Separating Gardening Facts From Fiction
There are so many gardening myths out there! It’s sometimes hard to separate the truth from the nonsense, but don’t worry—we’re here to help! We’ll dispel seven commonly held gardening myths, so you can save yourself a lot of time, money, and unnecessary effort.
From fallacies about feeding plants to suspect ways to improve soil, you’ve probably heard (perhaps even followed!) some of the more popular old wives’ tales before.
Myth 1: Add Sand to Improve Clay Soil
You hear it time and again: To improve a heavy, poorly draining clay soil, just add sand. It appears to make sense – after all sandy soil drains really well right? But, in fact, adding sand to clay has the effect of turning soil incredibly hard and the amended area into little more than a sump, creating sodden conditions and rotting roots. Instead, to improve soil structure add plenty of organic matter such as garden-made compost whenever you have the opportunity. Or grow vegetables in raised beds for improved drainage.
Bottom-line: Leave the sand on the beach!
Learn more about improving your garden soil: Preparing Soil for Planting
Myth 2: Water Droplets Burn Leaves
Don’t water on sunny days, we’re told, because the water droplets act like miniature magnifying lenses, concentrating the sun’s rays and burning the leaves. Well, this is, quite frankly, nonsense or else you’d see a lot of burned foliage! In reality water droplets evaporate before they can cause any harm. It’s still a good idea to aim water at the base of the plant where it’s needed, and to avoid watering during the heat of the day, when water quickly evaporates. If you can, water in the morning or later in the afternoon.
Bottom-line: Watering during the heat of the day is best avoided.
Learn more about watering the right way: When to Water Your Vegetable Garden
Myth 3: Pine Needles Acidify Soil
It’s a commonly held belief that pine needles help to acidify soil. As such they are often recommended for use around acid-loving plants like blueberries, rhododendrons and azaleas.
But while fresh pine needles, taken straight from the tree, are indeed ever-so-slightly acidic, once they’re shed, they soon lose that acidity. That means that the pine straw found beneath a pine tree—the old, dried-out needles—are, in fact, not at all acidic and will have no effect whatsoever on soil pH. As in nature, they will begin to break down naturally and the microbes (decomposers) in the soil will neutralize them. They are a good mulching material that will keep the moisture in, suppress weeds and eventually add nutrients back to the soil.
If you have difficulty growing plants under pine trees, it’s simply because evergreen roots are numerous and shallow and compete for water and nutrients.
Bottom-line: Leave the needles there on the ground!
Read more about using mulch: How to Mulch Your Garden
Myth 4: Dress Tree Wounds and Cuts
Pruning is a big job, especially over winter. The advice goes that fresh tree cuts should be painted with a special pruning paint, tar or sealant to protect the wound from disease and decay. But save yourself the money! All this does is interfere with the tree’s own natural healing process – a process it is perfectly capable of, all on its own! In time a natural callus will form over the cut, protecting it from bugs and disease. So just leave the tree be.
Bottom-line: Don’t waste money on wound paint for trees! Let nature do the work.
Read more about pruning ornamental plants: A Guide to Pruning Trees and Shrubs
Myth 5: Sugared Soil Gives Sweet Tomatoes
Come on… really? Yes, adding sugar to the soil is sometimes suggested as a great way to impart tomatoes with extra sweetness. But look, it’s nonsense okay. There’s simply no correlation between a sweet soil and the sweetness of the fruits. Instead, choose varieties known for their sweet taste. Proper feeding, regular watering and ample sunlight should help to develop the tomato’s fullest flavor.
Bottom-line: If you want sweet tomatoes, grow sweet varieties!
Check out our comprehensive Tomato Growing Guide for more advice!
Myth 6: Planting in Rows is Best
If straight rows are your thing, that’s perfectly fine. But planting in regimented rows or blocks isn’t essential and can even encourage problems with pests and diseases. Instead, mix crops up to confuse pests and slow down the spread of disease. Interplanting compatible crops, using companion planting principles, will help plants to thrive while improving their resilience. Clever stuff!
Bottom-line: Don’t be afraid to break up the rows and mix things up a bit.
See our video on companion planting flowers and vegetables for more.
Myth 7: Just Add More Compost to the Soil.
Adding compost does indeed improve soil structure, but adding too much compost at once or over time can lead to problems.
If the soil’s organic matter is much higher than ideal (5 to 8 percent), the soil can have too much available phosphorus, which can stunt plant growth and potentially leach into the water table. Also, some composts can be high in salts, which can also impact plant growth.
Bottom-line: It’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Myth 8: Leftover Tea Makes a Great Fertilizer
Tea leaves contain nutrients, so why shouldn’t you splosh leftover tea onto your pot plants? Okay, so while the leaves contain plenty of nitrogen and other nutrients, these nutrients aren’t necessarily in an accessible form, while other elements found in tea, such as aluminum and fluorine, may actually hinder growth. Stick to using a proper liquid feed for your pot plants.
Bottom-line: Pour leftover tea into the sink, not your plants. Instead, try making compost tea.
Myth 9: Top a Tree to Control Its Height.
No, no, no! This often leads to a slow death for the tree. Trees are programmed to attain a certain height. Topping only temporarily delays the inevitable. The resulting sucker growth, which grows rapidly in an attempt to provide food for the compromised root system, is weakly attached. This creates an even greater hazard. Additionally, the trunk is not a limb and cannot use the tree’s architectural physiology to seal the wound caused by topping.
Bottom-line: Trees are more persistent than one might think!
Myth 10: Add a Layer of Gravel to the Bottom of Containers to Improve Drainage
Planting containers must have drainage holes for root aeration. “Drainage material” such as gravel, when added to containers, will only hinder water movement. Use good topsoil throughout in perennial container plantings for optimal water conditions and soil structure.
Bottom-line: Go for drainage holes, not drainage layers.
More Garden Myths and Mistakes
There are many more myths though they’re a little more nuanced. Here are some of our most common mistakes or “little lessons” we learned along the way!
- Starting plants earlier and “rushing the season” dosn’t usually pan out. First, putting plants out too early risks late frost damage, root rot, and other issues. Also, each plant has its preferred soil temperature whether it’s cool or warm so it won’t germinate or grow in the wrong temperature. This lowers yields and increases plant mortality rates. At the Almanac we have a saying about all plants catching up in July, no matter when they were planted. Bottom-line, follow planting guidelines on seed packets and plant tags.
- There’s a philosophy that planting nearer together will suppress weeds and increase yield. However, crowding plants into the garden creates more competition for nutrients, hampers harvesting, and encourages disease and pests. When leaves overlap (especially for tomatoes and zucchini) and don’t have enough air circulation, they will get blight or other problems. Again, follow the spacing guidelines on the seed packets.
- It’s normal to want to get all the seeds into the ground as soon as you can but do not do all your plantings in one day. Remember that this means everything will harvest at the same time. It’s better to plant a small amount each week; staggered plantings means that you won’t cut your harvest period short and have too much harvest to eat at one time! Plant too much? Don’t just leave extra produce in the garden. When it’s overly ripe or past maturity, it will simply encourage disease and pests. Solution: Give away, donate, or sell extra produce.
- So many folks say “plant more for the wildlife.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way nature usually works. Wildlife will simply eat more and bring their friends. They’re indiscrimate freeloaders. Instead, spend time to put up a fence, add companion plants, and use organic repellent spray.
- Weeds are edible! Sure, many weeds are edible but you need to also weed frequently because weeds are simply plants that remove nutrients your plants need, harbor more pests, and block sunlight. Why would you go through all the effort to cultivate vegetables or fruit only to have another invasive plant wreak havoc on it? Instead, put down lots of mulched leaves, shredded paper, and straw as a mulch which will not only block weeds but also hold in moisture and decompose back to the soil.
- Don’t just put your discarded plant material or weeds back in the field or under the bushes. This isn’t mulch. Failure to remove discarded vegetables and plant materials at the end of the season is proven to increase plant disease. Pests will overwinter and next year will be more challenging. The vegetable bed is not the place to leave plant debris. Instead, clean up the garden in the fall, add compost to settle in over winter, and cover up the beds with a tarp, old carpet, mulch, or cover crops!
Did you learn anything? Sorting the myths from reality can be liberating it has to be said. And there’s plenty more nonsense out there, believe me! We welcome hearing about your gardening myths or mistakes in the comments below.