Wrong Wrong Wrong

I’m an expert, right? Doesn’t mean I don’t get things wrong sometimes. My contractor colleague and friend, Steve Koemppel (SK Landscaping) said, “The only wrong thing is to quit.” Thanks, Steve! It’s tempting to pretend no one noticed, no one will notice, or that whatever you got or did wrong won’t really matter because whoever did notice won’t make a big deal of it, or won’t be seriously harmed. Hide it, cover it up, pretend it didn’t happen. Pretend you’re not responsible. Shrug it off. What’s the worst that can happen?

None of us like to admit we’re wrong, especially when reputation and maybe livelihood might suffer. But I’m supposed to be an expert, right? Even if my influence is tiny, if I get something wrong, then I am potentially allowing wrong information to be “out there,” even in a small circle. Yuck. That would be like giving up. I have found that it is best for me, and hopefully for the world at large, to “rip the bandage off quick.” To admit, apologize and correct the error as fast as possible.

So I am confessing: here are two things I got wrong recently. I am always learning. Which is good, even when uncomfortable.



                                              1)  Bee nesting boxes shouldn’t be cleaned out every winter!

                       Especially not if there is evidence that it’s in use


I wrote instructions on the cards we included with the bee nesting boxes we handmade and sold this past winter and this spring. The boxes work; consider this a recall of the instructions, not the product. Along with a list of correct instructions, I wrote, “clean your nesting box out each winter and then store until early spring.” Wrong! For mason bees, especially, the life cycle involves two years, so those mud-filled tubes should be left in the box all winter. Here’s how it goes: a solitary female bee scouts out a good site (your nesting box!) and puts a little mud in the back. She lays an egg for a future female bee, puts in a little pollen and nectar for food, and a little mud plug as a partition. She lays another egg, with all the trimmings, and so on, until she fills the tube, with the future male bees in the front of all the females. Usually 4-10 eggs. The larva hatch in their mud cells, eat their food and pupate. The new bees hibernate all winter in their cells. In late winter or early spring they eat their way out of their mud cells, ready to find mates, fresh food(pollinating your plants) and start the cycle again. The males die as soon as they mate. The females live longer and may go back to their birth place or find a new nesting site. You only have to clean the nesting box out every few years, when it is empty (summer and fall usually), and that is mostly to keep the bee mite population down.

More information can be found here, with the true bee experts: http://www.buzzaboutbees.net


http://xerces.org     (I intentionally removed the hyperlink to reduce bots. Just copy and paste, human friend)

I’m worried that my wrong instructions may harm some hibernating bees this winter, so please feel free to spread the word and help educate! Perhaps most people who purchased the bee boxes will have common sense and decide not to clean out the mud tubes? Or will contact me (I did put my info on the cards that went with the box) and ask again, just to make sure?

                                                              2)  The name “Penstemon” is not about the petals.

I told two people at our Open Studio/Open Garden event May 22 that Penstemons got their name from the five petals. Then was almost immediately made a fool, rightly, when we counted five petals on a monkeyflower and, later, alone, when I counted five petals on several other garden plants.  Here’s the truth:

  • Grinnell’s Penstemon

    Penstemons get their name from having five stamens, which are the pollen-producing reproductive organs of a flower (dictionary definition), or from the weird fifth stamen, which in is sterile. Too much botany? No, no…botany is cool. Check out a penstemon flower to the left and count the five wands (stamen) in the tube formed by those five petals, the bottom one of which is often, but not always, “hairy,” giving this plant its common name “beardtongue.”

Margarita BOP Penstemon
Desert Penstemon (P. baccharifolius)


Most of you probably already know this history of nomenclature. Call me “late to the party.” On May 22, we were having a bit of a penstemon party, especially for our California native penstemons, which include the popular Margarita BOP (Penstemon x heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’), Foothill Penstemon (P. heterophyllus), Showy Penstemon (Penstemon spectab

Firecracker Penstemon

lis and P. pseudospectabilis), Scarlet Bugler (P. centranthifoloius), Grinnell’s (P. grinnellii), Firecracker (P. eatonii), Palmer (P. palmeri), and the southwestern native Desert Penstemon (P. baccharifolius.) Penstemon hybridize and self-seed in the right conditions, so there are often other named varieties in nurseries. Use the above botanical names to know whether they are native to California or elsewhere. It will matter in how you care for, especially how much or how little to water. Most of our California penstemons don’t like a lot of summer water. Most of our Eastern and Midwestern species require it. 

Here’s a good article about Penstemon: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/in-praise-of-penstemons. You can also, as always, check out the Las Pilitas Nursery site.


I often tell clients to stay in touch and let me know what went right and what went wrong. I frequently visit our gardens months or years later to see what changes. I believe a good garden changes over time. When we design with and plant perennials, change is inevitable. Also, some plants that “should” work will not and some plants that a client believes she/he will love are horrors or just boring. We have to go forth with a mix of certainty and humility. We can’t cower in the corner afraid to plant, afraid to get our bee nesting boxes out into gardens, afraid to spout our knowledge. But we should also be unafraid to be reminded to better source our knowledge, to admitting when we’ve made a goof, to apologize, to correct the record and to move on.

Let me know your thoughts.