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Internet for Gardens

Online Plants
Photo by Teona Swift from Pexels

Here in the great American Southwest, we have an amazing set of growing conditions, as I mentioned to a family member who lives in way upstate New York. They’re excited when summer temperatures rise above 80°. In September, they’re covering their raised beds for the winter and pulling out their mukluks and parkas. At the same time, we can be planning our fall gardens.

Just before spring, my mailbox is jammed with plant catalogs, and I do love looking at them, but you rarely receive catalogs around the end of summer, when I want information immediately. So, I google it.

I think that “to google” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary.

How much information is actually in google, or any other search engine? I can’t imagine.

Just because something’s available, however, doesn’t mean it’s all correct and appropriate for our unique growing conditions. You really need a critical eye to make sure that the computer’s giving you the information you need. Too often, websites are designed to sell something. If it’s dot com, it might not be unbiased.

Sadly, there’s also opinion masked as fact. A blog may or may not be based in reality; it could easily be some individual’s views presented as gospel. Many garden writers are experienced and trained, but if a statement sounds too definite or unsubstantiated, double check. Any statement that includes the words “always” or “never” may not be true. I’ve learned to avoid those two words.

And a lot of things just appear in your search that don’t seem to be related at all. I was looking up “food safety and hydroponics,” but I also got pages trying to sell me the absolute best hydroponics units, and other pages telling me how dangerous the practice of hydroponics is. Several of those last websites were actually blogs. Opinions.

There are millions of plants listed on the web, from tender annuals to magnificent shade trees, but don’t set yourself up for disappointment.

For instance, a plant may look fabulous in a photo, and from the description, you’d think it was perfect for everywhere. Look closer.

Where does it grow best? In what zone? We’re zone 8 b, working our way up to zone 9. But if a plant should be in zone 10, we’re too cold in the winter. If the zone range says 4 – 7, our conditions are way too hot in summer.

How about water use? There are locations all around the world where water actually falls frequently from the sky.

People there can do occasional supplemental watering with a hose.

We get the occasional torrential downpour here in the desert southwest, then may go for months in between precipitation events. If we wait for rain to irrigate our vegetables, flowers, and trees, we’ll have a landscape of dead plants. You can usually find the water needs of the plant where it’s listed on the web or in the catalog.

Avoid anything that’s not at least a bit drought tolerant. Since we’ve technically been in a drought for over 20 years, that’s something to consider.

Let’s not forget sunlight. We have hundreds of cloudless, or nearly cloudless, days every year. Any plant that requires part shade will need careful placement and scrupulous attention.

Salty soil is one of our more serious horticultural problems. It’s not usually mentioned in plant descriptions either on the web or in catalogs. Don’t forget to check salt tolerance when you’re looking up plants.

The world wide web is worldwide, so not all the information is appropriate for the Mojave, which is the smallest, driest desert in North America.

I just checked websites about desert shade trees, and found a big range. Many of the ones I found can thrive in this climate, but some listings would die after just a few years. Maybe they’d thrive in other American deserts, but not all deserts are the same.

And with climate change, who knows what conditions’ll be like in the coming decades?

The web is terrific for so much, but it can’t replace a gardener’s knowledge of growing conditions, and it won’t replace your common sense.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Extension.