You have to understand that plants are just like animals; Some have been domesticated, while others refuse to be tamed.
Annually, gardeners and top publicists compete to see who can find, create and deliver the next big success in the landscaping world. And while most take responsible measures to study their new plants before releasing them into our local garden centers, every now and then, a few Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin-type gardeners will recklessly introduce everyone to an untamable plant panther.
One of the most common mistakes people make when buying plants is treating them as decorations. They walk into the garden center, see something visually appealing, and think, “This would look great in the house.”
Every time I visit a property with landscaping issues, the problem starts with poor design: the wrong plants in the wrong place.
Before you buy your plants, you should ask yourself these five basic questions:
- Is this an indoor or outdoor plant?
- Will this work in shade, partial shade, or full sun?
- What are its watering requirements?
- How big will it grow?
- Is it invasive?
There are also micro-climates throughout Los Angeles County to consider. Plants that would do well in full Santa Monica sun can bake in the valley. Plants that can handle the cold weather in West Hollywood may not do so well against the salty fog left by the ocean. My best recommendation is to walk around your neighborhood and see which plants work and which don’t.
There is a lot to consider when purchasing plants for your garden. But for now, here are five commonly used plants you should avoid.
Stipa: Also known as horsetail/Mexican feather grass
This feathery grass will tempt you with its breezy dance, and its headdress swaying in the wind. The tips of its whiskers fade from green to yellow, and appear to be cut from a horse’s tail, hence its common name. But actually, it’s better described as a dwarf hair because that’s what this plant does: it preys on the surrounding gardens.
Hidden within its golden tips are seeds waiting to spread everything they touch. Unless you want to turn your garden into a meadow or see grass growing in every crevice, choose a completely different grass or plant. But if you find yourself with these weeds, cut them back a few inches to a foot above the ground each year, especially when they flower. This will reduce seed spread and remove old growth, encouraging new growth of green grass for the next cycle.
This is for all of you who are trying to create fruit and vegetable gardens. Mint is excellent for making mojitos, but it can be extremely aggressive if left to its own devices. You may be tempted to use it as a cover crop and plant it among your other vegetables, but just like golden bamboo, it will creep along and sprout new shoots from the roots. It is best to use a container for these things.
It amazes me how willingly people accept the looming fate of their decisions for something they know they can only enjoy for a fleeting moment. They don’t care that the cute little one-gallon plant they want to put next to the pool will grow six feet wide and thirteen feet tall. That is, they don’t care until it’s too late.
People who buy pampas grass because their little flowering animals are so fluffy and cute are like those who buy mastiffs for the same reason. They give him a home, look at him, and feel sweet and fuzzy inside. But a year later, it’s now a monster taking up space, making a mess, and ruining your home. Unlike a cute dog, with whom you’ll build a lasting love affair that will make you miss those first one-gallon days, a pampas grass will make you regret ever having one.
Don’t just make this mistake with Pampas Grass, keep this in mind when purchasing all plants in small containers.
So you want a fence that you don’t have to cut, which provides a natural, free-flowing atmosphere and contrasts with the flat, flat fence that is indicative of city life. You think of the dense, jagged golden buds of the Golden Bamboo plant. It has some rather annoying problems, like the constant rain of leaves that you’ll never finish cleaning. Secondly, every piece of literature about Golden Bamboo claims that it needs minimal water. They are wrong. In my experience, these plants grow to require tons of water.
But its worst qualities are the buried ones: the roots.
Plant bamboo in your front garden, and you will cut off bamboo shoots that will thicken to the point of damaging your mower blades. As the roots travel, they will shoot new shoots up and new roots down along the way. And if you try to cut or pull the shoots to kill them, congratulations, you’ve just gone from a few bamboo trees to hundreds.
Good luck getting rid of it. If you are going to use it, place it in pots or containers where its roots will not reach the mother earth. If you have to use bamboo, I recommend using black bamboo instead. Its growth system is more clumping than creeping. The main obvious difference is that it has black stems instead of the golden ones.
Early urban foresters in Los Angeles thought these majestic trees would be great for our streets. They are self-sufficient and resistant to almost all pests and diseases, and no matter how much you reduce them, they always come back bigger and better. That’s why they outnumbered the palm trees along the streets and sidewalks of our city at one point.
But if left unattended, they are formidable. Ficuses are tree structures. They are saboteurs of sewer lines and destroyers of foundations. It crumbles concrete and moves the earth itself with its relentless roots. But if you take care of one, take care of it and maintain it, it is the most loyal plant you can have in your garden.
The three most common types of ficus trees you’ll see in Los Angeles are Nitida, Benjamina, and Macrophylla. Macrophylla have larger, dark green leaves, sometimes roots growing from their nodes (limb joints), and an Amazon-like root structure that protrudes massively from the ground. Some of the oldest and first trees planted in Los Angeles were Macrophylla trees, more commonly known as “Moreton Bay Figs.” We recently lost one of the first plants planted in 1875 in Placita Olvera.
Benjamina, also known as ‘weeping fig’, can grow as large as its siblings, but it has softer leaves and is better suited than most as a potted houseplant. However, when planted outside and left unattended, they can impose their will on their surroundings as well.
Ficus Nitida, known as the Indian Laurel Fig, is the most common species around Los Angeles, and often destroys our sidewalks. Fort Knox wouldn’t stand a chance if these tree roots knew greed. I advise you to avoid planting it and leave it unchecked as a tree. But if you do, keep it away from driveways, foundations, sewers and swimming pools.
However, Ficus Nititda is still unrivaled as a tall privacy hedge, especially if you need something that grows six or eight feet tall.
But keep it trimmed! If you keep your ficus tree pruned to size and stay on top of it, it will extend the life of the structures around it.
The general rule for any tree is that the roots will grow just outside the tree canopy to access rainwater. So keep your ficus cut. Every time you let a tree grow, so do its roots.