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Photograph by Raymond R. Rodriguez, Jr.; Stylists: Sharon Rodriguez & Nathan Ruiz

The Real Dirt

More tips from the lips of Master Gardener Tom Liggett

  • If a plant doesn't like you, or your dirt, you're never going to get it to grow. That's why I steer people away from pushing the envelope. Walk around your neighborhood and see what's thriving. When everything's blooming, see what does well. But remember that roses in April are like men and women at 18: everything looks great then. See how they look in July and December. Avoid gardenias, cherries and daphnes--growing them is like trying to push a marshmallow through a keyhole. Avoid azaleas and rhododendron--these plants are poster children for pushing the envelope. They don't like the summer sun here, they don't like the soil, and they don't like the water.
  • San Jose has an identity crisis, it wants to be L.A.--but this climate is in between L.A. and Portland. Look at the Cesar Chavez Plaza, they pulled down those 100-year oaks, and planted jacarandas and--surprise!--a freeze comes in and kills them every five years. Everywhere you go here, you see palm trees. If you must plant a palm, get a queen palm.
  • With camellias, you get the most for the least effort. The damn things stay green all year, and usually go through two blooming cycles. In old neighborhoods of homes 60 to 70 years old, you'll see the only things remaining are the camellias.
  • For street trees, in the fall, buy male Chinese pistachia--put male in italics! You'll never have to prune.
  • People complain about the adobe around here. It will take it over any soil. The problem is just making sure there's enough water in it. Put a basin around the plants, so they get enough water. Get time-release fertilizer, apply once or twice a year, forget about it, walk out there with your adult beverage in hand and admire it. Life in 2003 is hard enough as it is.
  • Mulch: see if you can get tree surgeons to give it to you for free. No walnut mulch, it poisons everything. Four inches over everything means no weeds.
  • Trumpet bloom fuchsias--Fuchsia vulgaris--are recommended. Look for the Gartenmeister varietal.
  • Rose varieties that work: the Duet rose, a hybrid tea rose; the Iceberg, Alpissimo and Double Delight. Mamselle Cecile Brunner is a great sweetheart rose. Get it in the bush form, not the climber. The Sunsprite yellow is the greatest yellow rose in the world. Don't get all these kinds of roses at once; get a couple and see how they do in your yard.
  • The valley is great apple country. It's fantastic for peaches. Plant peaches and live with the peach leaf curl, don't spray! Get the strawberry or Indian Blood peach varieties. They're disease resistant. Easiest plant to grow in the universe.
  • Grow things you can't get at the store. If you want to waste space on a Washington naval orange, go for it, but they're 19 cents a pound at the store.
  • I recommend time-release fertilizer. The Osmocote brand comes in 50-pound bags and lasts 10 years. Split a bag with a friend.
  • Lawns are the screaming babies of all gardens--they suck care away from the rest of the plants. If you're tending a lawn, everything goes to the lawn--the roses get very little. It's one thing to have a lawn if you live in Oregon or Cincinnati, but out here ... if you must grow a lawn: get dwarf tall fescue, avoid bluegrass.
  • We need to nurture the amateur and sell them success, steer them away from things that are difficult to grow. You've to sell people on the doable. One thing I know is that when a plant dies, people blame themselves.
  • I just love gardening, I've wasted more of my time and money on plants, so you won't have to. People need not get caught up in hype or garden trends. Keep it simple, keep it slow.

  • Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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    From the April 17-23, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

    Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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