By Cat Wurdack
You can always count on Portland Nursery’s Greg Hulbert for straight talk — straight talk about the overwatering you’re doing that’s killing your maple; the importance of double-digging your asparagus bed; and why it’s usually not a good idea to plant perennials under a black walnut tree (although he’s done it with some success).
“What I do is teach people how to be better, more successful gardeners,” Hulbert says. “Sometimes that means telling people what they’ve done wrong.”
If you’ve rushed into the nursery’s SE Stark St. location because the leaves on your dogwood are curling or the dog ate a strange plant that’s making him sick, you would have been directed by staff to the rear of the store across from the hats. Under the big customer service sign, you may have had the good fortune of consulting with Hulbert.
Hulbert says that figuring out why a plant isn’t thriving is similar to a criminal investigation. A little polite interrogation is required to get at the truth. Probable cause must be established. For example, has anything changed in the last two years?
Hulbert worked with a customer who had replaced his roof but did not redirect the downspouts so winter runoff was rotting the roots systems and killing his tree and shrubs.
“Something like that is so subtle and can make a huge difference. And it’s not that easy to recognize.”
He’s not the only plant information guy at the store, but he is the one with seniority. Everyone that works the desk has access to a number of references: Hortus IV, the one essential authoritative reference work to the plants of North American horticulture; Gardening in the Pacific Northwest (in Hulbert’s opinion, the most authoritative text); and a number of other books.
The microscope on the credenza is not just for show, although Hulbert admits it does charge the desk with professionalism and gives him an edge, particularly when dealing with certified master gardeners and customers who might be dubious about trusting anyone with their little green darlings.
A grandfather of two, he particularly enjoys sharing a horticultural teaching moment with kids that stop by with their parents. He received an early exposure to gardening as his parents operated one of the country’s top 100 nurseries for many years and he has a lot to say about the act of gardening:
On watering and feeding:
“Eighty percent of problems I’ve seen in the last 35 years are due to overwatering and drainage issues. You must know when to water and when not to. The petrochemical industry has described fertilizers as ‘food’ for plants – as in ‘give it some chicken soup, love it’. People don’t realize that plants can be overwatered and overfed.”
On his favorite tree:
“The katsura japonica is a wonderful, stately tree with a two-inch, russet-red leaf that goes green in summer and yellow in fall. Its smaller leaf allows filtered light so it’s easier to grow things under them, including lawn. In fall, the foliage smells like cotton candy. It’s not prone to disease or insects, requires little maintenance, and can be developed as a single trunk or clumping tree.”
On plant identification:
“I look at the odor and color, and the shape of the leaves under the microscope. I roll the stem back and forth between my fingers. I go into the literature and by process of elimination, deduce what it is. The stem gives you a way of limiting the field.”
On selecting the right tree:
“The greatest single mistake gardeners make with trees is planting them too close to architectural surfaces and too close to each other. It’s important to stand back and look with your 10-year eyes.”
On plants we don’t love:
“If it doesn’t make you happy, cut it down, dig it up, and throw it away. Buy a new one.”
Finally. on a surprising success story:
“A woman brought in a hideous Christmas cactus that was dying. I said ‘throw it away’. She said, ‘my grandmother smuggled this in her bra cup when she emigrated from Sweden.’ Out of respect for the situation, I offered advice, with no guarantees, that might help her salvage it. Four or five years later, she ran into me in the frozen food aisle at Safeway and told me that it was blooming.
“That’s as good as it gets.”