How does your garden blow?

A local biology professor points out the plants a megastore shouldn’t be selling

English ivy, as sold at The Home Depot: good for Sacramento yards, or good for hiding rats?

English ivy, as sold at The Home Depot: good for Sacramento yards, or good for hiding rats?

G.O. Graening leads the way past pots of thick green leaves and rainbow petals. He’s explaining a problem with invasive species when he stops mid-sentence and kneels on the ground.

“See? This would make a bad choice,” Graening says, brushing the leaves of an English ivy. “It grows out of control, and rats like to hide in it.”


Graening is stooped down in the middle of a Sacramento area Home Depot garden center. He’s here to point out examples of plants and flowers and trees best suited for Sacramento’s Mediterranean climate. And ones that don’t fit this climate at all.

He says English ivy, the plant leaves he’s now rubbing between his fingers, is all over Sacramento.

“It’s bad for the environment and it’s high-maintenance,” he explains.

The Home Depot, the one-stop home-improvement megastore, offers thousands of products to make a home more comfortable and energy-efficient. Spend just a few minutes with Graening, however, and one thing is quickly obvious: The majority of the plants for sale at the “depot” aren’t a very good choice for Sacramento.

Graening is an adjunct professor of biological sciences at Sacramento State. When he isn’t teaching students about conservation biology and ecology, he works as an environmental consultant.

He says the problem with most of the plant selection at many home-and-garden megastores is that most plants aren’t adapted for the region.

Sacramento’s climate—cold, wet, frostless winters and hot, dry summers—means plants adapted to the Mediterranean region generally do well here. Plants that aren’t right for Sacramento can require a lot of water—and a lot of work—to survive.

Good picks: olive trees, tea trees, bearberry, salvia. Not-so-good picks: bamboo, ice plant, periwinkle.

All in all, Graening identified just about a dozen Home Depot plants that make sense in a Sacramento yard.

When choosing plants, it’s best to keep four characteristics in mind: native to the region, drought-resistant, noninvasive, low-maintenance.

The problem with invasive species? They choke out other plant life, altering natural habitats and pushing species toward extinction.

And for those of us with better things to do than work on the yard all day, high-maintenance plants are a drag. Sure, they may look good, but they eat up your time, money and attention.

Graening points out another water-sucking culprit most homeowners don’t think twice about: their lawns. He estimates half a home’s water usage goes toward keeping turf grass green. Then there’s the chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the gasoline-powered mowing that goes into its upkeep.

Graening offers a prescription for greener—in this case meaning Earth-friendlier—landscapes: replace water-gulping turf-grass lawns with xeriscapes. These landscapes include mulch, decorative boulders and accent plants. For plants, he suggests decorating the rockscapes with oaks trees and regional flowers, such as the Carmel creeper.

The transition can be pricey, but over the long run, the water savings add up.

“This is the kind of transition being led by the richest people,” Graening says. “You go up to Serrano, and all you’ll see are Italian-style landscapes with boulders and beautiful Mediterranean-type plants.”

Graening thinks two factors could really push homeowners to adopting region-appropriate gardens: local governments cracking down on water usage and corporate responsibility. As water resources become scarce, especially during prolonged droughts, local governments could influence landscaping habits by rationing water usage and mandating water-sipping yards.

Graening hopes megastores can start highlighting lawn-and-garden options that make sense for each store’s bioregion.

“Look what happened when Walmart started carrying organic foods,” says Graening, referring to the increased demand for organic produce.

“We’re all sheep here. We consume whatever is offered to us.”