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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - December 13, 2013

Garden Tips

Time to ask some 'stupid questions'

by Jack McKinnon

Remember being told "there is no such thing as a stupid question"? I think that is a pretty stupid statement. Of course there are stupid questions and we need to be asking more of them.

Think: If there were only intelligent questions asked and answered, and somebody like me comes along who takes twice as long as the average person to figure something out and I am too intimidated by all the know-it-alls out there to ask my stupid question. How stupid is that? And what if somebody comes along with the same problem as I have and sees that I am acting like everything is OK but it isn't really, and he/she doesn't ask either? You can see how all of this not asking stupid questions business gets out of hand.

And what does all this have to do with gardening and improving the urban and suburban landscape for all to appreciate? Let's ask some "Stupid Questions."

1. Why are there not cut flowers on everyone's dining-room table? We are in a cut-flower drought, I think caused by the California native-plant binge and boring design trends that have been going on for the last 30 years. Plant flowers, lots of flowers, all year round. Get in the habit of cutting fresh flowers every few days and putting them on the table.

2. What if I don't have time to go to the nursery and buy plants? There is a plant service that will deliver plants on a regular schedule. Check out the website A longtime grower and supplier to nurseries, this company will deliver garden plants directly to your door on a regular schedule.

3. I have a black thumb and cannot seem to grow anything, how can I justify spending more money when my plants all die? Here I have to admit that I am really not very good with plumbing. It takes me twice as long as just about anybody else even with all the years of experience, college irrigation classes, workshops, seminars and plenty of practice. Anyway, I delegate plumbing to those who know how and can do it well. The same goes for growing a garden. If you really cannot grow plants, there are plenty of people who can.

4. Water is so expensive, how can I grow a lush garden and not go broke? There is plenty of water. There is not plenty of water to waste. If we are thinking in cups and gallons rather than hours on a timer we will use just what is needed and not more. Thousands of gallons are lost a year by not being conscious of how much is being wasted. Try hand watering once a month, digging down to see how deep the water went and noting how long it took to satisfy that need. Collect all the water from your roof. Learn about water reclamation by searching the web.

5. How much time does it take to garden? I don't have much time. There is an old lesson about meditation. If you don't have enough time to meditate for five minutes a day, then you need to meditate for 10 minutes a day. This is the same for gardening. You will find that gardening regularly, like meditation, exercise, reading and sleep will energize you and stimulate many unrelated areas of your life.

6. I don't like gardens, so why would I want to grow one? This is quite reasonable and a very good stupid question. Many of the gardens most of us see are quite uninteresting. We have not really grown culturally enough yet to be really good garden designers and growers. I think we are getting closer to realizing the importance of our surroundings but we haven't gotten there yet. Look at some of the classical gardens around like Filoli in Woodside, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park, Hakone Japanese Garden in Saratoga and you will see some of what we need to learn. There are hints all over that we are getting there. For example, visit some of the community gardens on the Peninsula and you will see a few plots that are well-thought-out and managed. The traffic divider down the middle of Guerrero Street south in San Francisco has been planted intelligently with drought-tolerant succulents that look amazing. Few are California natives by the way.

7. Why is the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show emphasizing growing food rather than gardens lately? Granted there is a trend toward home-grown produce and Alice Waters made eating fresh and local famous. But there are great farmers markets all over now and the farmers are providing amazing variety, quality and prices that homeowners or home gardeners cannot reproduce. I think with the limited will for ornamental design in the private sector and the lack of inspiring designs we are all getting more interested in eating than growing. The passion is turning toward the kitchen rather than the garden. Again, growing flowers for the table will help this enormously.

8. Why don't boys bring flowers anymore? I have to say, this isn't really a stupid question. It is a tragic one. I don't know except that it would not hurt guys to try it and see what happens.

9. I loved eating outdoors in France, why don't we do this in California? Sunset Magazine and Books has been writing about outdoor living for more than a century. It has gone in and out of style and I would like to see it be more a custom here. One client of mine has made their back patio a real living space complete with electronics, phones, heat and dining area. I loved sitting out there with them talking about their fruit trees. The multimillion-dollar home seemed like a cave in comparison.

10. I don't know how to start, isn't it hard? Sometimes to start moving toward a goal is the hardest part of reaching it. The beginning of the momentum need not be great. A six pack of Johnny Jump Ups gave me the incentive to write this column. I hope this helps inspire new and colorful gardens.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-879-3261, by email at Visit his website at


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