as canteloupes, and non-stop yields all season! Luckily this ad gives the reader the tomatoes variety name “Big Rainbow”. I checked out my Smith & Hawken book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden and found the exact tomato. I learned that the flavor of this tomato can vary “markedly from year to year”. Also that “Big Rainbow is a moderate producer of beefsteak tomatoes and is typically a late-maturing plant”. “This tomato may also show concentric and longitudinal cracking under wet conditions”. The tomatoes are usually in the 1-2 pound range and grow singly or in pairs. The plant is indeterminate meaning it continues to grow and grow and produce fruit all season. Might be worth a try?

Tis the season for all gardeners to begin ordering their seeds and plants for their 2013 gardens. A little research can help you make the best decisions and means that you will spend your gardening budget wisely. Always remember . . . if it’s too good to be true it probably is!

Hey from the farm,
Fran The Country Cousin

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