Variety is the spice of life

I enjoy trying out uncommon plants to see how they'll do in my yard. Sometimes they thrive, and I am thrilled that I've found another species that will do well in my landscape. Other times, it becomes distressingly obvious why the plant isn't more popular.

Nobody likes it when plants fail, so it's not surprising that a relatively small number of rugged species have come to dominate our landscapes. However, this is a problem in several respects.

For one thing, it's boring. I can't count the times I've driven down a street looking at pin oak after pin oak after pin oak for miles. Yews, heavenly bamboo, Wheeler's pittosporum, Bradford pear, forsythia…the list could go on and on, but you get the idea. Every region has its share of plants that are used ad nauseam.

The really unfortunate thing is that many of these plants have commendable qualities. But like anything that becomes too common, their value is diminished with overuse.

Another problem is more practical. A tenet of integrated pest management is that diversity in plant material creates diversity of other organisms, such as beneficial insects. It also reduces the likelihood of a pest or disease devastating large areas, as did Dutch elm disease.

Professionals in the landscape industry are too-well aware that landscapes lack diversity. Several factors explain this, but lack of potential choices is not one of them. In general, people simply choose what they know.

Landscape professionals contribute to the epidemic as well. Dependability is a big factor. Say what you want about certain plants being too common; if your commercial client wants some greenery to spruce up the parking lot, there's something to be said for a plant that can really take the abuse.

Availability also is important. You may have a spot that you think is crying out for a nice Acer japonicum, but how many local nurseries would you have to visit before finding one? And at what price? Naturally, you can't use what you can't obtain, so you stick with plants you know are readily available.

Turf is subject to an even greater lack of diversity than ornamentals, but for completely different reasons. You can count on one hand the number of turfgrasses that comprise a large majority of the turf acreage in the United States. However, despite the considerable efforts of turfgrass breeders, new species are few and far between.

The handful of newcomers that do exist aren't likely to displace the predominant species. Nevertheless, they play an important role. As this month's featured article, “Where is turf going?” (beginning on page 14), explains that these new turfgrasses will mostly address highly specific needs such as tolerance of shade, salinity or low maintenance inputs.

This will better enable turfgrass managers to do what IPM has dictated all along — put the right plant in the right place. You can't do that without options, and options are what turfgrass breeders are working to provide. They're also the topic of this issue of Grounds Maintenance, which focuses on plant selection.

Speaking of options, you have quite a few when it comes to shrubbery. Why not add more interest to your landscapes with some new or underused varieties? These are the subject of “Flowering shrubs,” by Patrice Peltier, beginning on page 18.

Unlike establishing ornamentals, planting turf by seed is a numbers game. Too few seedlings will produce a thin stand. Too many seedlings will result in weak and spindly plants (not to mention wasted seed). Does using the recommended seeding rate ensure you're going to get the stand you expect? Not necessarily. Find out why in “How to: Calculate pure-live seed” on page 32.

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