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.
- 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.