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Lessons Learned

A time for pride and humility

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In the month of May, I tell smug, self-satisfied, big-headed gardeners whose plants look like a billion dollars (a million isn't what it used to be) that every suffering, sick, misplaced, starving, abused, infected and infested shrub, grass, tree or perennial looks grand in that period of moist soil and mild days. How did those guys look by mid-August? Some not so great, perhaps.

Life here in the desert isn't easy for tropical plants with big, tender, porous leaves that sweat more liquid than roots struggling through alkaline sand or clay can take up. That ornamentals and turf and trees are as beautiful and functional as they are says more about their will to live than about our skill or focus as horticulturalists.

If we don't go on vacation, get sick, overlook a clogged emitter, or misinterpret directions on the package; or have a wind storm or a hot spell or a mild winter or a hard winter; if the neighbors don't install or remove a shade tree, the kids don't throw balls, and we do read the tags that suggest preferred conditions; if we remember where we planted what, and when we're supposed to do the thing this plant needs to do the thing we want it to do, we're feeling pretty good about ourselves right now. All that TLC, devoted spraying, clipping, mulching, feeding and deadheading has brought us to the garden's second glorious phase of the year. Soil is warm, days are cooler; slow vegetables are picking up the pace and blossoms are in a feverish dither to set and mature seeds before their procreative clock runs out.

We live in the age of self-esteem, and so if gardening is the realm in which we've chosen to realize our full potential, we want to celebrate our triumphs. And this is the time to do so. Let's not dwell on our mistakes, but make note of them for next year. Photos may be too painful to bear, but pictorial reminders of what worked will be a delight to display, especially for those who doubted that the divisions and cuttings they begged could flourish under their care.

Two things I can't seem to recall after a winter of dry historical texts (an inexplicable addiction) and Irish coffees (an understandable taste) are what I liked and hated about my container plantings, and how I supported the droopers. I'm taking digital photos of these items so that next year's containers don't all resemble the ones that flopped, and I can recall what I had to break and bend in belated efforts to get hibiscus off the sidewalk and delphiniums' heads out of the ditch. It's true that the pea packages that would have told me which variety I preferred were destroyed by the squirrels, who I blame for every problem I have, but I can actually provide names of some of the cultivars to whom I've lost my heart. Here are the past season's errors, favorites, losers and tips.

I've described my turf as a bastard mix of hay, clover, oxalis, bluegrass, coarse fescue and mutant weeds. Hopeless as that may be, I wish the edges were cleaner. When I cut too wide a swath between the sidewalk and the "lawn," the bluegrass tanks and the spotted spurge moves in. This is a perfect example of futile labor. Gotta quit that.

My husband, whom I fondly address as "yardboy," has grown weary of raising irrigation heads so that they can reach over the tops of the tall plants I install between short guys and the water source. This is my subtle manner of requesting more driplines.

I have many favorites, but if there is a more thrilling perennial than "Sapphire Blue" Eryngium, I don't have it ... yet. Electric color, upright habit, lasting cut flower. (Cut hands, too. Wear gloves.) "Profusion Fire" zinnias have survived all the neglect, underwatering, overwatering, squirrel mosh pits, wind, and hose loopers that have assailed them. Brilliant in sun and twilight, my current favorite annual by a mile.

"Zebra" and "Porcupine" are two subtly different ornamental grasses (Miscanthus sinensis), both of which are visual treats. (They could qualify for a spot under "errors," because I've crowded them, but there are so many plants, and I have a small plot in which to conduct these edifying experiments.)

I go to Julia Davis to sniff and admire tea roses, but I've welcomed and adored my White Meidiland, demure Bonica, and that shameless hussy, Sevillana, who desires and deserves all the attention, all summer. Annuals in containers should be cut back a couple of times, and so plants with dependable foliage are a must. Plectranthus "Variegata" wins my vote.

Right this minute, my applause goes to Caryopteris for the deep violet hues, but in May I would have cited "Diablo" Ninebark (Physocarpus). Though he's a stunning gent, tall, muscular and sanguine, just the way I like 'em, I'm pleased to have a smaller version in "Summerwine." Unlike "Sunny Border Blue" Veronica and "Butterfly Blue" Scabiosa, "David" garden phlox actually deserved "Perennial of the Year." Sweet smelling, beefy stems, pearly white, not a weeny.

The losers may be as much a reflection of my gardens' conditions or deficient capabilities as of the plants' flaws. "Grosso" disappoints me as a lavender variety because of the legginess. I'm back to "Munstead" and "Hidcote." Nobody loves little pansy-ass lobelia more than I do, but I can't abide anyone so fussy about water on her foliage or succumbing to 15 minutes of thirst.

I can't give you all my hot tips without compromising my dubious status as a local expert, but here's a very good one: You know those spikes left on yucca plants after they're through blooming? They make the best props for plants which tend to droop and lean. They blend into the foliage, they're tough and they're free.

Now go outside and pretend your garden looks like this all year.

Linda Jarsky is an advanced master gardener, certified arborist and landscape designer, and marketing director for DG Nursery and Turf. Send questions and comments to www.dgnursery.com.

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