Ask most any gardener where they acquired their love of plants, and most will talk to you about their parents, grandparents, or maybe even their old green-thumbed auntie who passed along the desire to get their hands into the dirt. No doubt many of these cherished loved ones were great gardeners in their day – after all, wasn’t it their beautiful flower beds and heavily producing vegetable plots that really inspired us? It is a pretty good guess that they passed along tons of great garden wisdom, but it is also a pretty good bet that they passed along many an old garden myth too.
Many homegrown gardening tips and tricks just do not seem to work all that well at all. Many have even been put to the test by researchers and are quite often found to be lacking. But old myths persist and are usually very slow to change. After all, most of us learned to dig in the soil from our family members rather than from digging into the latest university studies. So perhaps it is time to take a look at some of these lingering myths so that the next time a well wishing friend or neighbor offers up one of these time-tested “tips,” you’ll be able to weed out fact from myth.
My interest in these myths surfaced not long ago when I had a problem in my own garden. Actually the trouble was in the containers in which I was growing my favorite tomatoes. The trouble was blossom end rot. Interestingly, the suffering tomatoes were only to be found in my containers and not in my in-ground garden. Now, I’ve been around the garden for over 40 years and I know blossom end rot when I see it. For those who have not yet encountered this common problem the most classic symptom of blossom end rot is a water-soaked spot at the blossom end of the tomato fruits. This relatively common garden problem is not a disease, but rather a physiological disorder caused by a calcium imbalance within the plant. It can occur in cucumbers, peppers, melons, and squash as well as with my favorite tomatoes. The tricky part was trying to figure out why it was only happening in my containers. My neighbor who, “knows a bunch about gardening because I watch lots of garden shows” but who doesn’t have a garden of his own, was sure the problem was due to what he called “bad dirt.”
“Get you some molasses and epsom salt and mix those in with baby shampoo and water, pour that on your tomatoes,” he recommended, “It will fix you right up.”
I admit I did not heed his advice, I just thanked him and chuckled to myself as he went on his merry way. But it did get me thinking about old time garden myths. Here are a dozen myths and the facts about each!
12 Gardening Myths Examined
Myth #1 – Plucking or spraying dandelions is the best way to keep them out of your lawn and garden.
Fact: It is true that plucking out the dandelions will work, at least for a short time, so feel free to yank dandelions out of your yard. But the cold hard fact is that the seeds will find their way back eventually; there are far too many of them blowing around. Your best chance at keeping them from growing is to focus on growing a thick, healthy lawn or lush garden so that the dandelion seeds can’t easily sow. Then, you might want to encourage them to grow keeping in mind that they were a reliable and healthy food source for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Myth #2 – You should work organic material in a new hole dug for a fruit tree, and add sand for improved drainage at the time of planting.
Fact: No and no! Incorporating compost for most any tree has long since been shown to be unnecessary and can actually discourage a vigorous root system. The imagined benefits from amending soil stem from the fertilizer component, but nutrient-rich planting holes can give roots less incentive to branch out to absorb nutrients and moisture from the surrounding area. Also keep in mind that compost breaks down and settles, so amended planting holes can end up as low spots. For best results dig a proper planting hole (twice as wide and the same depth as the pot), add a little fertilizer, adjust the pH if you really think you must, and set the new tree a little above the grade. As far as adding sand to improve drainage goes, adding sand is even worse than adding a bunch of compost. Sand intermixed with clay creates a concrete-like soil with limited pore spaces. Unless you add enough sand to make 50% or more by volume, you do more harm than good. Contrary to popular belief, clay is actually a useful component in soil, as it retains water and nutrients.
Myth #3 – If you water your plants in the afternoon sunlight, the water droplets will pool on the leaves and create a lens effect which will burn your leaves with focused sunlight.
Fact: A 2010 study has contradicted the widely-held belief that watering in direct sunlight can cause leaves to suffer from unsightly “leaf burn.” A team of physicists in Budapest, troubled by the lack of scientific evidence for the phenomenon, set out to test the theory that water droplets on leaves can act like mini magnifying lenses, focusing the sun’s rays and leaving a leaf’s surface covered in scorch marks. Using computer modeling as well as tests on real leaves, the researchers claim to have disproved the theory. They found that water droplets on a leaf surface were not able to focus the sun’s energy sufficiently to damage the leaves before the water evaporated.
Myth #4 – Garden plants, trees, shrubs and lawns need 1 inch of water per week.
Fact: Although the “inch-a-week” recommendation is often cited as a rule of thumb, the truth is that plants vary widely in their water needs. Young seedlings and new transplants have limited root systems and need a consistent supply of moisture, so they may need daily watering if the weather is sunny and hot. Established trees, shrubs, and lawns on the other hand, may need supplemental watering only during extended dry spells because they have more extensive root systems. The amount of water a plant needs depends on a number of factors, including the type of plant, its stage of growth, type of soil, weather and time of year. The best way to water most plants is by applying enough to moisten the plant’s entire root system, and then letting the soil dry out slightly before watering again. Apply water slowly so it’s absorbed by the soil rather than running off. Avoid daily light sprinklings, which encourage roots to grow near the soil surface where they’re vulnerable to drying out.
Myth #5 – Wilting is a sign that it’s time to water.
Fact: Yes, wilting is a sign that the leaves aren’t getting enough moisture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the soil is dry. Anything that damages plant roots can cause wilting. Plant roots need a fairly constant supply of both air and water. Too little water and the roots die from lack of moisture. Too much water and the spaces between soil particles remain filled with water, suffocating roots. Both situations reduce a plant’s ability to deliver enough water to stems and leaves, resulting in wilting. Root diseases, physical damage (such as disturbing roots while you’re hoeing) and soil-borne insects can also harm roots to the point that they can’t fully hydrate the plant. Damage to stems can also cause wilting. Some diseases and insects (especially borers) prevent water distribution throughout the plant, causing some or all of it to wilt. The only way to tell if lack of water is causing wilting is to check the soil moisture.
Myth #6 – Drought-tolerant plants don’t need to be watered.
Fact: Many young echinacea, sedum, and black-eyed Susan plants have perished because these “drought-tolerant” plants didn’t get sufficient water at planting time and during their first season of growth. When you set out a new container-grown plant, the roots are confined to the shape of the pot. The plants need a consistent supply of water during their first growing season, until their roots grow out into the surrounding soil. Water them as you would your annual flowers in their first season. During their second and subsequent growing seasons, drought-tolerant plants may need supplemental water only during extended dry spells. Note, however, that just because a plant is drought-tolerant doesn’t mean it doesn’t fare better with a regular supply of moisture.
Myth #7 – It is bad to water plants after the sun has gone down or near dusk.
Fact: This is really not too big of an issue, and one advantage is that you can conserve water because of less evaporation as there is no sunshine. A major disadvantage is that the sunshine can’t help dry out plant leaves that get wet. This can be an issue because some plants don’t like cold and wet foliage. These conditions can foster blight on tomatoes for example. So if you’re watering in the evening, don’t spray the foliage. Use a soaker hose or another irrigation technique that targets the roots instead of the foliage. Generally speaking, early morning is a good time to water. You can give the soil a good soaking and everything has a chance to penetrate the ground before being burned off by the sun. Anything that gets on the foliage will dry up with the sun and you’re less prone to disease and fungi.
Myth #8 – When it comes to pest management, “organic products are far safer!”
Fact: No, sorry not necessarily. The real question you should ask about any pesticide, organic or natural, is how toxic and persistent it is. Most organic pesticides are less persistent in the environment than synthetic ones. Some are toxic: nicotine sulfate is an organic pesticide that is extremely toxic. Ryania, sabadilla, and pyrethrins are organic pesticides that are very toxic to insects, but have a low toxicity to mammals. Always read the instruction label and if you have questions ask before you spray!
Myth #9 – Native and well-adapted plants are much better and much more “environmentally sustainable” for home landscaping purposes.
Fact: Okay, the truth here is both yes and no. Both native and well-adapted plants include those from a wide range of soil types and rainfall patterns. Some are very fussy, others are very tough. Believe me, “site considerations should always dictate plant selection.” Drainage, irrigation, and the site usage are the most important things to think about.
Myth #10 – Use Vitamin B1 with transplants to “prevent transplant shock.”
Fact: Oh boy, this is another one of those myths that just does not go away! The simple fact is that Vitamin B1 is thiamine. Plants make their own thiamine, and thiamine does not stimulate root growth. Faced with this evidence, savvy manufacturers added other things to their “transplant treatments” in order to sell them to unsuspecting gardeners. It is true that certain plant hormones increase the number of roots or enhance lateral root growth. These may also suppress the growing top of the plant, allowing the plant to use internal resources for root production but slowing leafy growth. Nitrogen can improve growth of both tops and roots. A small amount of plant food in the planting hole will make more difference than anything else you can add.
Myth #11 – A good beer makes a great fertilizer for your lawn and garden.
Fact: This myth has been circulated among gardeners for well over a hundred years. In 1890 Peter Henderson, who was known as “the father of horticulture and ornamental gardening” in the United States, recommended that refuse hops from breweries made an excellent fertilizer. This may be how this crazy myth go its start. A laboratory study was conducted. The test was set up with hydroponic conditions (in order to rule out any factors that soil might play in the test). Butterfly bush (Buddleia spp.) was the plant chosen for the test. Three different beers were chosen; Michelob Light, Guinness and an alcohol-free beer called Sharps. The beer was added to the water along with a low concentration of liquid fertilizer such as might be found in garden soil. Six plants were grown in each type of beer. The results were very clear: alcohol is bad for plant growth, beer with alcohol is bad for plant growth, and beer without alcohol is bad for plant growth. The plants that were grown without beer and only the same amount of fertilizer did much better than all of the plants grown with beer. Grab a seat, reach for an icy mug and treat yourself to a cold beer if you want, but don’t waste your money pouring it on the garden.
Myth #12 – Baking soda sprinkled on plants can control/cure black spot.
Fact: Nope. Although baking soda does work fairly well for fighting powdery mildew, baking soda is not effective on black spot. But here is a home remedy that really does work: Mix 1 part whole milk with 2 parts water; spray the foliage once every week or two, before black spot becomes a serious problem. This solution can also help control powdery mildew. But don’t use it on edibles, since the milk sours.
So there we have it, 12 ‘Olde Tyme’ myths and the facts behind each. Don’t let this article scare you, much of the wisdom our garden mentors passed down to us is good, solid, scientifically backed information.
My garden mentor was my maternal grandmother and she always told me that the secret to a good strong garden was the same secret as for a good strong house, a solid foundation.
“Your soil,” I can still hear her telling me, “is the foundation for your garden. Build your garden like you build a house, from the ground up! In the garden make the soil strong by having a pile of kitchen scraps and leaves breaking down into fertilizer, rotate your vegetables every year and never let a spot of ground go uncovered. Mother Nature does not like bare ground – if you don’t grow something there, she surely will!”
Oh and I took care of my blossom-end rot problem with an ‘Olde Tyme’ remedy she taught me almost forty five years ago – simple egg shells. You see, one of the causes of blossom-end rot is said to be a calcium deficiency. My tomatoes that were growing directly in the ground had no blossom-end rot. I figured that the minerals in the soil used in the containers was being washed away, little by little, as they were watered. To solve the problem I crushed some eggshells with an old mortar and pestle and sprinkled the resulting powder around the stems of the tomatoes just like my grandmother taught me. I watered the powder in lightly to ensure that it wouldn’t blow or wash away, and guess what – after a short time I had no more blossom-end rot! This was by no means a university backed, lab tested experiment, but for what it’s worth, it worked for me!