Everybody's a Critic

Plant Profile, Anyone?

by SusanAcuba2300
Our recent discussion of gardening websites was so stimulating, how about we hone in on the topic of plant profiles – what’s helpful, what’s not, and why so many really bad ones do so well with Google?  To illustrate plant profiles I Googled the shrub Aucuba japonica (also the other spelling, acuba) and here’s what popped up.

THE GARDENING BIGGIES

  • Let’s start with the popular plant files at Daves Garden. Although almost all "authorities" list aucuba as hardy only to Zone 7, a Daves contributor in 5A reports great success with it, and there are several growers in New York and Pennsylvania (Zone 6 or colder) who report success, too.  This is useful and what I like best about DG.  One commenter says deer will absolutely NOT eat aucuba and another one describes it as "deer candy", but then deer are known for keeping gardeners on edge.

As for photos, it takes some hunting to find them, a link away, and all but one are close-ups.  One last nit to pick: the info given under Growing would make you think aucuba’s fussy about pH, despite its apparent comfort in any old soil.

  • Next up, GardenWeb’s entry is pretty useless.  It lists a few links, only one of which is useful – at U.Conn.  Search engines do a much better job.  Are the plant profiles at GardenWeb even used?  I’m not a regular GardenWebber myself, so I’m asking.

MORE GOOGLE WINNERS

  • Here’s what the Geocities entry says: "Soil: Prefers loam or amended soil.  Fertilizer: NPK in spring or fall.  Prune: Head back for compactness.  Problems: Scale, mealybugs, aphids; spider mites; snails and slugs."  Then it says it’s "easy-care" but you wouldn’t know it after reading all that.  The Geocities link appears in the number 1 position when "acuba" is Googled.  Too bad.
  • The Thriftyfun site has a tiny, bad photo of the plant and calls it a "perennial flowering shrub" that needs soil that’s "rich, moist, and well-drained." That’s all SO misleading I don’t know where to start.  Oh, and with too much shade, the variagation is lost – news to me. 

Okay, why am I consulting a site called Thriftyfun?  Because Google LOVES it and the average web surfer will find it, whether or not it’s credible.  It appears to be one of the many informational sites that compile articles by authors who are either unnamed or have no bios provided (because they don’t have one, probably) whose reason for existing is to catch Google-ad clicks.  When I’m researching on the web I quickly surf AWAY from any site that doesn’t identify the qualifications of the author, unless it’s an academic or commercial site.  Ditto if the "qualifications" are along the lines of "Hi! I’m a busy mom, quilter and gardener in Montana."

  • A site called Paghat ranks 4th on Google, but those photos aren’t much help and the font is actually hard on my eyes.

THE "EXPERTS"

  • Oregon’s Extension Service says this about aucuba: "Dioecious – male and female plant.  Flowers purple, male in upright terminal clusters, female flowers axillary.  Fruit red, 2 cm long.  Both male and female plants required for fruit production. Shade.  Prefers well-drained, moist, high organic matter soils.  Makes a choice container plant. Hardy to USDA Zone (6)7."

Sorry, Oregon, but "dioecious" loses 9 out of 10 readers, and why even mention its insubstantial flowers?  What’s your target audience, anyway – other academics?  And again with the advice that every damn plant "prefers well-drained, moist, high-organic-matter soils," the kind that nobody has.  That’s especially unhelpful information in the case of this unfussy plant.

  • Floridata organizes the info well, shows us a whole-plant photo, and even gets the zones right (6-10).
  • Clemson’s entry is very good, telling us:  "The ideal soil is moist, high in organic matter and well-drained, although it will tolerate almost any soil condition. Plant in partial to full shade (summer and winter), as its leaves will ‘burn’ in summer and turn sickly green in winter. It competes successfully with the demanding roots of other shrubs and trees, and transplants easily. Avoid overhead watering to reduce incidence of disease. Prune occasionally to restrain growth or eliminate dead or dying branches caused by disease." Thank you, Clemson!
  • And how about the feds?  On the USDA’s profile, the photo is HORRIBLE – it’s from the Smithsonian collection, so I’m surprised it’s that bad.  And the information "U.S. Nativity: Introduced" could certainly be more informative.  I have the urge to scream "WHERE’S THE DAMN PLANT FROM?" and I have the exact same reaction when the plant IS a U.S. native because their entry simply says "U.S. Nativity: Yes." Umm, would that be South Florida or the Great Plains?  Alaska or Texas?  "U.S. native yes/no" is something we’d expect to see on INS forms, not plant profiles, for chrissakes.  And what’s up with the map supposedly showing "distribution", which tells us that aucubas only grow in North Carolina?  That’s so not the case that I can’t imagine what’s going on there.

WHAT I LIKE
My dream plant profile tells me honestly what the plant really, really needs in terms of siting and maintenance over time, arranged so that I can read it quickly.  And close-ups are nice but more importantly, show me photos of the whole plant.  Here’s my attempt, and I welcome your ideas.   

Posted by on November 3, 2007 at 6:20 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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16 responses to “Plant Profile, Anyone?”

  1. Wow, Susan, this kind of post is why you are paid the big bucks. So interesting. I find the plant profiles on Dave’s Garden helpful, too–since they are reality-based. I always wonder why I don’t just subscribe to that site, but I’m somehow put off by the cheesy graphics and the fee to enter.

  2. bill says:

    I find the best on-line plant profiles at university and foundation sites. Usually I look in a book first though.

    Rather that search on google it is better to go to specific places you trust and search there.

    I like the sites at the Noble Foundation and the Texas A&M sites –
    http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ – or the Wildflower Center sites – http://www.wildflower.org/explore/

  3. Ellen says:

    Interesting topic.

    Being the compulsive info gatherer that I am, I always Google on any new plant acquisition before making a final decision about where to place it in my garden.

    I think your criticism of Paghat the Rat Girl, when comparing her site with the likes of Dave’s Garden and the USDA, is a tad unfair, as I was always under the impression that it was a site created by a single person, detailing the plants in her private garden. The page design isn’t the most sophisticated, true, but her descriptions of how her plants fare are great, and I always learn something new because she takes the time to research her plants. I’m a real sucker for arcane facts about plants and their histories. And the only reason I’m familiar with her site is that I have just a tiny competitive thing going on. I don’t want to admit how many times I’ve returned home with a plant that’s totally new to me- doesn’t appear in Sunset, have never seen it in any garden tours, it’s not a regular at the nurseries I frequent-and I’m busy patting myself on the back for finding something that I think is fairly exotic and unusual, only to Google it and find out that Paghat has been growing my find in her garden for years!! Damn her all to heck! Just kidding.

    I actually like having the botanical information that university sites like Oregon Extension provides. Now I understand why my Aucuba doesn’t flower–it’s a male. Duh. Do you really think that the inclusion of such detail turns most readers off?

    On the other hand, while Clemson’s description is nicely detailed and gives the reader some really useful information, unless you’re living in the southeast, that information needs to be filtered through the gardener’s experience with his own climate. My Aucuba does pretty well in direct sunlight here in the Pacific NW, as we rarely get the extended intense heat that is typical during the summer in your neck of the woods.

  4. susan harris says:

    Good point, Ellen, and when I explore the rest of Paghat a bit I see it’s in a different camp altogether – and a good camp. Personal accounts of growing plants, like Ratgirl’s, are great and I’m glad Google found her.
    I think my impatience as a Googler is showing here. Narratives take so long to read, I whine.

  5. angela says:

    Great topic, Susan. This makes me wish Sunset would jump into the online plant profile game. They could actually do so much more online than in “The Bible”. We’d have drool-worthy photos (isn’t Saxon Holt one of their photogs?), Sunset Zones instead of USDA, highly esteemed profile writers from each region, and they could update the online version much more often than the print version. Ooh, and they could post video tutorials. It would also be really cool if they’d allow for Dave’s Garden-style comments from gardeners.

    Sunset.com is a fairly nice looking and functioning site, so I’ll bet the plant profiles would have a pleasant user interface. Would I pay to be a Sunset member with greater access to info? Yes.

    Your site is attractive. Aesthetically, I’d like to see more separation between text and photos… since we’re picking nits. 😉

    On the Aucuba profile page, I would want to see zones first, preferrably Sunset. Then growth habit, then cultural requirements. After all that’s out of the way, I want to read about all the nifty particulars like “attracts birds” or “fall color” or “protect from frost in zones…”.

    In my Zone 14 region, Aucuba japonica is strictly a shade plant. And its leaves blacken after a bad frost. I’d want to know that.

  6. bev says:

    I think the different sites you mention are oriented toward different audiences. The government/university sites often have a different purpose than just giving us amateurs information on how to grow the plant in our garden.
    Some sites have a more taxonomic orientation. That said, good job researching those sites that DO provide good cultural info.

  7. I go to Dave’s Plant Files first. If the info I want isn’t there then I will Google the plant’s botanical name and see what comes up.

    Mostly I want to confirm a plant ID and now I am needing to know plant hardiness zones which I take with a small grain of salt. I need to know if I am close to the zone at least.

    Dave’s Plant Files are a user generated data base and there are many very knowledgeable people who contribute. I have added photos and info too.

    Errors in the data base can be corrected by a consensus discussion, but someone has to see it and recognize it as a possible error.

    My nit pick with Dave’s plant profiles is the foliage descriptions. They are color based only. I generally want to know if the leaves are simple, compound, pinnate, opposite, alternate, serrate, entire, linear, oblong ect ect. I should make that suggestion over at Dave’s.

  8. glittertrash says:

    Close-up & full size pictures, ideal conditions + tolerated conditions. Gardener comments & user added pictures should be secondary information, but present (perhaps rateable so that the most useful comment comes up as part of the main page). My big, big dream is international growing conditions. I know that’s beyond the means of a small website, but honestly, these days it shouldn’t be that hard to offer farenheit + celcius, imperial + metric, and some sort of international zoning scale for any of the larger-audience sites. It bugs me to spend all my time adding six months to planting calenders and trying to remember what a USDA hardiness zone means, when I don’t live in the US, and when the miracle of modern technology means that web-information needn’t be as static & single-version as a book.

  9. eliz says:

    Well, I like your description, Susan. I still rely pretty much on my plant books for cultivation info. I also think good gardening catalogs can be helpful and many include extra ifof on their websites. I do like the online ID sites that don’t provide cultivation info because often when I am looking online it is strictly for ID and where the plant comes from.

    As a side note, the first result I get from googlefor aucuba is wiki.

  10. Louc says:

    Sunset is owned by Southern Living corp. SL has a website and don’t think they are interested in giving another publication for free.

  11. Benjamin says:

    Thank GOD someone else noticed this. I just spent most of the summer installing a large garden in my backyard, spending thousands of dollars, and when I got home from the nurseries the first thing I did was google every plant to see what the best place was for them. It seemed rational to me.

    That is until I discoverd it took me 30 miutes AT LEAST per freaking plant to find even SOME general concensus on what it did and where it goes and how it does there (who has that time–I want to be outside!). I still feel like I just guessed with some. UNBEARABLE. USDA is a joke, Oregon seemed the best to me despite their preaching to the choir, and Dave’s Garden honestly pissed me off–I don’t care where it can grow under just perfect conditions, I care where it needs and should go and usually thrives so I can move on to something else. Why do we get worked up over gardening? Thanks for the post.

  12. Jeff says:

    To me, knowing that a plant is dioecious is vitally important in terms of space and intent – it means that if you’re buying a holly, skimmia, ruscus, American persimmon, or, yes, an Aucuba, you won’t get berries unless you plant a female AND a male. If you’ve only got space for one, that can be a deal-breaker. How can we expect anyone to learn if we don’t make them stretch and perhaps actually look up a word or two occasionally?

  13. susan harris says:

    Eliz, I’m glad you mentioned Wiki. How about this for unhelpful:
    “Aucubas are dioecious, having separate male and female plants. The flowers are small, 4-8 mm diameter, with four purplish-brown petals; they are produced in clusters of 10-30 in a loose cyme. The fruit is a red berry 1 cm diameter.”
    They don’t tell us the relevance to gardeners of a plant having male and female parts, and everything’s in metric. Just a few of the reasons I surfed quickly away from Wiki.

  14. I use Floridata most. I find the information useful and the layout friendly. I’m not a big fan of Dave’s Garden although I sometime use it to cross-reference. Like fellow Texan, Bill, I find the Texas A&M sites great for understanding what works well in my locale.

    One of the reasons I started blogging is that, at the time, I had trouble finding the information I needed online. I decided that the least I could do was to write up my own experience and maybe help others in my area who were struggling with the same questions.

  15. Gram says:

    Hi. In the future I’m going to keep here links to their sites. But I do not worry about the sites where my link is removed. So if you do not want to see a mountain of links, simply delete this message. After 2 weeks, I will come back and check.

  16. Daria says:

    Though I realize I’ve come rather late to this thread, it brings up an issue I often take issue with. ‘Needs moist soil.’ How often I read that, how often it ain’t neccesarily so. Aucuba happens to be one of those cast iron plants you see in old gardens in Seattle, where the summers are dry. Sunset gives good information on water requirements. Personally, I’m a fan of Paghat. I like her style, admire her perserverance, and garden in a similar geographic area, though a different Sunset zone.

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