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.
In 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:
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.
Drought 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!
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.
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.
I 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!