Social media have made it easy to share information the world around. It has made it easy for people to connect and interact more than humans ever have before.
Gardening is a common theme on Facebook, Twitter and, especially, Pinterest. Ideas are easily shared through these sites. It’s great to see such interest in gardening.
Sometimes, however, these ideas should be taken with a grain of salt. It turns out that you can’t believe everything you read online (surprise, surprise).
Ideas coming from anecdotal observations that haven’t been confirmed or tested through research make their rounds on the Internet, causing frustration — and even danger — for unassuming gardeners. I like to call it “gardening in the age of Pinterest.”
Finding accurate information
As an extension agent, it is my job to teach people about gardening using science-based, and usually peer-reviewed, information that comes from research. This allows me to be confident in the information I provide, that it has been researched by numerous people and has been found to be consistent in a number of settings and conditions.
In the online world, it can be hard to figure out the source of information being shared. Sometimes, the information comes from handed-down information and sometimes it comes from anecdotal information observed by one or a handful of individuals. Sometimes the information comes from groups or individuals with an agenda for or against a certain thing.
Whenever you see something online, especially a questionable “home remedy,” be sure to use your critical thinking skills and do a little research before you add the practice to your own garden.
Land-grant universities are good sources of information. To make sure you get science-based gardening information, you can find university extension resources online. The easiest way to find university information while you are searching online is to add the command “site:.edu” to your search.
If you are on Facebook, I would suggest checking out The Garden Professors. It is a group of professors and extension professionals from around the country that help translate science-based information for home gardeners, and often do some garden myth-busting. There is also a Garden Professors blog at blogs.extension.org/gardenprofessors. (Full disclosure: Yours truly is one of The Garden Professors in the group. Sometimes my articles are shared through the page.)
Misinformation found online
Following are examples of garden misinformation I have found online. The examples come from a variety of sources. Always remember to fact-check!
Homemade pesticide alternatives:
While using pesticides is a matter of personal choice, many people are turning to homemade alternatives for some pest control. While I do think that some of these do work, there are some definite duds circulating out there.
One that I’ve seen is using baking soda instead of fungicide. While changing pH will limit fungal growth, dry baking soda will not have an effect and will quickly wash off.
I’ve also seen insecticides using tobacco. This is a huge no-no! Tobacco carries tobacco mosaic virus, which infects a wide variety of plants including tomatoes, potatoes, etc. The virus can even survive on a smoker’s hand or cigarette butt even after burning.
Pollinators only like native plants:
This is a new one, spurred on by a number of individuals. The premise is that native bees and butterflies can only survive on native plants. While natives are good, there are many plant qualities that make them attractive and nutritious to pollinators. A diverse garden is best for attracting pollinators.
Compost tea suppresses disease:
The practice of making compost tea involves bubbling air through a slurry of water and compost. The idea is to spray this on plants to reduce diseases, since the good bacteria from the tea will keep bad bacteria at bay.
Research by fellow Garden Professor Linda Chalker-Scott, from Washington State University, and others shows that there is no disease suppression (most likely because the bacteria will quickly die off when dried). Other researchers have shown that it doesn’t have any nutritional value for plants, either. It is sort of a garden “magic elixir” or snake oil.
This covers a wide range of topics that have been around for decades (or centuries) but have renewed interest from online gardeners. An Austrian teacher and occultist developed a biodynamic gardening system in the early 1920s that included things such as burying a cow horn full of manure underneath your plants.
While that may seem odd, the most common tenet is gardening by the moon phase. This is a common practice in Appalachia that has more to do with folklore or even a belief system (most specifically pagan belief/practice) rather than science (it has never been scientifically proven to have an effect).
While it may not do any harm to plant by the moon phase (and scientists will argue that it has no benefit, but many people believe it does), I’ve seen some take the information to extreme. I once sat through an excruciating talk by someone who said that the moon controlled water uptake by plants.
While many people I talk with hold firm to their belief in gardening by the moon and using an almanac for scheduling, I have to steer clear of any such recommendations since it has no modern scientific basis.