Gardening myths examined & suggestions for success. Each day at Roger’s Gardens my co-workers in the Outdoor Horticulture department & I answer a lot of questions from our guests. Some bring us plastic bags filled with leaves, cuttings, insects or examples of plants that have problems. Sometimes it’s an easy fix and sometimes even with our collective heads together, we can’t be absolutely assured of what might be at the “root” (haha) of the problem. One of the things we hear a lot is a phrase that starts with, “Someone told me…” and then we hear a well meaning remedy or suggestion from a friend/gardener/employee at another garden center or big box store. The thing about gardening is that there are few truly hard rules because someone is always out there with an amazing garden that somehow flies in the face of standard practices. Just like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who cured everything with Windex, there are gardeners who use alternative methods and excel with color, bountiful crops and seemingly little effort. The thing is, I’m guessing that those who use some of those alternative methods are gardeners who are very much in touch (literally) with their gardens. Out there each day or so, checking on each plant, examining the soil, looking for pests and noticing problems early so that when they do use their home remedies, these work simply because they are used early when trouble is easily controlled. I thought I’d offer up a couple of the most common things guests have asked about and why these methods might not be the most helpful for people who have common issues in the garden. If you have a good, “Someone told me…” send it along. I’d love to investigate and get back to you with the results.
1) “Someone told me I could use dish soap to get rid of bugs.” ~
A couple of problems with using dish soap is that while it can soak through the exoskeleton of some pests and kill them, there are a couple of reasons why you might not want to use it. First, dish soap is made for dishes not plants so how should you dilute it? The container won’t tell you and each dish soap is different with additions like antibacterial agents and bleach. Dish soap can eventually kill your plants by stripping the protective coatings on leaves, just like it does on insects. Second, in order for dish soap solutions to work they must saturate each & every pest, so you’re required to spray the top and bottom of the leaves. If any pests fall or take off, you’ll need to spray them, too. Dish soap doesn’t have a residual effect, it’s a contact killer, so if you must use it, rinse it off in an hour or two. On small scale, early intervention issues if you’ve got nothing else, make a small super diluted bottle and get those pests but if you’re dealing with a full on infestation on a large tree or shrub, a true organic pesticidal soap or oil will work best. On another note: some pests can be saturated to death with soap based solutions (pesticidal soap) but some pests need to be smothered with oil based (plant based oil) products. The information here is similar to the solution, “Someone told me I could use olive/cooking/garlic oil to kill pests”. It’s all about dilution and coverage and what pest you’re trying to get rid of, whether it’s an insect or fungus. The type of oil used makes a great deal of difference toward solving your problem. Consider also that you might be killing beneficial bugs as well as pests.
2) “Someone told me that because my plant is yellow, that it needs iron.” ~ The Easy Answer: Maybe. A more complicated response includes these questions;
- How often are you watering your plant?
- For how long do you water?
- What kind of irrigation do you have?
- How close to a water source is this plant?
- Are sprinklers free from any and all obstructions?
- When was the last time you fertilized?
- What did you fertilize with?
A lot of people aren’t aware of how often or how much they water because their gardener takes care of it for them. Sometimes irrigation occurs before you’re even awake but if your plants are having problems these are the questions you’ll need the answers to tohelp your plants get back to beautiful green. It seems that most people water too much, too oftenso I use my favorite watering rule; Water deeply, less often to give guests their own helpful mantra. When plants develop deep root systems, they don’t have to work as hard, unlike shallow rooted plants that can heat up and dry out easier in our hot weather. A good rule of thumb is to deep soak once a week and then supplement during the week as the weather indicates. Deep soaking means getting water down about 6-12 inches, depending on the plant. This is true for lawns as well as mighty oaks. To achieve this, you’ll need to see how long it takes your irrigation to saturate the soil until it starts to run off. At that point, you would be wasting water so you stop, wait a few minutes and then start soaking again. You’ll need to repeat this to get the desired deep watering and then you’ll have a base for your irrigation controller or yourself, if you’re hand watering. Okay, so you’re watering just enough and your plants are still yellow? Now we’ll guess that they need fertilizing, maybe they need iron but more than likely they need a balanced blend of nutrients. The best advice to keep plants beautiful year ‘round is to fertilize regularly. If you want, put it on your calendar or make the first weekend of the month Garden Time. Whatever it says on your organic fertilizer, follow those directions and make sure you’re using the right blend for your plants if you have acid lovers or lots of blooming color although usually an all purpose, like Dr. Earth’s All Purpose, is fine for the entire garden. The last step is to make sure you’re regularly amending and or mulching your soil. Believe it or not, good soil is more important than fertilizing so if you’ve got a compost pile and you’re adding your super rich compost to your garden regularly, you’re going to have enviable plants. Mulch is also great at keeping moisture in (using less water is the law now, right?), keeping weeds at bay (who likes weeds?), and makes your garden look “finished”. If you pay a gardener to take care of your garden, keep in touch with questions and feedback each visit.
3) “Someone told me there’s something that keeps mosquitoes and cats away or keeps plants from yellowing from dog urine” ~ Mosquitoes ~
Keep in mind that even if you are surrounded by 5-6 foot citronella, towering rosemary hedges, lemongrass clumps, catmint/nip beds, marigold borders & free flowing mint, using flowery scented laundry soaps and perfume will counteract most of these herb’s bug repelling qualities while sitting outside. Also, breathing counteracts the benefits because mosquitoes are attracted to carbon dioxide, so perhaps you can breathe in but don’t breathe out. 😉 All kidding aside… You can and should grow herbs you like in your garden but an essential oil blend on your skin will help a lot, too. This is one myth that needs to be taken seriously because it can work if you’re willing to concoct a little spray from your own organically grown herbs. See the index below for some helpful pages that show how to make natural bug repellent, especially catmint (or nepeta faassenii) or catnip (nepeta cataria) which have been proven more effective than DEET!
Cats~ Keeping cats away is troublesome because cats love to roam and let’s face it, they consider the outside world their litterbox. That said, there are a couple of ideas to help keep unwanted felines out of your garden. Most cats do not like the smell of rue (an herb we have currently planted at Roger’s Gardens “Dave Bush Island” area), citrus, lavender & lemon thyme. All these plants make lovely borders so consider them the first step, so to speak. You can spread citrus peels around the garden beds or sprinkle dried herbs in areas cats use. Or, build obstacles. Using larger pebbles as mulch makes it difficult for cats to dig. Some people put small sticks in the ground about 6-10 inches apart because cats don’t like to walk through them and can’t find a good squatting area. Lastly, I’ve had great success with cocoa shell mulch but many people are worried about it due to theobromine & caffeine which can be ingredients in some products. If you don’t have your own pets this will not be a worry and it smells like chocolate heaven.
Dogs/Dog urine~ There is nothing that will keep dogs from “going” on your plants and sadly, there are few plants that can stand up to daily urine from each dog marking its way. That said, there are a few landscaping ideas that might make your areas less friendly to your four footed friends. Taller, spiky plants like phormium (flax), or agapanthus can help. Less friendly drought tolerant plants like succulents or cactus will keep the owners more aware and likely to lead their dogs away from a potential poke. Some aloe plants look rather poke-y but really aren’t so these can help, too. There are products sold that are touted to keep dogs’ urine from yellowing your lawn or garden but they haven’t really proven to be effective and some can hurt your dog’s urinary tract so talk to your vet before trying them out. NEXT UP: “Somebody told me…about GMOs… heirloom vs. hybrid…and more.