Your Plant Nemesis

Do you have a plant nemesis? This spray-painter clearly does – and it’s the lowly privet. He’s emphatically declaring that he does not intend to plant them, and is discouraging us from the same. (I realize there’s an alternative explanation for this involving the lack of a dictionary, but I’m sticking with my interpretation.)

When I was a young boy, a rototiller showed up at our house one day, and my dad proceeded to turn about a quarter of our small Chicago Heights backyard into a garden. He was a Depression Era kid, and he never passed over a chance to impart Depression Era lessons to me and my three brothers. This lesson had something to do with farming.

We grew a lot of things, but the two that I remember best are pumpkins and marigolds – pumpkins because the vines sprawled out into the lawn, and if you sat still long enough I swear you could see them grow, and marigolds because I would pick the flowers apart. The older the flowers were, the more distinct the seeds became, until they looked just like the ones that came in the seed packet. What I remember the most about the marigolds was the scent, which grew stronger as the summer went on.

Scents reportedly invoke the most vivid memories, and marigolds do that for me. Marigolds mean an idyllic childhood of collecting bugs and throwing a rubber baseball for hours on end at a chalk batter’s box drawn on the schoolhouse wall.

You don’t see marigolds as much as you used to, but I can’t resist reaching down and picking a marigold flower, pulling it apart, and enjoying the fragrance.

I bring this up because most people find the scent distasteful, and that’s probably why they aren’t popular anymore, except by people making a last-ditch and futile effort to keep rabbits out of the garden.

In the business of planting plants, I often get requests for certain things that clients remember from their childhoods. Hollyhocks, bearded irises, and rose-of-Sharon probably top the list. No matter how awful I think these are, who am I to argue? If they bring back powerful memories of childhood visits to grandma’s house, let’s go for it, despite the Japanese beetles, iris borers, and general hideousness.

Among people who plant things for a living, opinions become especially hardened. I met someone the other day who absolutely hated black-eyed-Susans. What? Why? I love those plants.

If I don’t like a plant, it’s usually for practical reasons, not appearance. Shrubs and perennials that need pesticides or intensive pruning top the list. Plants that aren’t cold-hardy are obviously on the do-not-use list, but even worse in my mind are the ones that can’t handle even a modest spell of hot, dry weather. Of course, Home Depot sells those by the truckload, and you will always end up blaming yourself, not the plant.

My own personal privet is astilbe, a perennial with stunning flowers and a need for constant moisture that exceeds that of fish. Astilbe No Use.


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