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Choosing garden plants seems easy enough, especially when we fall in love with a particular one. But every so often we err to the extent that a must-have plant becomes a nuisance.

"Why did I ever plant that olive tree?!" is a refrain that more than one gardener is asking this time of year as unwanted ripe olives drop once again, right on schedule.

Of course, litter problems pertain to other trees that also make a horrific mess when fallen flowers, berries, stems and leaves demand a cleanup — an ongoing reminder that it's important to know a species' habit in every season before we choose to plant it.

Olives fit in a special niche, different from many landscape trees that promise only ornamental value or low water needs. They carry the notion of feeding us, something of a myth when we plant only one.

The steadily increasing number of olives planted at wineries has lured many a gardener into considering a mini-orchard, just for the fun of it if for no other reason.

But buyer beware: Olive trees require more care than you may want to give.

Though it's true that a single tree may bear enough fruit to harvest, then brine or press into oil, the entire process is time-consuming, fraught with wrong turns in handling, and expensive in the case of realizing oil.

But for the dedicated hobbyist, the payoff may be worth it, despite several shortcomings.

Though they are often described as small trees, within 10 years their 30-by-30-foot height and spread can overwhelm a typical front or back yard.

And they continue to grow. Pruning will limit size, but poor pruning results in awkward growth that becomes unattractive and difficult to manage.

Muted gray-green foliage is evergreen, but leaves drop daily; all are replaced over a two- to three-year period.

Pollen can be an irritant; some counties in Southwest desert regions have banned importing and selling European olive trees (Olea europa) for this reason.

Considering options

The landscaping benefits of planting an olive — such as deer resistance, drought tolerance, evergreen foliage and small size — are best achieved with the dwarf cultivar, Little Ollie.

It is versatile enough to be trained and sheared as a 3- to 6-foot shrub or a narrow hedge, left to billow into a 10-foot screen, or trained as a multi-stemmed 12-foot tree. Fruit is minimal, if it appears at all.

Tree-size cultivars — Swan Hill, Majestic Beauty and Wilsonii — are called fruitless, but they nonetheless tend to produce unwanted fruit, albeit in limited numbers.

Their energy is directed instead toward maximizing height and width.

Choosing a style

Selecting shrubs, annuals and perennials seemingly never ends for the keen gardener.

Our ongoing dabbling keeps nurseries and garden centers in business and our gardens growing.

While it's possible to learn from exotic styles such as the English cottage garden, we would do better to reinterpret their expression and choose appropriate elements more fitting to where we live.

When a nursery tag reads that a plant thrives in consistently moist soil, for example, it's unsuited for most of our gardens.

The delay of rains this fall should be a reminder that making choices about what to plant should be within the context of our wet-dry Mediterranean climate.

Collector's havens

Two local nurseries that always seem to be hovering below the radar offer wonderful plants that are completely adaptable to nearly any garden.

Each carries so many specialty plants that making choices isn't easy.

Scott Wilson at Pond & Garden Nursery, on Stony Point Road just south of Gravenstein Highway, has amassed a wonderful collection of dwarf conifers.

All are distinctive in some way — intriguing shapes, brilliant splashes of colorful needles or cones, handsome overall aspect.

Many would serve as dynamic focal points in gardens while others promise interest and low maintenance for decades.

Many are specifically suited for bonsai subjects, while others will eventually become tree size.

Just a few miles up Gravenstein Highway is the Peacock Horticultural Nursery, a labyrinthine collection of amazing plants of all sorts, including dwarf conifers.

The current stock of unusual succulents could be grown in pots or become part of a low-water specialty garden featuring grays, greens, flushes of color and amazing growth patterns.

Most remain small for many years; all require excellent drainage to guarantee longevity.

None are particularly inexpensive, but all are stunning and seductive.

(Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.)

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