Just like you need to read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line, you need to carefully read the information that’s given on a plant tag before you put your money down. The tags are telling you what you need to know, but not necessarily in the most direct manner. Here are a few of my favorite bits of nursery speak, translated:
Tolerates shade: in other words, if everything else in its universe is perfect, this plant will put up with the injustice of insufficient sunlight. Last time I checked, attempting to keep everything in the universe perfect will make you crazy and, if you’re like me, the load of things that already make you crazy would stop an elephant, so leave this plant alone. Find one that likes the environment you are providing.
Vigorous once established: in other words, in three or four years, if all goes well, the plant will begin to take off. Until then it requires as much tending as if it were brand new, and a little bit of luck besides. This is why new wisteria vines, for example, look so pathetic and the old ones are show-stoppers. If you’re not going to live in the house long enough to make that kind of commitment, or if you need something that’s going to be dazzling in short order, put the pot down and move along. Nurseries also use that phrase ‘once established’ in conjunction with ‘drought-tolerant,’ so read carefully. Decide before you buy if you’re willing and able to lug five or ten gallons of water to it every couple of days in the middle of next summer’s heat wave. Why do I say lug water? Because inevitably we put those trees far away from house and hose. Why do we put them far away? Because the tag says they’re drought tolerant. And so it goes…
Tree form: in other words, not an actual tree, but a shrub or vine that has been trained into the shape of a tree. Don’t get me wrong, I love them and use them — the classics like hydrangea and wisteria, along with tree-form rhodies and viburnum — principally because they add dimension to the garden and present their blossoms at eye level. The drawback is their tendency to revert to form — wisteria will begin sprouting new vines from the root almost immediately — and to maintain the tree shape for any of these, you need to continually remove any growth that occurs below the level at which you want the branching to happen. They require a bit more work, and they often need bracing to maintain their upright habit, but if you’ve ever drooled over an eighty-year-old wisteria ‘tree’ you understand the draw, as well as the drawback. With a little extra care, you and your tree-form should be very happy together.