Growing In Place : How To Spot Bad Garden Advice Before It Spoils Your Harvest
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the bad advice I have received on my gardening and farming journey. Some of it mislead me for a season, and some has set me back for multiple years. Most of it has cost me money, and all has cost me time. Some advice has wasted precious resources. This is the reason why I often write about my mistakes, and about the things that have proved more difficult than I expected. I want you to be inspired to try. But more than that, I want you to be empowered to succeed. Mistakes are the very best opportunities for learning and growth, and I hope that by sharing mine, we both can learn.
Most of the bad advice I have received could have been good advice when applied to someone else. Successful growing is not so much about following a set list of rules as it is about developing an intimate knowledge of your land, your place, your needs, and your ecosystem. When I encounter phrases like “so easy”, it makes me wonder… do they understand why they experienced success? Will that success be repeatable for me? What conditions might cause that “so easy” effort to fail? Let’s take an opportunity to dive into some classic bits of advice that did not work for me, and think about why they may or may not work for you!
Bad Tip #1: Zucchini grows abundantly, and without pests.
I’ve read this from many sources, but for me, the dream of growing way too much zucchini continues to be a mirage in a desert of squash bugs and sorrow. I still believe in the dream of the abundant organic zucchini, and I have even achieved it in years of extreme hand-picking persistence, but the squash bug has been a formidable foe in all my gardens to date. I do meet people even in my own city who claim not to have any squash bugs in their gardens, so this issue may be extremely site-specific. Ask your near neighbors who garden which pests are most problematic for them.
Bad Tip #2: Everybody should add lime to their garden soil.
Of course, the lime in this common suggestion is the mineral lime, not the bright green fruit you find in your margarita. Whether or not you need lime in your garden depends entirely on the results of your soil test. You can run a soil test easily for about $10, and your county extension agent can give you instructions for gathering the sample and a list of all the labs in your area capable of providing that service. If your soil is too acidic for the plants you want to grow, then you can add lime to the soil to raise the pH. It is common to have acidic soil in many locales. However, all of my gardens in central Indiana have had soil that is neutral to alkaline. If I added lime to my soil, I would ruin it.
Bad Tip #3: Tomato hornworms are the most devastating garden pest.
This may be true in many places, because I read it often. But I find zero to three hornworms in my whole garden, per year, total. When I see them I hand pick them and move them to the chicken yard. The chickens act like they just won the lottery. I think they wish I had more tomato hornworms.
Pro tip: wasps kill tomato hornworms. If you maintain your land without pesticides and provide wasp-friendly habitat, you may be pleasantly surprised in the swift reduction in hornworms!
Bad Tip #4: Tomatoes are totally over by September.
There are two growth types of tomatoes: “determinate”, and “indeterminate”. Most tomato varieties fall into one of those two categories. If your seed packet or seedling label doesn’t say whether it’s a determinate or indeterminate type, a quick google search should provide that info. Determinate tomato plants produce all their ripe fruit during a shorter time window, and the plants reach a smaller total size. This type of behavior is preferable for gardeners who want to preserve their tomatoes. It’s easier to have a few big canning days where the pot is packed full than to process many half-full batches throughout the season. Although I’ve read several sources that claim that determinate plants ripen all their fruit within a two week window, that has never been my experience with the Rutgers determinate variety that I like to grow. I find that I get fruit from my Rutgers determinate tomatoes for most of the summer. However, by September my Rutgers determinate plants are focusing on ripening their last few green tomatoes while my indeterminate Brandywine plants are still growing new vines and flowering new flowers. The Brandywine plants will usually continue growing and flowering until the frost kills them in October, so planting both kinds of tomatoes allows me to can my tomatoes and eat them too.
Bad Tip #5: Potatoes are done flowering in July. If you didn’t see them flower, you probably just missed it because the flowers are inconspicuous. Dig them up anyway.
This tip was repeatedly spouted on the garden forums back in the early days, and it caused me to cut down many a fine potato plant in its prime. This year I grew my first really successful potato crop. It’s nearly October now, and I still haven’t dug them. They continued flowering for well over a month, and the flowers were more conspicuous than tomato flowers. I would never have missed them. The right time to dig up your potato plant depends on your location, your soil, which potato variety you grew, and maybe even the mood of your particular seed potato. Trust yourself to notice the white flowers of similar size and shape to tomato blossoms. This is the advice I’m following for my Carola potato crop this year, with great success:
1. Wait until the plant is totally done flowering.
2. Wait two weeks after that. If it flowers again, go back to step 1.
3. If you want small “new potatoes”, you can dig some two weeks after the vines have stopped flowering.
4. If you want large potatoes, wait until the vines start to die back, then dig up all the plants. It’s nearly October now and I’m still waiting.
Bad Tip #6: Scythes are easier than weed whackers.
This might actually be true, but it’s misleading. Even weed whackers couldn’t handle my weeds. If you are mowing a section that consists of nice flowing grasses or maybe some grain crops, the scythe might be a good tool for you. And it is enjoyable to use under those circumstances, for short periods of time. But when I tried to use a scythe to mow my wild and crazy fields, it was a disaster. The reason for the backache was mostly to do with a plant called giant ragweed, whose stem is too tough for even my hybrid brush blade to cut down. When striking one of these powerful stems, the scythe blade gets stuck midway through. Every time I hit one of these stalks, my blade got a new dent and my joints rang. A similar outcome was produced by mulberry saplings, which I also have a plenty.
The other obstacle I encountered during the great scythe experiment of 2016 is that I was trying to mow too large an area (about 8 acres was the goal). By the third acre, all my project deadlines were late, and I had sprained most of my fingers.
By the way, I later learned that cork bicycle handlebar tape is a great addition to the scythe hand holds, and helps to prevent those finger sprains. I still have my scythe and I hope one day my fields will be tame enough to use it.
Bad Tip #7: Nothing grows in flood plains.
There are great plants native to almost every ecosystem type. As it turns out, flood plains can be one of the most productive of all ecosystems, and they can grow some pretty awesome food. If you have a site with flair, like a flood plain or a sand dune or a rocky hillside, try to learn about it. Find out what the unique advantages are. Learn about the role that type of ecosystem plays in the wild. Seek out the history of what your site used to be part of before land was industrialized and grid divided and cleared. Your extension agent or NRCS representative may be able to help you get started. It’s a real shame to tear down the unique habitats of the world in favor of homogeneity.
To grow your best garden, seek out local gardeners and extension agents for advice. Trust your intuition. If someone gives you advice that doesn’t feel right for you, experiment and find out. Keep a garden journal and record your experiences to help you hone your skills over time.
And my most important suggestion? Keep showing up.
I’ve been gardening since 2008. There have been years when my garden was amazing, when I could barely keep up with the bounty of the harvest, when everything looked beautiful and tidy and weeded. I’ve also had years of devastating failures when life or weather or land didn’t cooperate with my plans. No matter what happens, I return to the garden. I plant another seed. I keep trying. And you know what? It’s worth it.