Gardening: Confessions of a plant nerd

By Walt Harrison

It’s the first of April as I’m writing this article and oenethera is blooming. It’s blooming right next to the pavement on I-20 and around the curbs of the exit ramps of the downtown connector and Presidential Parkway. I don’t anticipate oenethera’s appearance each year. It usually catches me by surprise – it’s like running into an old friend I haven’t seen in awhile and I’m happy to see again.

Oenethera is also known by the common name of Evening Primrose. The flower is beautiful; pale pink and delicate. This plant thrives in full sun uncultivated sterile soil and gets by on rainfall. If you take oenethera home to your garden with its rich cultivated soil and plenty of water, this primrose will wither and fade away. Oenethera likes life on the hard side. It always reminds me of how interesting and complex the world of plants truly is.

Speaking of plants, the other day a friend of mine referred to me as a plant nerd. Well, I’ve never been thought of myself that way, but was forced to consider the possibility that, in fact, I might qualify. Maybe I am a plant nerd (sometimes also called a plant geek.) So, I offer some thoughts about this along with my definition of what qualities one must possess to be considered a plant nerd or geek.

  • A farmer knows a lot about growing plants but still might not be a plant nerd.
  • A landscaper might know the names of a lot of plants and how to plant them but that doesn’t necessarily make him or her a plant nerd.
  • Same is true of nursery people, growers and designers. Just because they work with plants doesn’t mean they are plant nerds.

My definition of a plant nerd is someone whose interest in and knowledge of plants far exceeds any utilitarian value. Like the oenethera, the little knowledge I’ve acquired about this plant is not going to make me two cents but I do find these things fascinating.

So, I’m forced to face this issue head on and look it in the eye and admit that even by my own definition, I am a plant nerd. I also have to admit that I know a fair number of other plant nerds and I’m in good company – it is a fraternity that I’m proud to be part of.

One thing about plant nerds is they can occasionally be a little snobbish about plants. Any plant widely accepted by the public is a candidate to be looked down upon. For instance, Knockout Roses, especially the red variety. They are truly everywhere, every street I turn down almost anywhere in town. They are widely accepted by the masses and common as can be. Perfect fodder to be disparaged by those in the know (plant nerds, that is).

But let’s think about this. If I remember correctly, Knockouts were blooming as late as the middle of December last year.  They started up again by the end of this past March and have been blooming like crazy since plus the foliage looks great. Give this plant some credit as it performs beautifully with minimal care.

I know all that red can be a bit much but still, these easy-to-grow rebloomers deserve some respect. Knockouts can be used effectively as a hedge to dress up a fence or hide a utility box and a couple of spots of color around the yard never hurt anything. I find the flower of the double knockouts more interesting and white, pink, yellow and salmon Knockouts are available.

Drift roses are a ground cover version of Knockouts. Easy to grow, they grow close to the ground and bloom continually all summer, which makes them a great candidate for that sun-baked bank where everything else struggles.

There are other interesting roses available and the David Austin series of fragrant and re-blooming English Roses is one of the best. Even a plant nerd will like these roses. These are low care, easy to grow plants that are a delight in the garden. The flower conformation (flower shapes) are beautiful and the range of colors (there are over 200 different varieties available) is stunning. These roses are also great for cutting. The real trick with these David Austin Roses is this: to make a bush, plant three of the same variety in a triangular pattern, 18” apart or, if you want a hedge, plant in a row 18” apart. The David Austin collection also includes climbers and ramblers.

Here are a couple of hints about how to get the most out of your roses. All of the above-mentioned roses need:

  • 4 to 5 hours of direct sun each day to promote optimal blooming.
  • Roses are heavy feeders, but only fertilize early in the season (March/April) and late in the season, around October. Avoid fertilizing in the heat. Roses don’t like it.
  • Regular watering is needed during the dry hot summer months.
  • To make roses part of your sustainable landscape plan, group them in the same general area as other plants that need watering and away from your drought tolerant plants. This is not only a step toward a sustainable landscape, but just a good gardening practice.

Hey, go plant some roses and maybe your friends will start calling you a plant nerd. It’s a fun club, join it!

Walt Harrison is the owner Habersham Gardens, 2067 Manchester St. For more, visit