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Fact and Fiction in the Garden

February 3, 2009

I had considered calling this post “Everything You Know is Wrong.” Gardening and landscaping involve specific tasks and techniques that are often passed down orally from one generation to the next. We often don’t do any fact-checking to be sure we’re getting the best advice; rather, we assume that because so-and-so has been doing this for decades and what they’re doing works for them, it must be the “right” way. As more attention is paid to gardening, and as landscape architecture has grown as a discipline (resulting in millions of dollars spent on plantings for public spaces), more research is being done to uncover the truths about best practices in the landscape. I’m reading a book right now that does a great job of using solid research to set the record straight.

The Informed Gardener by Linda Chalker-Scott is a great read. An urban horticulturist, Ms. Chalker-Scott knows her way around scientific journals and explains her points really well. I’ve enjoyed the book because it gives the solid, scientific reasons behind horticultural best practices. It’s also made me think a little harder about what I do. It is critically important that I, as a designer and consultant, stay current with emerging research. For example, I’ve known for years that topping trees is bad for them, staking isn’t always in the best interests of the tree, and landscape fabric for weed control is a lousy solution. In fact, most professionals in my industry know these things. However, Ms. Chalker-Scott also discusses new research on the polymers used to retain moisture in the soil (let’s just say it changed my stance on them), phosphate fertilizers, and soil amendments in general.

What I really loved about this book is the very first myth the author skewers: “If it’s published, it must be true.” It’s always, always, always important to consider the source of information. My wife is a scientist and college professor, so I hear this a lot- especially when one of her students attempts to use wikipedia as a source in a research paper. It comes down to this: peer-reviewed scientific journals are often reliable, because the findings- and the research that led to them- are reviewed by other scientists in that discipline. Articles in magazines for general readership may or may not rely on scientific fact; the same can be said for gardening information found on the Web. It’s important to seek out the facts. Or, as my wife yells at the tv when a commercial makes a particularly outlandish claim: “show me your data!”

To sum up, if you’re serious about your garden or landscape, read this book. It’s pretty inexpensive on amazon, and the Culpeper County Library has it (although not today- right now it’s on my desk, sorry). Myths are pervasive in gardening, and organic gardening is a new discipline with its own scientific discoveries- and quackery. This book will help you sort it out.

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