Garden Variety SNARK

a little bit of snark, a touch of bitchiness, and a big eye-roll
a little bit of snark, a touch of bitchiness, and a big eye-roll

I was recently made aware of something that I had no idea about – it was said on an online garden writer’s forum that “The best garden tips are the snarky ones”. WHERE HAVE I BEEN PEOPLE??? If anyone is going to be giving snarky gardening tips, it better be ME. I mean, in all honesty I hate tips and lists – they are usually just tricks to help with search engine rankings and rarely do these tips, tricks, and lists actually give any advice that hasn’t been endlessly recycled. But THIS IS DIFFERENT – because this is a list of “snarky” gardening tips!!!! So they have to be the best ones!!!

SGT #1 – Plants are ALIVE, stoopid!!!

I can’t tell you how many times I have to deal with people who basically think that plants are like furniture. Just put it where you want it and done! NO. Like anything that is alive, plants grow, change, and respond to their environment. Things will happen. Sometimes plants will suffer, sometimes they will die. It is part of the gorgeous dance those who throw in with nature understand – it isn’t always pretty, but it is ALWAYS worth it. Gardening changes your heart and your relationship with the world around you.

SGT #2 – It’s SOIL, not DIRT, you total dork!

Okay, it may be just a pet peeve, but we garden in soil, not dirt. Soil can be dirty, we get dirty from playing in and planting in soil. But “dirt” is grime, muck, dreck, gunk, crud – all the icky stuff. Soil is a complex ecosystem that has balance and purpose, it is rich and alive, it is life giving and miraculous.

SGT #3 – While we’re at it, compost can be a mulch but mulch is not compost!!!! GET IT THROUGH YOUR HEAD ALREADY!!! 

Mulch is a large category of materials that can be used to cover your soil in order to block weeds and to aid in moisture retention. Examples are gravel, wood chips, broken pottery, landscape fabric, and – compost. Compost is a mix of well decomposed green matter (fresh leaves, grass, fruit and vegetable scraps) and brown matter (dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard, wood scraps), and is used in many ways to improve soil structure. Again – compost can be a mulch, but mulch can’t be a compost.

SGT #4 – It isn’t rocket science… DUH…

But it is horticultural science. It is also botany – the biology of plants. Respect this as a culture of deep knowledge. We benefit from those who study and teach us, it is our task to be good students.

SGT #5 -You will always suck at this…

…if you’re lucky. Those of us who have been doing this long enough to be called “experts” know that we know some stuff, but we are far from expert. One should always be learning, always be questioning, always be finding new things and exploring new avenues of our chosen craft. We should always looks at plants and gardens with the curious eyes of a beginner. Once you think you know too much, your growth stops. Stay vital.

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Ivette Soler


Fasten your seatbelts, Ranters, I hope you like riding rollercoasters! I’m Ivette Soler, a garden designer and writer who lives and works in Los Angeles, California. I have been designing since 1997, working primarily with the subtropical and succulent palette that thrives in my corner of the world. I started my blog, The Germinatrix, in 2004, and I have been enjoying a vibrant dialog with the online garden community ever sine. In 2011, Timber Press published my book “The Edible Front Yard“, in which I make the case for ridding ourselves of thirsty, dull front lawns in favor of beautiful, bountiful gardens that mix food with ornamentals. I am thrilled to be a part of this illustrious and opinionated group, and am looking forward to RANTING with all of you!

Let’s do a little speed-dating so you can get to know me better:

I am a Believer – I know that gardens and gardening can and will make this world a better place.

I am a Maximalist – I believe that more is more and more is better than less!

I am against Horticultural Xenophobia – If you believe that we must eliminate well-chosen exotics from our landscapes in favor of a natives-only palette, we might have words.

I am a Talker – I love to get into it! If you have anything you want to challenge me about, or if you want to dialog about anything I post, please comment away! My love of blogging is rooted in dialoging with a large number of passionate gardeners with diverse opinions. I will rant, and I expect you to RANT BACK

I cast a wide net – This is a big world, and I believe our gardens are more interesting when we open ourselves up to ideas other than those that come to us from the established gardening world. I am inspired by fine art, literature, product design, theatre, fashion … you get the picture. I will often bring in ideas from other areas of culture to our conversations about gardens and the way we garden.

I like exclamation points and sometimes … yes … ALL CAPS – I really talk like this!!!! I can’t help it!!!

I am eager to move the conversation about gardening and the place it has in our lives forward, so hop on, make sure you are strapped in tightly, and LET’S GO!


  1. Nice list, Ivette. The first one is one I’ve been surprised to encounter over and over again with otherwise intelligent people. My father, for instance, planted a whole slew of lovely shrubs in his garden, ignoring my advice about air circulation and plants doing this zany growing thing. There is only so much that pruning can accomplish.

    • Liz, that one makes my head come to a point. And you’re totally right – even when people should KNOW better, they still expect a plant to still still and behave. Um, no. It doesn’t work with kids, it rarely works with dogs, and plants are just the same. They will grow and change, and this is natural and normal and lovely! And also – the other aspect – is people who are constantly wanting to move things around, as if all that uprooting and transplanting is easy for the plant!
      oh man I’m getting all heated just thinking about it!!!

    • That is odd. Compost is often a component of potting soil, but potting soil has added material – usually to aid in drainage. Perlite, vermiculite, peat, coir … and all manner of other things, like little globs that hold water. Compost is a more specific product. I can’t imagine that it is different in England… but I’m not there!

    • Loree that tile wall is my single most prized possession – when the topic of selling this house comes up (property values in my area have gone way up and making that kind of a move would be lucrative), I just look at that wall and say NO!!!! I don’t think I could ever leave it!!!!

    • Don’t be afraid to shovel prune! Which I have done that to some roses that did not live up to their hype.

      Though I think a couple I bought were mislabeled. I thought I was getting a couple “The Fairy” shrubs. But it all they produced were thorny vines with an occasional pink bloom. I replaced one with a Rosa Glauca (which is just cool looking) and the other with this much more well behaved version:

      I have a couple landscape roses that pre-date the Knockout roses (Fuchsia Meidiland) happily growing out of my rockery. One is literally planted in a vertical rock wall, almost over the water meter and sticking out enough to discourage cars from parking on that meter. (I got tired of the city nagging me because other people parked on it and it could not be read.. one of the perks of living on a street without a sidewalk).

    • Sorry–I think KnockOut roses are the closest thing to plant furniture a la Snark #1 that I’ve seen in a long time–no scent, no grace, unkillable in asphalt parking lots. Not in my yard!!!

  2. Oh, I absolutely love your list. Especially number 1. 🙂 Plants are living, breathing things, not preset Lego bricks you arrange in your garden for a perpetual look. Lovely rant, Ivette.

    • I know, right? No matter how many times I can explain it to certain people, they can’t grasp it. I’m sorry to say, but I’ve even run into industry professionals who have trouble with it. WTF????????? (my head just came to a point again!)

    • I totally agree Jenny I will SHIV someone the next time they ask me where they can get a bag of dirt. I’m gonna say “Check your vacuum cleaner”, or something equally dorky!

  3. Good ones! One of the most frustrating things I heard from coaching clients over the years is the assumption that there’s a plant for every situation and every set of requirements, the most common being “What vine can I grow to hide that?” In full shade of course, and all year long, growing just enough and then not growing any more. And of course climbing by itself. As if plants are privacy screens – which is something I recommended often. Similarly, I often recommended a shade structure or even a market umbrella, because that shade tree they just planted won’t do the job for many years.
    Yeah, plants aren’t furniture.

    • Erik, I explain that one SO MUCH that I don’t think I can even do it anymore. I am just going to let people call that horrid gorilla hair crap compost. I’m going to let them buy mulch to dig into their vegetable beds. I haven’t the STRENGTH anymore!

  4. Thanks for the right on humor. Especially the “If you don’t have blood on your hands..” I was SO upset the first time a shrub died. Haha. Now it’s an unusual year if I don’t lose something, here in the northern Rockies. -30 right now with chill. I have tried and tried to keep alive a triple twisted azalea shrub inside that was my mom’s. The dance of life.. love that one too.

  5. A translation fron the English: in the UK the distinction is made between compost (ie potting soil, sometimes called bagged compost) and homemade compost. Brilliant list!

  6. I’ve heard the sentiment before, but never quite expressed like you have in number 5. Good for you, we all need to be kept humble.

    • Lucha, those are my FAVORITES! Cleistocactus straussii, or “ghost poles” as my friendly cactus seller calls them, are so elegant! And then once a year, they get these silly red noses on them. Too cool a plant to ignore – but don’t get too close! They will bite!

    • Dierdre, we gardeners know we have the soil we work for. If I had that attitude, I would have ben defeated at the start. Dig your soil! Amend it! Love it and it will love you back! If I’ve seen hard sticky clay turned into loamy chocolate cake, and sandy dg turned into something rich that supports a network of flowering shrubs, than you can make that happen too. Maybe the problem is that you are calling your soil DIRT – strike one!!!

  7. Great list, I agree with all of them, especially plants as furniture and soil as dirt. See the rant on Leyland’s Cypress for a ‘hedge’ which …..Oh, my God… it just keeps GROWING ..oh, REALLY?

  8. #4 really caught my attention. While it IS botany-stop asking us to respect the aesthetics of experts that have none! There are folks out there-and you know who you are (oh wait that’s the problem-you don’t know) who continue to wax poetic about plants of dubious pulchritude. Just because you know’em and can grow’em don’t mean you know how to show’em.

    Some of these experts are also in the biz of trying to sell us plants. Stop hiding behind your credentials while running headlong down the path of zone extension. No-it isn’t hardy in 6-you may have suspected all along, I the idiot customer need a year like this last one to find out.

    And while you’re at it-stop praising the virtues of plants so invasive that they are illegal in some states.

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