Here are a
few of the many misunderstandings and oftentimes rampant misinformation that
surges through the gardening world and hobby-gardener "information" resources. There
seems to be no end to "experts" who clearly haven't a clue!
Information Number One: Fall is for planting! This is one of—if
not the—biggest and most misleading untruths openly promulgated by both
"experts" and the nursery industry for decades. A marketing stratagem
of plant retailers and the "professional" organizations to which
they belong across the country, as they are desperate to move
inventory before they're either faced with dumping it all in the heap...or are
confronted with the undesirable necessity of finding a way to get leftover
plants (usually in containers) through a winter so they can be (slightly)
cleaned up in the spring and put back on benches and shelves—usually still
exhausted from the previous year, root-bound and choked with weeds.
Think about it. Plants are potted up in early
spring, in "soil" that's often the least expensive mix
possible—commonly riddled with stones and weed seeds—then placed on benches where
all summer long they sit in the hot sun—in their black or nearly black
pots...alternating between flood and high-temperature drought...either half
starved or grossly over-fed...mishandled by crowds of browsers who
abuse labels (and often break them, put them—more or less—back in
the wrong variety pot or just drop them on the ground), break stems, spoil
flowers and, as the season end approaches, their containers have accumulated a
layer of pelleted fertilizer.
So now comes Fall...and the
dregs still sit
on the same benches. They're exhausted, sunburned, root-bound, hungry,
quite possibly thirsty and, probably mislabeled. The retailer knows
they're too weak to survive over-wintering without expensive heroics...and
says (and here's the real translation of the phrase: "Fall is for
Planting"): "We have to get rid of these things before we have to throw
them out or get them through winter!"
Let the buyer beware!
Having said that, in spite of the risk, there
are some real bargains to be had at the close of the retail garden season! If—and
it's a big "If"—the purchaser understands what the plant has gone
through, and knows what measures will best insure winter survival.
- —Make your purchases as early in the fall
"sale" as is humanly possible.
- Remove all accumulated fertilizer
- —Trim the plant back to remove
flowers, seed heads, unnatural looking foliage.
- —if there were weeds growing in the pot,
remove them and the top inch of soil (to get rid of any dropped seeds).
- —Get your new (stressed-out) plants into the
ground fast...but add no nitrogen fertilizer. Maintain moisture
until ground freezes.
- —Have ample loose, dry mulch available so the
minute the ground starts to freeze you can apply a protective
blanket of shredded leaves, clean straw or pine needles. Remove
mulch at first sign of growth the following spring...and begin feeding.
- —Keep your fingers crossed...and pray that
Information Number Two: It's ok to pick flowers and collect seeds or
"slips"—from anywhere! This is yet another despicable
and disrespectful trick of faux gardeners around the world who've
convinced themselves that they have a right to anything—including bits of an
expensive or cherished plant—that falls within their distorted purview.
They're shocked at the notion that it's stealing, plain and simple.
Don't pick flowers, take seeds, or snip or pinch cuttings
unless you've been invited to. Yes, I've seen it in my garden and the gardens of others. Often, offenders will glance around first to
see if they're being observed; then snip! or snatch!, and into a pocket or purse it goes.
When caught in the deed, I send them back to their car.
and cutting-crooks are among the worst and most disrespectful phony
gardeners imaginable...and are never invited into my gardens a second
time! (Steal from me once...shame on you! Steal from me twice...shame
on me!) And
I urge you to do the same when you catch a horticultural criminal
pinching bits and pieces from your hard-won gardens.
How very much better and more
civilized to simply ask. I don't know of a single gardener who wouldn't
be pleased—flattered, even—to share what they have with other gardeners...if
only they were offered the courtesy of being asked first.
Information Number Three: It's ok to walk on cultivated soil! We've
all seen this one on TV: The gardening "expert" either hosting a
show or as an invited (and "professional") guest before a wide
audience of advice-hungry gardeners—usually on PBS—standing in the midst
of freshly cultivated and prepared garden soil...walking all over the
place...compacting the soil...leaving ugly footprints everywhere...while they grin into the camera,
spouting off all sorts of garden wisdom...all the while
viewers across the country that it's ok to compact the soil, it's alright to
leave unsightly footprints in garden soil and, worse, that it's also ok to do
that in the gardens of others as well. What are these
This may come as quite a surprise to some of
you: Tromping around in a cultivated garden—whether flower or vegetable—is
neither ok nor respectful of your soil...or the soils of your
friends or neighbors! Fact of the matter, tromping around in someone else's
garden—compacting the soil while leaving behind distracting and unsightly
footprints that, once imprinted, serve as an open invitation for others to
follow suit—is highly disrespectful...not to mention shamefully
We've managed nearly 2-1/2 acres of gardens and
propagating beds for more than 20 years. Every season—without
fail—some thoroughly disrespectful faux gardener deliberately and
with little concern for the hard work of others plods through the light and
airy high-organic-matter beds to either avoid another half-dozen steps to go
around to the other side using the pathway, or simply must walk out
into the middle to get a closer look at a leaf or flower, or pull a label that
any reasonable and sensible person could read from three or four times the
distance. (Worse, if they re-bend to put the label back, they probably
either break it or shove it in backwards, or stick it in front of the wrong
plant. Unbelievably, sometimes they stoop down, pull it out, read it, then
simply drop it on the ground...or slip it into purse or pocket. Incidentally,
if I catch them stealing a label, I kick 'em right out of the garden and tell
them they're no longer welcome!)
Invariably, when they're caught and
called on the footprint indiscretion, they bend down and with the least amount
of fingertip (lest they soil their dainty little hands) scatter the tiniest
bit of nearby soil to hide the sin. The compressed soil is still there. If
the soil is to be restored to its original tilth, I must stop what I'm doing,
walk to the tool rack, get a hoe or cultivator, walk back to the compressed
earth and fix it myself. Lately I've tried to hand the tool to the
offender...but they almost always thank me, scratch a little of what they almost
always call dirt to hide the print. How utterly disrespectful and
remarkably misinformed—by a TV "expert!"
Information Number Four: Perennials are easy and forever. Another of the most regretful
gardening mis-information myths around! "Oh," the deceivers
and uninformed faux-experts and garden writers proclaim, "forget
about all that work every spring of planting dozens and dozens of
annuals and bedding plants! Plant perennials once and you can just sit back
and enjoy the colors and textures and fragrances that faithfully return every
year... making your garden more and more beautiful...almost forever!"
Pure bunkum. A ludicrously false
collection of statements. Yet honestly believed by a remarkably high
percentage of shoppers in nurseries, garden centers and box-stores. The ones
who are weary from the seemingly never ending expense—not to mention the
annual chore—of spring cleanup, soil refurbishing (if that ever
happens at all), planting, deadheading (again: if that ever
happens at all) and weekly sprinklings of some
theoretically-miracle-working plant food.
So they buy into the fantasy,
root out all those annuals, and then spend a small fortune on
perennials—probably thoroughly unsuited to their gardens' growing
conditions—which some salary-motivated and equally misinformed big-box store
employee assures them will always look beautiful and work absolute wonders in
their gardens. Admirers from all around would go out of their usual way to
come bask in the horticultural beauty for years to come.
True, that first full season
can be inspiring and beautiful—even if lacking in the magnificence of
maturity. Yes, there's still a little effort needed to keep it looking
its best. Of course there'll be a few weeds here and there to pull. And,
naturally, at least a little water and fertilizer—and perhaps a few slug
pellets—may need to be applied. That's generally accepted no matter what
sort of garden one devotes him- or herself to.
But then, as succeeding springs
arrive, the myth is exposed...a reality that's distressing—if not bordering
on painful. It's not so much the weeds now sharing resources with those pricy
perennials; it's not even the unanticipated cleanup of coarse stems sticking
up all over the place; or the never-before-seen insects that overwintered
beneath fallen foliage and flowers.
Worse is the near absence of
bare soil...the space between plants will have disappeared beneath a thick
carpet of invasive roots, runners and overwhelmingly aggressive seedlings much
more vigorous—and unattractive—than their parents... many trying desperately
to get in your back door or down the chimney.
If a perennial bed or border is
to endure per a gardener's original intent, an incredible annual (perennial,
actually) task awaits, offering little more than a lot of digging,
dividing, soil rebuilding, replanting...and unwelcome exhaustion.
are beautiful; most are long-lasting; most can be taught discipline; and a
great many perennial borders can last decades. Just don't get the idea
that you'll be able to sit back and relax while they take care of themselves.
That's not ever going to happen—regardless of the claims of
misinformed friends, so-called gardening "experts" and only
Information Number Five: Natural Insect Repellants really keep the bugs
Every year during early-
to mid-summer I receive emails asking a question that never seems to die: "Please
send me a list of plants which repel mosquitoes, blackflies, hornets and
yellow-jackets from my patio." To which I always answer: "I'm
sorry to inform you that there is no such list. There are no plants that can
perform such a service" — regardless of what the many faux-experts tell you!
There are some plants which, if you crush their leaves
(releasing pungent essential oils) and rub the residue on your skin will,
indeed, prevent most blood-sucking insect "bites." Thyme, rosemary,
basil and some of the scented geraniums, for example, work for some people.
They do that primarily by masking the body's own natural
"attractants"—expelled carbon dioxide, and hot, sweaty skin. No
plant emits or expels repellent into the air unless its leaf surfaces are
vigorously disturbed (and who wants to stand out there constantly knocking and
banging into a plant to release the "repellant" oils, anyway?). None of them have any effect
whatsoever on biting or stinging insects beyond the actual surface of their
example: Tansy is supposed to repel ants...so, more than a few garden
wise-guys (or -girls) will tell you to mix Tansy among other plantings. Why
then, if it's supposed to keep the ants away, are there ants
crawling all over the very plant they're supposed to be repelled by? Unadulterated
bunk. Well, yes, if you crush or blenderize tansy leaves and splatter the
solution around, ants will avoid the treated area. That, however, is an
entirely different story.
There is some
small hope, however. I'm reminded of a bit of wisdom passed on to me by the late
Philip White of Hermitage Garden in Monroe, Maine: "You see,"
as he pointed to pollen which frequently clung to the end and sides of his
nose, "a bee will never sting anything that smells like a
flower!" Philip would also occasionally bend to one knee, rub his
hands vigorously on creeping thyme, then transfer the strong, herbal fragrance
to his face, ears and neck. Black flies and mosquitoes rarely came near him.
Surprisingly, he was never stung—even though a large, very active, paper wasp
nest nearly brushed the top of his tall countenance every time he came and
went through the doorway of his tiny—almost elfin—shop. Pollen? Charisma? Character? Spunk? I
guess we'll never know for sure. He's gone now...and never revealed the real
It is entirely
believable that because Philip likely established a non-threatening, non-adversarial relationship between
himself and the wasps, hornets, bees and biting flies, that their mutual
respect for one another maintained territorial bounds. Don't pooh-pooh the
concept! It's been done before....and pretty well documented, at that.
Information Number Six: Those Pesky Earthworms.
I'm always appalled by the
suggestion of an occasional gardener that earthworms have a negative impact on
lawns and gardens! "Well," they say, "they make these
little piles of dirt all over the place. It looks like they're tearing up my
lawn. That can't be good!"
The short response to that statement is, "Baloney!"
Earthworms are, without a doubt, the best thing that ever happens in a
garden's soil foundation. At somewhere in the range of 100,000 or more of them
in an average acre of responsibly-maintained soil (soil that hasn't been
damaged by over-use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides), earthworms
recycle enormous quantities of organic matter, aerate the soil with their vast
complex of underground tunnels, and those little mounds of soil
(worm-castings) are positively loaded with nutrition—free fertilizer. Most
people are surprised to learn that worm-castings contain five or six times the
nitrogen (for foliage), about eight times the phosphorus (for flowers), at
least twice the calcium and magnesium, and over eleven times the potash (for
strength, disease resistance, winter survivability) as the best garden or
farmland topsoil found anywhere in the US! Entire industries have sprung up
for the harvesting, marketing and promotion of the virtues of—you guessed it: worm-castings.
It's true that golfers aren't fond of those little mounds
of "dirt" that get in the way of their little white ball, but
gardeners should revel in this wonderful resource.
Information Number Seven: Gotta have those chemical sprays! Alarmingly, there are still
legions of gardeners in our enlightened society who are convinced that you
can't have a garden without a whole shelf full of bottles, bags and boxes of powerful, chemical pesticides. "You just
can't have a decent garden without killing every bug in sight!" they
say. "Kill!," they snarl with a deep, throaty growl..."I
don't care what kinda bug it is! Kill!"
Another resounding "Baloney!" It is not necessary to launch an
all-out, frontal attack with pounds and gallons of highly toxic,
environmentally-disruptive, expensive, and possibly immune-system-shattering
chemical concoctions at the first sign of insect damage or mildew spot.
A few small holes in a pansy or lettuce leaf are ok. A bit
of mildew is not the end of the world. Get used to it. With public interest
and outcry on the rise—not to mention widespread rapidly-increasing
pesticide resistance—fewer effective chemical pest control products are available to
both the high-production farmer and the home hobby gardener. Times are
changing. Even died-in-the-wool chemical aficionados, recognizing their
shrinking options, are beginning to look for other, safer ways to deal with
pests. Sadly, even fewer are coming to recognize and appreciate a vital and
beneficial physiological, psychological and ecological connection (almost
symbiotic relationship) between most members of the insect world... and us.
There are, in fact, a great many natural, less damaging and threatening—not to mention less expensive—alternatives for the control of bugs and plant
diseases for large and small tillers of the Earth. And many of them are
Information Number eight: Farm hay makes a great winter mulch! This one
makes me shudder! Though to be perfectly honest, I've not heard any of
the myriad TV or print gardening experts encouraging this disastrous
practice. Yet it never fails...take a drive down almost any residential street
and you'll inevitably find a garden—ornamental or vegetable—covered in
several inches of plain old field hay straight from the bale.
Just down my own street, a
relatively attractive (this season) mixed perennial garden is on its way to
extinction next season. Why? because the four to six inches of field
hay mulch they recently applied is loaded with field hay seeds that, by
mid- to late-spring next year will have sprouted and responded vigorously
to an early-season application of fertilizer...and will, without a shadow of
doubt, totally overwhelm every desirable perennial the gardener worked so hard
to plant and nurture.
Worse, many of those
field-weed seeds are from highly aggressive plants that, once rooted,
will take nothing short of backhoes or gallons of herbicide sprays to control,
remove or kill.
While they, too, may contain
a few seeds here and there, oat, wheat, rice or barley straw is a much wiser
choice than weed-seed-infested field hay. Unless, of course, you think it'd be
fun to spend half your summer on hands and knees trying to rip out
endless sprouts, roots and tangles of unbelievably aggressive noxious weeds.