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Myth-dispelling gardening book has become new go-to guide

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Posted: Saturday, June 30, 2012 10:06 pm | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - I have a new go-to book for gardening help: “Decoding Gardening Advice: The Science Behind the 100 Most Common Recommendations,” by Jeff Gillman and Meleah Maynard. He teaches in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, and she is a journalist, editor and master gardener.

I love this book, partly, I am sure, because several times in the 224 pages they validate some heretical beliefs I have that go against accepted gardening rules. For instance, I am skeptical about the usefulness of compost tea to enrich soil and mycorrhizae to encourage plant growth; while they have some usefulness in the right conditions, too often they are being touted as the guaranteed gardening cure-all. The authors even cover using urine as fertilizer, which has become a passion that my ordinarily mild-mannered husband forbids me to discuss in public.

The book has eight chapters: soil; water; pest, disease and weed control; mulch; annuals, perennials and bulbs; trees and shrubs; vegetables and fruit; and lawn care. At the start of each chapter, the authors list the topics to be covered, placing each one into one of three columns: Good Advice, Advice That’s Debatable and Advice That’s Just Wrong. Then the chapter explains each topic in detail, using clear language and lots of facts.

For example, chapter five is on annuals, perennials and bulbs. Some of the good advice they cover is: deadhead to encourage bloom; harden off seedlings before transplanting them outdoors; separate the roots and remove heavily matted clumps of root-bound plants before planting; and plant perennial beds rather than turf grass beneath trees.

Some of the things they list under debatable advice include: follow spacing recommendations on plant labels; use expensive grow lights to start plants from seed indoors; and wash and sterilize containers at the end of the season.

There is only one piece of advice that they say is incorrect, and that is to add phosphorus to increase bloom and stimulate rooting.

I was a bit embarrassed at how many of their gardening tips I have never heard before, such as “Beat a tree to get it to flower.”

Perhaps the best point the book makes is at the end. The authors give examples of techniques that have been considered absolute truths, endlessly repeated. But research is turning “facts” upside down every day and they urge gardeners to keep reading in order to stay current.

I agree, but want to add my advice. If you have always done something and it is working for you (or it makes you happy to think it is working, despite what everyone around you says), then keep doing it. But dedicate a little space every year to trying one method that contradicts what you have always done, just in case you are wrong.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in Interior Alaska for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@orcasonline.com.

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