Letter from Suzanne Sparacio to the Lamorinda Weekly

“Dear Lamorinda Weekly,

As a Contra Costa College Biology Professor, I wanted to provide a clarification to the article “The Garden Melting Pot” published on March 13, 2024. Cynthia Brian stated “Many revered non-natives have acclimated to our soil, weather, and stressors providing food and refuge for our insects, wildlife, and birds while living in harmony with native species.” While it is true that many non-natives thrive in our ecosystem, it is not necessarily true that they live in harmony with native species. Ecosystems consist of delicate food webs with producers and consumers that have evolved together for thousands of years and non-natives can disrupt this delicate web. Some consumers only survive on a very small selection of native species. I would encourage everyone to plant as many native species as possible.”

Suzanne Sparacio MATSci, PhD


An Open Letter to Lamorinda Weekly

Lamorinda Weekly is one of my neighborhood’s local papers. Its print run is 26,000, and it appears in the driveway of nearly everyone in Lamorinda each week.

Cynthia Brian has a gardening column in every issue. It’s generally harmless, chatty, and packed with Cynthia’s descriptions of her garden, and prominent promotion of her books and various other pursuits.

At least once a month, she prints inaccurate information, and/or plain bad gardening advice. Usually I laugh it off, or post a brief rant on these pages, but sometimes the issues need to be addressed in a more public manner. Customers used to come in to Moraga Garden Center and ask me about something they read in her column. I would do my best to be constructive, and related the correct info, and/or lead them towards a more appropriate plant than one she recommended.

However, in Brian’s December 7 column, she included a line that was wrong on a couple levels. Since at least one of those levels involved wildlife habitat — something very important to me — I decided, finally, to write a letter to Lamorinda Weekly regarding the column.

Lamorinda Weekly declined to publish the letter, and, instead, forwarded it to Cynthia Brian.

She emailed me with a response that was equal parts gracious and inadequate.

I’ll spare you her reply, but my original letter to the Weekly follows.

I always read Cynthia Brian’s “Goddess Gardener” column with interest, if only to spot the inaccuracies  — and sometimes just plain bad advice — that regularly pops up. Imagine my surprise when Bryan made the following declaration in her December 7th column:

“The merry berry bushes of nandina, cotoneaster, and pyracantha were chock full of fiery red fruit favored by wildlife.”

It is widely known, and confirmed by gardening and wildlife experts, that Nandina (common name: Chinese bamboo) berries contain cyanide, and are toxic to many birds, including local species such as robins, western bluebirds, and cedar waxwings. I dissuade my clients from buying Nandina, and, if it exists in their gardens, I insist on cutting off all berries as soon as they appear.

Further, most Cotoneaster and, especially, all Pyracantha are extraordinarily invasive. Few local nurseries sell them, and if they do, they should be asked to stop. These nuisances spread uncontrollably and can outcompete native plants — and there are so many beautiful and easy-care natives that are better for wildlife: Salvia, Rhamnus californica (coffeeberry), Ribes species (currants), Heteromeles arbutifolia (toyon)… the list goes on and on.

Please do your readers a service, and help inform and educate. Getting the information right goes a long way to achieve this.

Paul Ashby/Dobie Meadows Gardening
Orinda, CA

Regarding Cynthia Brian’s August 19th Gardening Column in Lamorinda Weekly

I have a couple comments about this particular installment. I’m reluctant to even link to it, because some of it is just…wrong.

* Brian writes “If you planted a succulent garden earlier in the season, you don’t need to waste any water by running the irrigation system.”

This is a broad generalization that doesn’t hold true, in many instances. I’ve had clients tell me “I don’t know why that cactus died. I didn’t think they needed water.” Succulents are a deep and wide class of thousands of plants, with varying cultural needs. Most need supplemental water during the warmest months of the year, especially if they were recently planted, and/or are in containers. In mid-August we had several consecutive days of 100-plus-degree weather. Water your succulents, especially if they’re in containers. Water until it drains out the drain holes. And never plant a succulent in a pot that can’t drain.

* Later in the same piece, Cynthia states “orchids are trouble-free and undemanding. Just leave them alone, put an ice cube once a week in their container, and let them beautify your home.”

This kind of blanket statement drives me bonkers. The majority of indoor orchids like to be be very wet, then very dry, for the most part. The ice cube fallacy can kill orchids. Take your indoor orchids to the sink when they’re dry, and let the water run through them and drain out completely. Then let them dry out a bit, preferably outside, where there’s a breeze. If the nights are below 45 degrees, don’t leave indoor orchids outside. Never let an orchid sit in a saucer full of water, and no plant is going to benefit from having ice-cold water dribble across a small area of its rootball. Oh, and if your orchid was potted in soil when you bought it (as are most mass-market plants sold at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Home Depot, and the like), it will nearly certainly benefit from being repotted in bark, and fertilized regularly during the growing season.

As with any plant, think “nuance”. What’s best for one species (or family of plants) doesn’t necessarily work for others. Beware of general plant-care advice. If in doubt, research the particular plant online. Find out where it’s native, and what the conditions are like in its native habitat. If you have any questions, email me via the Contact link over there on the top right. I’m happy to help.