Denise Schreiber is the infamous Mrs. Know It All of The Organic Gardeners on KDKA radio and author of “Eat Your Roses.”

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Urban Myths and Legends in the Garden
by Denise Schreiber    

Every gardener has a special secret or method that they have learned from a family member, “The Farmer’s Almanac,” other books and worst of all, the Internet. Usually there is or was a kernel of truth in many of these secret/special methods, but they have since grown into legends, much like passing a piece of gossip along. You know the kind of gossip, “Joe likes Mary,” and a month later, “Joe ran away with Mary and became an astrologer and opened up tattoo parlor in South America.”

Some people have a natural distrust of science and others like to think that they can be in control of their universe. I know there will be naysayers but I’m a practical kind of gal that believes in fact not fiction. So here is a variety of the myths and legends in the garden.


Myth and legend — Marigolds repel insects and critters in the garden.

False — This began a long time ago when it was discovered that French dwarf marigolds exude a substance through their roots that repel certain types of nematodes. Those particular nematodes (which are microscopic) are normally found in the Southern regions of the United States. The legend has grown from that justification. Just because you don’t care for the fragrance of marigolds, doesn’t mean the deer, rabbits and groundhogs don’t like it either. In fact it’s one of their favorite foods! It also doesn’t repel mosquitoes.

Misaka® Itoh peony. Read more about this plant in our article “Sustainability: Right Plant, Right Place”. (Photo courtesy of Monrovia Nursery.)


Myth — Peonies attract ants and need them to open their buds.

False — While ants are noticeable on peony buds (because the buds are so large), they are actually attracted to the pollen inside the bud, as they are attracted to any other flower with pollen. Peonies do not need the ants to open their buds. Anywhere ants find food, they will be there so plant your peonies and don’t worry about ants. Just shake the flower before taking it in the house if you are worried about them.


Myth — Wooden mulch attracts termites.

False — Termites are fond of moist, SOLID wood, not shredded mulch. If you have found them in mulch around the home, you should have your home’s foundation checked for termites.


Legend — Filling a container with gravel, packing peanuts or a saucer bigger than the bottom of the container saves soil and other than the gravel, makes the container lighter.

False and True — It will make the container lighter but the plants will suffer because of it. Reducing the amount of soil in the container actually reduces the depth of the roots of plants. Less soil means shorter roots so as the plants try to grow; they actually run out of space. There is also less water available to the plants because there is less soil.


‘Prairifire’ crabapple has spectacular pinkish-red flowers and excellent disease resistance. See more on using this and other trees selected to help the Midwest gardener “Diversify Your Landscape.” (Photo courtesy of Christopher Starbuck.)

Myth and Legend — “Whacking” a tree trunk to make it flower.

False and True — “Whacking” a tree trunk on a flowering tree that hasn’t bloomed before can sometimes trigger blooming. It’s called going into shock! The problem with doing that is you damage the bark of the tree including the cambium, the vascular system of a tree. You also create an entry wound for insects and disease to take hold. If a disease or insect doesn’t kill the tree first, you may see a few years of abundant flowering before it declines. The tree is creating seeds in the flowers to make sure that it recreates itself. If a tree or shrub isn’t blooming and it is supposed to bloom, check the depth at which you planted it. You may have planted it too deep or too high or in the wrong location and that’s why it’s not blooming.


Legend — Covering cuts on branches with tar or paint to prevent weeping or insect damage.

False — It used to be thought that covering cuts on tree branches would protect against insect damage. What it does is seal in any possible disease allowing it run rampant. Trees in good health are able to naturally heal themselves on cuts, actually growing over the damage.


Myth — Spraying your houseplants with a mister is good for them.

False — It’s a great way to cause fungal problems on houseplants. Air circulation that would naturally dry off moisture is almost non-existent inside houses. Epiphytic plants will occasionally benefit from misting. If the plant needs humidity, place on top of stones in a saucer filled with water. And if a plant is dusty, simply take a damp rag and wipe off the dust on the leaves.


Myth — Have a pregnant woman sow seed to ensure a good crop because of her fertility.

False — This is just wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. While being pregnant is a joy, it can also be uncomfortable to say the least in the later stages of pregnancy so asking a pregnant woman to do this is likely to find you buried in the garden as compost! And if this was the case the Earth should have been overrun with plants thousands of years ago.


Topped crapemyrtle tree from “Crape Murder Rates Still High Throughout America!”. 

Myth — Topping trees is good for them.

False — This is the worst possible thing you can do to a tree besides cutting it down for no good reason. In fact if you top a tree, you might as well cut it down because you’ve started the tree on the road to decline. Topping causes water sprouts which are branches that grow straight up, allows diseases to get an upper hand, ruins the natural growth habit of the tree and reduces the amount of photosynthesis because you have removed part of the tree!


Myth — Cutting off branches when you plant a new tree helps the roots take hold.

False — You only need to cut off a branch when planting a new tree if it is broken or crossed, otherwise just leave the tree alone. The roots are already the right size for the tree.


Burying the root flare encourages rot, rodent damage and ridicule. (Photo by Garry McDonald.)

Legend — Planting in mulch volcanoes keeps a tree from rotting.

False — Without a doubt this is one of the worst crimes against trees. No one knows for sure where it started or who did the dirty deed but it is a good way to kill a tree. By burying the root flare of a tree (where the tree trunk begins to flare out at soil level) you encourage rot, rodent damage and ridicule from your entire neighborhood. Always plant trees and shrubs at the same level they were in the container or in burlap.


Myth — Planting crops by the sun, the moon and the stars according to whether they are a root crop, a vegetable or a flower.

False — There is no scientific evidence that this works. If you like planting crops under a full moon go for it but don’t expect a crop any better than one planted in daylight.


Myth — Spraying human urine will keep animals away from the garden.

False — One thing is for sure that you don’t want to be downwind when spraying. Much like animals marking their territory, the deer are pretty sure that you aren’t a deer! It may deter them briefly and will dissipate rapidly. Do not be like the woman who had her husband urinate around the perimeter of their property. It is a good way to have him arrested for public indecency and disorderly conduct! Use one of the animal repellent sprays on the market and follow label directions. They work pretty well. Skip the liquid home remedies, they don’t last as long and they stink up your house!


Many trees do not need staking. (Photo by Chris Kilpatrick.)

Legend — Always stake a newly planted tree.

False and True — You should only stake a tree if it is in an extremely windy spot. Once the tree is established you can remove the staking.


Legend — You should always amend the soil when planting trees and shrubs.

False It used to be thought that amending soil when planting nursery stock would improve the viability of the plant. It is now known that when you amend the soil, the roots really never grow beyond that point. It is better to loosen the soil but put it back in the hole with the plant.


Posted: 03/12/12   RSS | Print


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