20 Garden Myths, Tricks, & Old Wives' Tales

Gardening is full of wisdom and advice handed down from generation to generation.  Perhaps you've heard a few rules throughout the years regarding gardening and the pests that surround it , and you wonder how much of it really works??

Let's review some of the most common garden old wives' tales ones to see which are TRUE and which are FALSE:

1.)  Singing or talking to flowers helps them to grow better.

TRUE -- The scientific reasoning behind this is that as we talk or sing to our plants we release carbon dioxide with our breath.  This encourages the plant to convert it to oxygen, which in turn produces more growth.  There is no firm proof, but if you enjoy talking or singing to plants it seems possible that it might benefit your plants too, so go for it!

On the Discovery Channel show Myth Busters they determined that heavy metal music played constantly resulted in the best growth rate of plants.  Panelist Beardshaw, who has been a familiar face on BBC2’s Gardener’s World over the years, also said using rock music as a nutrient appeared to create larger flowers.  He had one greenhouse that was silent, one that played classical music,  and one that played Black Sabbath.  Those flowers in the Black Sabbath (heavy rock) produced the biggest flowers whom were also more disease resistant.   But where is the carbon dioxide coming from in the stereo system?  It's not, so perhaps the changes in growth can be tied to the increased vibrations in the air?

2.) Applying Vicks Vapor Rub on a Hummingbird Feeder will repel wasps and bees. 

TRUE-- Bees, wasps, and other stinging insects love hummingbird feeders and will often chase the hummingbirds away.  As it turns out rubbing Vicks Vapor Rub around the feeding flowers effectively repels the bees and wasps away, but doesn't bother the birds because birds don't have a sense of smell, but the wasps and bees do.

Note: Another effective method of repelling bees and wasps from the feeder is to install bee guards, which fit on the feeder flowers, restricting the insects’ access but still allowing the hummers to feed through the grates with their long bills and tongues.

3.) Adding sugar to the soil will make your tomatoes taste sweeter.

FALSE -- Tomatoes don't get their sweetness from the soil. That is determined by the type of tomato, as well as plant photosynthesis.

4.) Nothing grows under a walnut tree.

TRUE -- The black walnut tree produces a chemical called juglone that inhibits many other plants from growing under them, thus less competition with the tree for the nutrients in the soil.  These plants may wilt, turn yellow, and eventually die.  Juglone is exuded from all parts of the tree, including the leaves, wood, fruits, and roots.  If you have one, pick up the leaves in autumn and dispose of them.  Juglone is non-toxic to humans and animals so the obvious asset to having a black walnut tree is a protein source that both you and your squirrels (and other animals) can enjoy.

5.) Plant potatoes only on Good Friday.

FALSE -- Good Friday is the Friday before Easter Sunday, and Easter Sunday occurs at different times in March and April in any given year.  Potatoes were never mentioned in the Bible anyway, and are native to the Andes of South America and weren't introduced to Europe until the 1500s.  Irish potatoes in Montgomery County, Texas should be planted in the beginning to middle of February.

6.)  You need both a male & female tree in order to get fruit.

TRUE & FALSE -- Some fruit trees do need both the male and female trees to be planted in proximity to each other in order to produce fruit.  But now there are lots of self-pollinating trees that have been developed.  They provide their own pollen and they fertilize themselves!  You can find many self-pollinating peach, apple, apricot, pear and cherry trees.

7.)  If you use wood chips from a diseased tree, it will spread disease to other plants.

FALSE -- There is no evidence for this, if the chips are just used on the surface as a mulch.  But if you are concerned, just don't turn them or till them into the soil.

8.) The more fertilizer you use, the better the plant will grow.

FALSE -- Many people make this mistake.  Always follow the directions on the package, whether it s fertilizer or pesticide, because too much could damage the plant, not to mention the environment.

9.) Clay pots are better than plastic ones.

FALSE --  There are advantages and downsides to each.    Both are safe choices to grow plants in so it may depend on what's in the pot and your watering habits.  Clay pots act like a wick to remove excess moisture from the potting soil, so they don't retain moisture as well as plastic ones.  Plastic does not have the wicking action that clay has, making them an excellent choice for moisture-loving plants or for those gardeners who water infrequently.

Clay pots are also heavier than plastic ones but are more breakable.   Plastic pots are lightweight, strong, flexible and come in a multitude of color choices.  Generally plastic pots have thinner walls than clay thus offering roots little if any insulation from temperature change.  However clay pots have thick walls that protect plant roots from rapid changes in temperature which can be destructive.

10.)  Ants won't cross a line of chalk.

FALSE-- Ordinary chalk may temporarily deter or detour ants, but only temporarily.  It's not just chalk -- anything that disrupts the scent trail will briefly stop the march of ants. It doesn't take long, however, for the ants to continue their quest.

11.)  Bury nails, hairpins and other metal objects around a plant.

TRUE -- As the metal rusts, it releases elements into the surrounding soil, which changes the pH of soil so it is more acidic.  This is why rusty nails, saw blades, tin cans or other forms of tin buried among the roots of the hydrangea shrub seem to change the color of the hydrangea to blue.

Consideration: If you don't want to wait for them to rust or risk cutting yourself on these long-buried rusty metal pieces, you can achieve the same effect by adding aluminum sulfate to the soil.

12.) Gravel in the base of pots will help drainage.

FALSE --  The theory is that a layer of gravel over the drainage hole at the bottom of the pot before adding potting mix will keep the hole clear and prevent water-logging.  However, soil acts like a sponge and water won’t run out into the gravel, or out of the pot, or anywhere, until the soil is saturated first.  So if you’ve partially filled your pot with gravel, that soggy soil bottom is now higher (and closer to your plant’s roots).  Basically it’s like having a smaller pot!

Your plants will be happier if you uniformly increase the drainage of the soil itself. Choose high-quality potting soil that is well draining. And if your plants need even more drainage, instead of putting gravel in the bottom of your pot, try mixing in perlite, grit, or compost into your potting soil to increase drainage throughout the entire pot.

TIP: If you’re worried about soil washing out of the bottom of your pot, put a paper coffee filter or a piece of screen over the holes before adding dirt.  Usually drainage holes are small enough that this isn’t a problem though.

13.) A few pennies in a zip lock bag filled with water will keep the flies away.

TRUE & FALSE -- There is no scientific evidence that clearly proves or disproves this.  One idea is that since flies have many eyes, they see lots of potential predators in the reflection of the water and the coins and are scared away.  But many people swear that it works, including many restaurant operators.  I have personally been to an outdoor 4th of July party where the hosts had hung zip lock bags filled with just water, and it truly appeared to keep the flies away from the tables and areas where they were hung.

 14.) Feed coffee grounds to your azaleas.

TRUE - Plants don't need the caffeine jolt, but coffee grounds act as a mulch and improve the soil, containing lots of beneficial nitrogen. Some people have even had success spreading tea bags around in their flower beds, since they also add much needed acid to the soil.

15.) Add ash from the fireplace to your garden will encourage flowering and fruiting.

TRUE -- Wood ash contains potash or potassium, which help plants to fruit and flower.  It is alkaline, and is easily and quickly taken up by the plant.  Tomatoes & some fruit trees respond especially well to the addition of wood ash to the soil.

16.) Bury banana peels in your garden. 

TRUE -- Bananas contain potassium that some plants need, like roses and ferns.  Bury them just below the surface.  They rot quickly and add humus to the soil.

17.) Pinch off blooms on annuals before planting to encourage more growth.

FALSE -- All you end up with is a longer wait for more blooms.

18.) Add eggshells to improve the soil.

TRUE -- Eggshells contain lots of calcium and are great for enriching compost.  In tomatoes, calcium helps prevent blossom-end rot.  But crush them up finely.  They take a long time to break down, so don't expect them to work in just one growing season.

TIPClick here to see our blog about Composting basics, and the many benefits thereof.

19.) Hitting or beating a plant will make it bloom.

TRUE & FALSE -- There is no scientific evidence that hitting a non-productive plant or beating the trunk of a tree that won't bear fruit, will actually make a difference.  But there is some circumstantial evidence that it does work.  Some researchers suggest that it shocks the plant into production, if for no other reason than the plant thinks it is in danger and needs to reproduce.  Others say it might unblock something in the trees nutrient-transport system.  You have to be careful not to seriously damage the plant, but if all other methods have failed, what have you got to lose?  I had a friend who said they had a non-producing peach tree for years.  They eventually took a baseball bat and beat the trunk.  Next season the tree finally produced peaches.  Maybe it was just a late bloomer?

20.)  A bowl of beer in the garden attracts snails and slugs and drowns them.

TRUE -- Snails and slugs will be attracted to the beer and drown in the container.  However, they are attracted by many things.  It is the trap that will kill them, not just the bait.  You could attract these pests with grapefruit rinds, banana peels, a damp wooden board, etc. but you'd still have to dispose of them.

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