Gardening wives’ tales, superstitions, myths, remedies, tricks, wisdoms, folklore, or whatever you want to call them—we hear them all the time and lots of people try them—but do they actually work?
Many gardening wives’ tales originate when a crop is successful and, hoping for the same good fortune next time, we look for factors that may have contributed to the success. This has, of course, gone on throughout history, before we had scientific research to rely on, and continue today.
Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to confuse correlation with cause. Just because your tomato crop flourished with Epsom salts or sugar in the soil doesn’t mean the salt or sugar caused your crop to flourish. And just because three crows squawked when you planted your awesome beans, doesn’t mean beans grow better when crows are squawking!
My advice to new gardeners is this: ignore the wives’ tales and just start growing stuff. The garden is the best teacher and experience will bring you more success than a sprinkle of this, a dash of that, or waiting for a particular cycle of the moon to plant your seeds. Yes, I know, lots of people swear by that one and, while harmless, it might make your crop late by waiting for the desired planting time….
Wives tales vary greatly. They range from just plain funny or wasteful to good common sense substantiated by scientific research. But there’s also some that are actually harmful to plants, soil, and the environment, and that’s when it’s best to step back and reevaluate your choices.
When I think I’ve found something unusual that works, and there are no indications that it could have harmful side effects, I like to try side-by-side tests (same conditions, same season, same seeds or plants). At least then I can compare tomatoes to tomatoes and see if I really have something to squawk about (or not). It’s not true scientific research, but it could save me some time and money to be more critical and analytical about results.
Popular Gardening Wives’ Tales And The Bottom Line
As you’ll see, it’s not all black and white. Sometimes the remedy may work, but not for the reasons you think.
1. Epsom Salts [pin it here]
This is probably the most popular one:
Add Epsom salts to the soil for healthier plants.
Bottom Line: No! Research shows it is only warranted in large-scale farming operations where the soil has a proven magnesium deficiency, and even then, there are other ramifications. Home garden use of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) is rated as ‘irresponsible without regard to soil conditions, plant needs, and environmental health’. [You can read more here]
2. Sugar or Baking Soda for Sweeter Tomatoes [pin it here]
The sweetness of a tomato is determined primarily by the type of tomato and photosynthesis. They cannot acquire sweetness from soil.
Bottom Line: Save your baking soda for cleaning the house and the sugar for baking.
3a. Egg Shells For Calcium
Egg shells are great for enriching compost but take a long time to break down.
Bottom Line: Crush them into bits to help speed up the process, but don’t expect them to transform a plant in a single season.
3b. Egg Shells for Discouraging Slugs [pin it here]
The idea is that slugs (and everything else) simply wants to take the easy route to dinner and climbing over sharp eggshells (or anything else like that) is not easy. Are you really going to put little bits of egg shells around every possible plant that the slugs might eat?
Bottom Line: Save the egg shells (finely crushed) for the compost bin: there are other (though imperfect) ways to stop slugs.
4. Pennies or Copper for Discouraging Slugs
Pinterest has oodles of images of lovely penny-covered garden balls with descriptions claiming they repel slugs.
Bottom Line: Think about it: even if there was truth to it, all it would be doing is sending the slugs away from the copper…and into your other plants for lunch! Best to try other approaches for catching slugs. Though, rock on with the garden art! And yes, most pennies don’t contain much or any copper.
5. Beer Traps For Slugs [pin it here]
There’s no doubt that the yeast in beer attracts slugs, but you have to set up a trap properly so they fall in but can’t climb out. It’s also quite impractical (but not impossible) to keep the trap properly set up day after day with rainfall and other disruptions.
Grapefruit rinds also attract the little beasts, and nothing beats a wooden board left out overnight on the damp soil for gathering a whole gang of them.
Bottom Line: No matter how you attract the slugs, you probably have to get out there and finish the job by dropping them into a bucket of soapy water or feeding them to your hens. Nom nom.
6. Coffee Grounds [pin it here]
This is one of the few popular wives’ tales where I could actually find some evidence to substantiate it! Yes, coffee grounds are good for the garden but all the talk of changing the pH of the soil (it’s a complex topic and requires proper analysis) and miraculous growth spurts is really overstating it.
Bottom Line: Coffee grounds provide beneficial nitrogen, but you need a variety of things for healthy compost and soil. Add your coffee grounds to the compost pile and keep it balanced with a mixture of other green and brown items.
What the Research Shows
The Informed Gardener by Linda Chalker Scott
In this introduction to sustainable landscaping practices, Linda Chalker-Scott addresses the most common myths and misconceptions that plague home gardeners and horticultural professionals. Chalker-Scott offers invaluable advice to gardeners gardeners who have wondered:
- Are native plants the best choice for sustainable landscaping?
- Should you avoid disturbing the root ball when planting?
- Are organic products better or safer than synthetic ones?
- What is the best way to control weeds-fabric or mulch?
- Does giving vitamins to plants stimulate growth?
- Are compost teas effective in controlling diseases?
- When is the best time to water in hot weather?
- If you pay more, do you get a higher-quality plant?
- How can you differentiate good advice from bad advice?
The answers may surprise you. In her more than twenty years as a university researcher and educator in the field of plant physiology, Linda Chalker-Scott has discovered a number of so-called truths that originated in traditional agriculture and that have been applied to urban horticulture, in many cases damaging both plant and environmental health. The Informed Gardener is based on basic and applied research from university faculty and landscape professionals, originally published in peer-reviewed journals.
Here’s some other ones that are myths (not beneficial) and/or cause harm:
Myth #1: Pinch the seed pod off if the onion goes to seed to prevent bolting.
Bottom Line: In modern hybrids, this actually prohibits the growth of the onion.
Myth #2: Knock the tops of onions over to make larger bulbs.
Bottom Line: This actually stops the bulbing process = no onions.
Myth #3: To get sweeter tomatoes, add sugar to the planting hole.
Bottom Line: Tomatoes get their sweetness through photosynthesis and genes (some types of tomatoes are sweeter than others): they cannot absorb it from soil.
Myth #4: Plant peas and potatoes on St. Patrick’s day.
Bottom Line: There are no specific calendar dates suited to all gardening zones: the best timing depends on your growing zone and soil warmth.
Myth #5: Pinch blooms off annuals before planting.
Bottom Line: Nope! All you get then is time to wait for new blooms to form.
Sources/Read more about Myths #1-5: Horticulture.tamu.edu
Myth #6: If a plant is under stress, it should be fed.
Bottom Line: Fertilizer is not the answer for many plant stresses (compacted roots, poor drainage, overwatering, and so on). Determine the cause of the problem and then resolve it. Poor nutrition is often not the cause.
Myth #7: Organic pesticides are less toxic than synthetic ones.
Bottom Line: Organic, “natural”, and any other pesticides can be very powerful and harmful. You have to do your research with a reputable source and make careful choices. Plus, is really worth harming nature to try and “fix” the problem?
Myth #8: Add sand to loosen heavy, clay soil.
Bottom Line: Nope! It actually causes more problems. So does double digging. Been there, double digged that.
Myth #9: Drought-tolerant plants don’t need to be watered.
Bottom Line: They’re tolerant, not dead! Yes, they need water.
Sources/Read more about Myths #6-9: Fine Gardening
Myth #10: Citrus peel repels ants.
Bottom Line: Meh. Does not make the ants go marching away.
Myth #11: When planting a new tree or shrub replace the soil in the planting hole with organic material such as compost.
Bottom Line: The tree will do better if you reuse the soil you removed from the hole.
Myth #12: Organic material – especially compost – is always good.
Bottom Line: Consider the source. Municipal compost can contain pesticides and other toxins.
Sources/Read more about Myths #6-9: Dave’s Garden
Want To Read More?
Decoding Gardening Advice: The Science Behind the 100 Most Common Recommendations | Amazon.com
Got one you follow, find funny, or debunked? Leave it in the comments!
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