It might be an embarrassing thing for a plant scientist to admit, but I am a total sucker for a garden gimmick. I like to think it’s because I am open-minded or maybe just irrationally optimistic, particularly as many things in the plant world are often extremely counterintuitive. But I am not ashamed to say I have fallen for dozens of them over a lifetime in horticulture. While I firmly believe in the value of trying things out for yourself, if you don’t fancy learning the hard way, here are some of the most common garden gimmicks I have come across.
First up, and probably the worst offender, grafted tomato-potato plants. Hailed as a revolutionary breakthrough, grafting tomato plants on to potato roots is, in fact, an old-school botanical curiosity, dating back to at least the 1920s. As they are both from the same family and have broadly similar internal “plumbing”, you can indeed create such surgically enhanced marvels. But here’s the problem: creating resource-intensive structures like fruits and roots takes up a lot of metabolic energy, and if plants are attempting to do both their limited energies inevitably become split. That means the yields of these grafted plants are terrible and nothing like what you see in the marketing pictures. Then there is the fact that the crops mature at different rates, so to harvest the spuds you have to kill the plants before the tomatoes have ripened.
On the subject of marketing imagery, there’s a lot of dodgy dealing here, too. I’ve seen roses Photoshopped sky blue and fruit trees with a physiologically impossible amount of fruit on their branches in some major catalogues. I’ve even seen photos “borrowed” from my Instagram account and used by shopping networks as images of their trial grounds. Sadly the work of a small minority of cavalier companies mean you have to view advertising images, particularly online, with a very sceptical eye. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Speaking of which, the colour blue is relatively rare in the botanical world, so if you see a dazzling new heather, orchid or cactus, shining out in the most intense “disinfectant” shade of blue, it’s almost certainly been sprayed or dyed. Which would be fine, so long as vendors made this clear, but they rarely ever do. Blue moth orchids will revert back to their original white, but sprayed cacti and heathers, coated in a light-suppressing layer of dye, are unlikely to survive for long.
Finally, I have to flag up bonsai kits or, even worse, bonsai seeds, that promise miniature trees will sprout from their packets. Bonsai is not a species of plant. It’s a training technique used to give the illusion of ancient trees on distant mountaintops. They are almost always started from mature shrubs that are hacked back and new growth wired in place.
I know I’ll keep falling for gimmicks, it’s part of the fun of experimentation. But side-step these ones and you may find one that actually has a chance of living up to its promise.
Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek