A Little Garden of Misinformation

by Derek Burch


I have been known to be somewhat rude about garden writers, at least the ones that I would consider to be journalists rather than real writers. I seem to remember developing the theme one night after a couple of beers that their motto was "Don't write, rewrite" or even "Don't write, plagiarise."


How else to account for the continuing streams of advice with no basis in fact that some of them produce?

I am glad to learn that other people apparently notice the repetition of old wives' tales and half truths that characterise so much of the fillers that get into our newspapers and even some gardening magazines. I stumbled on an article recently by Tom Clothier, on his action-packed website (, that did my old heart a power of good.

He says 'A significant portion of the "advice" appearing in the gardening mail lists and newsgroups is presented as truisms, but is merely opinion, repetition of what has been read or faulty interpretation of what has been seen.' He gives, among other examples, the oft-repeated notion that wood chip mulch sucks the nitrogen out of the soil, and that composting oak leaves or pine needles results in acid compost. Both these 'facts' are nonsense.

He points out that falsehoods in a book or magazine always outlive the publication. His advice to garden writers is to confine their work to their current knowledge, and ignore the writings of their counterparts.

Moving and transplanting trees seems to have attracted more than its share of bad suggestions, passed down as fact by journalists who would not know which end of the spade goes into the ground. Take the idea that a tree should have its top reduced to match the loss of roots when it is transplanted. The spurious logic here is that reducing the top "balances" the root/shoot ratio, when, in fact, shortening each branch, as is often recommended, takes off the shoot tips which are the production sites of growth substances that stimulate new root development. How many of the superficial articles on moving trees that appear in hobby magazines have repeated this idea of pruning at planting time as though it had been shown to have merit.

This tip-pruning was recommended, unfortunately, in a recent article on moving trees in one of the very best of our trade magazines. When challenged in a letter, that authors replied that "Our 17 years of experience in transplanting large trees with tree spades has shown this method works." I wonder how much better their results would have been with no tips removed and a provision made for ample watering of both roots and top of the trees.

What a long list could be made - that the poinsettia is poisonous, that pruning paint helps cuts to heal and, one of my favourites, that watering plants during the day puts drops of water on the leaves that act as magnifying lenses and burn holes in the leaf when the sun comes out. What a garden of misinformation there is out there, a quicksand for the unwary reader!

Is there any way to make garden writers stick to things of which they have certain knowledge? Only by having editors and publishers who themselves are knowledgeable to prevent the repetition of the half-truths. This takes a certain courage when the author of the article may have a string of books to his or her credit. Remember, though, you editors and publishers, you cannot correct other editor's mistakes, but you can prevent any going out under your imprint. You can always say "no" to an article, even if you commissioned it and have paid for it.

And how much chance is there of an editor doing that? Well, I are one, and have my way of doing things, but don't ask me about the others!

Do write to me, though. comes straight to my rocking chair.

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