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Forget the pursuit of the perfect plant

Healthy is better and it's less stressful, too

Yes, there are some holes in those melon leaves. Am I worried? No -- I'm not growing melons for their leaves.

Yes, there are some holes in those melon leaves. Am I worried? No -- I'm not growing melons for their leaves.

Kathy Morrison

Perfection is over-rated. It's also tough on the garden, on wildlife -- and on the gardener.

Experienced gardeners know this. We're used to the holes punched in rose foliage by leafcutter bees. We don't fly into a frenzy when the sunflower leaves are pecked by lesser goldfinches. And we know that the water spots or ragged edges or sunburn or slightly curled leaves are part of what happens as the weather changes and the plants adjust. 

There is no perfection in nature, but newbie gardeners or obsessives keep trying to achieve -- or worse, maintain -- that magazine-perfect look in their backyard gardens.

Sacramento has been spoiled this year, I admit, by the mild weather through the spring. The plants look happier than ever, unstressed so far by extreme heat. My tomato plants especially are gorgeous, full of developing fruit.

I did not achieve that by spraying them with insecticide every day. 

Yes, there is a gardener out there in the Sacramento area who sprays "insect killing soap" on his plants TWICE A DAY; he posted that on a Facebook gardening group that I'm a (mostly lurking) member of. This boggles the mind; never mind the fact that the package itself says "apply every 5-7 days as long as insects are present." There can't be a flying or crawling critter within half a mile of his garden by now. And he has a broad-spectrum insecticide as a "backup." Ay-yi-yi.

(By the way, spraying an infested plant with water is an excellent way to battle aphids, whiteflies, spider mites and powdery mildew. Just water.)

That same social media group has some members who fuss over every slight imperfection on leaves, who water twice a day "just in case" then wonder why a plant's leaves turn yellow, or who worry that their vegetable plants are dropping some flowers unpollinated. (It's biology, people, think about it.)

Zinnia with ragged leaves
Likely a caterpillar has been munching on this zinnia.
But it's flowering just fine; no action needed.

I wish more gardeners would turn to the UC Integrated Pest Management website first, for science-based solutions, before throwing a problem out on social media. ("Pest" in IPM refers to plant diseases or weeds as well as insect pests.) The California Master Gardener's Handbook sums up the approach: "A fundamental concept of IPM is that a limited amount of pest damage to plants can be tolerated." 

Now, big problems should be addressed and quickly: A tomato plant that collapses overnight, for instance, or a tree that's losing its bark. In those cases, check with experts (master gardeners or arborists recommended) about diagnosis and remedy. Most instances of online "crowd diagnosis"  include some really bad advice along with the good. 

So back off, gardeners. If the plant is generally healthy, if you did enough prep work before planting, if you have flowers and bees and a decent irrigation setup, the garden will do well enough this summer. Slow down, stop stressing and ENJOY that garden, ragged leaves and all.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Nov. 26:

Concentrate on helping your garden stay comfortable during these frosty nights – and clean up all those leaves!

* Irrigate frost-tender plants such as citrus in the late afternoon. That extra soil moisture increases temperatures around the plant a few degrees, just enough to prevent frost damage. The exception are succulents; too much water before frost can cause them to freeze.

* Cover sensitive plants before the sun goes down. Use cloth sheets or frost cloths, not plastic sheeting, to hold in warmth. Make sure to remove covers in the morning.

* Use fall leaves as mulch around shrubs and vegetables. Mulch acts as a blanket and keeps roots warmer.

* Stop dead-heading; let rose hips form on bushes to prompt dormancy.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location – and definitely indoors overnight. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they’ll bloom again next December.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Plant spring bulbs. Don’t forget the tulips chilling in the refrigerator. Daffodils can be planted without pre-chilling.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers and plant such spring bloomers as sweet peas, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Plant trees and shrubs. They’ll benefit from fall and winter rains while establishing their roots.

* Set out cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins now. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb.

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