Every now and then, I see a poll of some sort on a garden website that goes “What’s your favorite garden tool?”
This is almost always a ploy to sell me garden shears with special handles made out of synthetic unicorn leather and held together with composites first used on the space shuttle.
But while I am indeed fond of my garden shears—and my trowel, and my pokey pronged thing and the diggy rake thing and that one other thing with the metal bits—my absolute favorite garden tool is my smart phone.
I don’t even have any gardening apps on it. I have an inherent belief that gardening is so much a matter of individual circumstances that an app is unlikely to be all that useful unless I wrote it myself for my garden’s conditions, where “full sun” could mean either “full sun” or “For the love of god, don’t expose it to a North Carolina afternoon,” and my hardiness zones are defined as much by sweltering heat as by winter lows, and then you get the clay-resistant cultivars into the mix and at that point I have been playing Angry Birds for twenty minutes and am no longer paying attention.
But the ability to yank a phone out of my pocket and check the internet to see a plant’s origins has been unbelievably useful. I am a native plant junkie. You show me a native and I will give it a try in my garden. Unfortunately, as many of us have noticed, it’s not always easy to figure out where a plant is from!
Case in point—a few years back, I picked up a few leatherleaf viburnum. The cultivar was called “Alleghany.” The nursery worker told me it was native. How much clearer could it be?
Well, the damn things are from China, as it turns out. They aren’t an invasive here in the South, so far as I can tell, so I haven’t ripped them out yet, but I’m still annoyed, and they’re living on borrowed time until I can find a good replacement.
This hasn’t happened since I bought my iPhone. I see an interesting plant at the nursery, I whip out my phone, pull up the internet, and voila! It’s from Outer Mongolia, you say? Well, forget that. Oh look, it’s invasive in my region? The Forest Service says it spends HOW MUCH MONEY eradicating it? Goodness. Let’s just put that down, shall we?
It goes the other way too, of course—I found a plant labeled only with scientific name on the half-price rack and discovered via the phone that it was hyssop-leaved boneset, a fairly obscure native that I had been craving for my prairie planting. The nursery people didn’t even know how it had gotten there (but were happy to sell it to me at half-price.)
It also provides opportunities for grass-roots activism that can’t be beat.
The other day, I was at my local Lowes and saw a big display for a company called “Botanical Wonders” which was selling wildflower bulbs. Virginia bluebells, trillium, jack in the pulpit, birdsfoot violet, bloodroot, all sorts of wonderful plants, plants I’d love in my garden at a…really …suspiciously… good…price…
Virginia bluebells and jack-in-the-pulpit aren’t too hard to come by, but you can expect to pay twenty or thirty bucks minimum for an ethically sourced trillium. These were going for about three bucks.
Well, as Grandma always said, “If it looks too good to be true…”
I whipped out my iPhone, punched the name of the company in, and promptly found that one of the company founders had apparently been arrested and served time for illegal plant trafficking here in North Carolina,* that the suppliers was notorious for wild-harvesting plants under circumstances of questionable legality, plunking them into the ground long enough to call them “nursery grown” (although not “nursery-propagated,” which is the important thing) and were in general one of the many reasons that rare plants continue to be rare.
Thanks to my smart phone, I didn’t buy unethically sourced plants, AND I was able to send a note to Lowes customer service on the spot telling them what I thought of the matter.
So that’s why the phone remains my favorite garden tool.
Now if they could just make an app that pops up a little fanfare when my tomatoes ripen…
*We have a really horrible problem with plant poaching out here, particularly Venus Fly-Traps, which are probably going to go extinct in the wild in my lifetime because of people like this.
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