Mackenzie KupferChallenging long-held garden beliefs

When I first reached out to Catherine about writing for GardenDrum, she asked if I could show her some of my writing. I sent her a couple of articles and, thankfully, she thought they were alright. She did point out, however, that I had previously written about avoiding synthetic fertilizers and that I hadn’t given any compelling reason to do so. She suggested that I could reassess why it was that I was preaching not to use them if I didn’t have any evidence to back it up.

yard1In the course of our correspondence, she sent me a link to Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott’s list of horticultural myths, which I have studied thoroughly. Some of the things I’ve read there and investigated further have challenged the way I think about gardening and shown me how much unsupported garden lore I’ve been clinging to.

You see, I first learned gardening from my Nana over twenty years ago, when I was small. She taught me what she knew from her mother and from her experiences in her garden. Many of the practices and beliefs I’ve upheld have come straight from Nana. I’ve also picked up some borderline radical views about organics, what my father calls “hippy” gardening. I can’t remember when I first decided that organic was best, but my recent readings have shown me that I’ve gotten a bit too overzealous than is practical.

Here are a couple of the shocks I’ve received to my gardening know-how:

xeriscape

Xeriscaping

As I picked out sections to read of Dr. Chalker-Scott’s site, I came across my first big surprise: xeriscaping can actually induce more water waste than traditional landscaping! I couldn’t believe it. But the way the good doctor explains the problem makes sense: drought-tolerant plants might require less water to survive, but to thrive and be aesthetically pleasing, they actually require more water. Of course the concept of xeriscaping is still sound- drought tolerant plants are still a good choice for areas that don’t get much water. However, Dr. Chalker-Scott points out that the problem arises when gardeners expect these plants to look lush, when they tend to look as dry as they are.

cactus flowerDrought tolerant-plants survive better with less water, but they don’t necessarily look as beautiful doing so. Particularly in the first months (sometimes years), over-watering is encouraged in xeriscaped yards, which is counterintuitive, but advised as an investment for future water conservation. The salient point is to embrace the seasonal changes in our plants- you can’t expect them to be as fruitful as they are in monsoon season year-round.

Lesson learned: Adjusting the expectations of drought-tolerant plants is the key to successful water management in xeriscaping. Plants won’t always look the way you want them to!

organic garden sign

Organics

Next I zeroed in on the article that Catherine was referencing when it comes to my beliefs about synthetic pest control. Organic gardening has been a passion of mine for some time now. I know it’s important to be conscious about the impact we have on the environment, so I’ve always been inclined to fall in with the “green” crowd. The article I read, however, reminded me that being eco-friendly doesn’t always equate to strictly putting “naturally-occurring” supplements or pesticides into the earth.

A bit of research yielded sources from Scientific American, Stanford, and North Carolina State University, all reporting some variation of the same message: you should tailor your yard care to your yard. None of these sources implied that going organic is not a good idea, but they report that you should take care what you put in your soil, no matter if it’s organic or not. More to the point, putting the label “organic” on a product or practice does not make it automatically superior for health, or for the environment. Only by impartial study can one determine whether “organic” products are going to be beneficial for your garden.

Lesson Learned: Plants don’t care whether your products are labeled “organic”- they only care about how much of a nutrient they’re getting. Pay more attention to what nutrients your plants need and less to how they were derived. That way, you can make a decision about what to put in your soil based on what you see and not what product packaging says.

yard5

Traditional Knowledge

As if to underscore my findings, Dr. Chalker-Scott wrote a piece on horticultural folklore versus scientifically-backed knowledge. In it, she addresses the mindset that allows us to be lulled into propagating old methods, even when new knowledge is in front of us.

Lesson Learned: While studying horticultural history is beneficial, it must be approached as a resource for context and not as a template. By failing to keep up with scientific progress or by placing traditional methods over new ones, we miss an opportunity to be more efficient and kinder to our plants.

LavenderI think there’s a place for myths and old wives’ tales. I find that my Nana’s insistence on burying a button under a potato plant to make the potatoes taste better is endearing. I like that she grows zinnias and lavender to show devotion to loved ones who are far away (like me). Some folklore is valuable for our history and for our family, but it shouldn’t take precedence over empirical study. I’m beginning a new chapter in which I’m challenged to expand my horizons and take responsibility for the information I circulate. Taking a closer look at why I believe the things I do is a good practice in every aspect, particularly in my garden. An emphatic thank you to Catherine and to Dr. Chalker-Scott for their push to make me a better gardener and writer!

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Mackenzie Kupfer

About Mackenzie Kupfer

Mackenzie Kupfer is an aspiring writer and gardener in Boise, Idaho, USA. She began gardening when she was seven years old with her Nana in the Shenandoah River Valley, Virginia. Having been raised on the lush east coast, it’s been challenging (but fun!) to transition into the dryer climates of the western US. She’s passionate about the active gardening lifestyle, conservation, design, and the delicious veggies she grows. She currently writes for fire pit supplier, Avant Garden Décor.

14 thoughts on “Challenging long-held garden beliefs

  1. helen mckerral on said:

    Hi Mackenzie

    I totally agree, and no matter how long we’bve been gardening we never stop learning, as new science comes to light. I’d been taught that glyphosate breaks down to harmless constituents very quickly, but in recent years that has proven not to be the case, with long-lasting and significant impacts on soil microflora and fauna. And of course our parents and grandparents would never have sprayed those toxic chemicals like Lindane if they’d known the facts, and for how long they’d persist.

    For my take on myths and compromise, see http://gardendrum.com/2012/04/19/diet-part-1/ and http://gardendrum.com/2012/05/02/garden-religion/

    Look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Mackenzie Kupfer on said:

      Hi Helen!

      Wow, what great reads! It’s incredible how much information you’ve packed into these entries- it’s very inspiring! I especially liked your writing about philosophies. There are so many great parts- particularly that we can be frowned upon for not having a holistic philosophy to follow. Even my husband looked concerned when I told him that my practices needed to change. He was worried I’d lose my passion for gardening if I shook up all of my beliefs. I explained that challenging my way of thinking will increase my interest, not dampen it, but he didn’t look overly convinced.

      That’s why I loved sharing with him your optimism in how to approach new ideas (“Thankfully, none of us spring fully-formed from any gardening guru’s brow!” was my favorite line.)

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read this little addition and to comment. I’m so happy to be involved in such a thriving community of informed gardeners- I really couldn’t ask for more.

  2. Alison on said:

    A very interesting article Mackenzie. I look forward to reading more of them and learning from them also.

    • Mackenzie Kupfer on said:

      Thank you so much for reading, Alison! It was a bit jarring to realize how much I have to learn, but it’s a great opportunity to improve in so many ways. I hope I can share what I learn as I go!

  3. Dr. Chalker-Scott is such a light in the darkness, I agree. But, sadly, I think not all gardeners have your humility and willingness to change (buttons excepted…). Bit like turning the oil tanker round: I guess it takes time…
    I think we possibly need much less fertiliser of all kinds. Though veggie growing is probably where the challenge arises, and I don’t do that. But I do operate on the lines of ‘no fertiliser, no staking..’ (this, in uk…)
    Xx

    • Mackenzie Kupfer on said:

      Hi Anne! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I admit that my mind’s first reaction was to reject such large changes. It took a bit of reflection to understand why I wanted to hang onto my habits- protecting my ego and traditions seemed to be the best I could come up with. I reasoned that learning new things should incite eagerness instead of defensiveness, but it was still a challenge! That tanker you speak of had a pretty wide turning radius.

      I’m interested in your ‘no fertilizer, no staking’ idea! I’ve leaned somewhat heavily on staking in the past, so I’ll have to shuffle off into my researching mode and do some thinking. Could you please give me a nudge in the right direction and tell me your thoughts?

      • Hi again,
        My regime is to cut down plants in situ, usually after winter but perhaps sooner if I want to remove the dead foliage. I leave the foliage there to rot down and that is the only feeding my plants get.

        If you’re interested you can see more about it (with a restless picture from the days when we did have some veg) in this extract from my book, The Bad Tempered Gardener: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/8479689/Anne-Wareham-Why-I-hate-gardening.html

        or read the ‘What Not to Do in Your Garden’ blog posts eg http://veddw.com/blog/what-not-to-do-in-your-garden-in-april/

        Sorry if that’s all too much information! Do keep questioning – it’s a good rule to wonder if there is any easier/better way to do anything you find you don’t enjoy doing. Most people do far too much work in their gardens, when they could be enjoying a glass of wine and a good book…

        Xxxx

    • bernhard feistel on said:

      Hi Mackenzie

      Anybody (not just gardeners) should be prepared to throw received wisdom overboard and experiment (whilst trying to honour their grandparents.) And this can often be hard indeed. Your article and the comments made me curious and I ordered Dr Chalker-Scott’s science-worshipping “bible” (The informed Gardener, 2008). What a sweet book cover!

      And after I have read at the end: Essential garden tools and products: “folding pruning saw, garden hose, good quality shovel or transplanting spade, hand weeder, heavy duty rake… and under nice to have: “rain barrels, …, gardening gloves, … watering can… I wonder who the guru actually wants to address. This reads as if Jamie Oliver recommends the use of a sharp kitchen knife, a sieve and a good saucepan. Or does he?

      • Maybe Chalker Scott’s list is more in the line of ‘this is all you need’? To extend the Jamie Oliver analogy – you don’t need to spend lots of money on complicated kitchen gear to be a good cook, and you also don’t need a whole lot of expensive or specific tools to be a good gardener, just these basics?

  4. Alison S on said:

    Mackenzie, as someone with a scientific background I am really impressed by your willingness to be open-minded and not to cling to cherished beliefs if the evidence doesn’t support them. Unfortunately you are rare in that respect. Of course science moves on, and today’s received wisdom may be overturned by new information. All we can do is try to appraise evidence critically (a bit more teaching of those skills in school curricula would help) and not choose just those bits that seem to support our-preconceived ideas.

  5. Mackenzie Kupfer on said:

    Hi Alison! Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

    I agree that critical thinking is so important to pass on in education. Great teachers are undervalued, but they can make a huge difference when they challenge you (in this case, for me they were Catherine and Dr. Chalker-Scott.)

    It is a bit frustrating to know that even our very best efforts to understand the world can be toppled within a few short years. Sometimes it seems futile. But if we can be amazed by new things instead of threatened, even though that’s sometimes against our gut reactions, I think we’d be much better off in general. Thanks to scientifically-minded people like yourself, we can make progress! It’s just a matter of turning around that oil tanker that Anne had mentioned above…

  6. Rhonda on said:

    Hi Mackenzie,
    Thanks for your article.
    Perhaps some of your Nana’s ideas really work, and that’s why they have persisted. Don’t know about the button and potato though!
    I love hearing about old ways of doing things, and trying some out for myself, even if they aren’t scientifically proven. To me, that’s one of the joys of gardening. I guess as long as we remain open to new ideas and evidence we will continue to learn and ‘grow’.
    My thoughts on organic vs inorganic fertilisers are that yes, the plant doesn’t care how it’s food is delivered. However, is it not true that the organic material in organic fertilisers has additional benefits for soil life, both macro and micro organisms? I’d love to hear comments about that please.

  7. Mackenzie Kupfer on said:

    Hi Rhonda!

    Thanks so much for reading and for commenting! I can tell you that I think my Nana’s potatoes are the best in the world, but I think that has less to do with buttons and more to do with granddaughter-ly bias! I can’t say for certain, though. Maybe the buttons help.

    My understanding (which I’ll beg patience for, as I’m in the process of reassessing many things) is that there can be benefits to using organic fertilizers, but the studies I cited seem to conclude that this isn’t always the case. Depending on the soil and climate, organic fertilizers don’t always seem to do much better (or worse) than inorganic ones.

    I think one of the big problems is that many people don’t have a good grasp on what the word “organic” means. I believe that you’re using it the way I understand to be correct, where it means “derived from living things.” The term gets slapped onto labels and people feel cheated if the nutrients were “derived from living things” in a lab. That’s where some contention comes from. At least, that’s what I usually see in the situation. I’d love to hear what everyone thinks!

  8. Sandra Pullman on said:

    What a great article. I can suggest you read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I think you will (I was going to say enjoy it, but that isn’t the right), learn from it. Rachel was an American Biologist who was the 1st to challenge the chemical industry.
    Cheers Sandi

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