It turns out many of the common gardening practices you hear from friends or read about on social media are more fiction than facts. Don’t allow these eight gardening myths to waste your time and harm your plants.
Whether you’ve been planting and maintaining a garden for years now or you’re a beginner gardener, keeping your outdoor space thriving and properly managed can be a tricky task. That’s why you’re likely constantly looking for various tips and tricks shared by fellow gardeners to better care for your green friends.
But here’s the really tricky part: these fast and easy tips and tricks may actually do you and your garden more bad than good. For every book, article, blog, social media post, and gardening forum out there with an answer to your gardening questions, you’re also bound to find a piece of misinformation that might waste your time and harm your plants.
So, we’ve done some research to expose some of the most common gardening myths that you’ve likely heard from a well-intentioned but misinformed parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or social media friend who loves digging in the dirt and sharing advice.
If you haven’t read our first article on garden myths, make sure you check it out as well.
Here are eight common gardening myths debunked and explained:
Myth #1 – Young Trees Require Staking
- 1 Myth #1 – Young Trees Require Staking
- 2 Myth #2 – Tree Wounds Need Painting for Protection
- 3 Myth #3 – Organic Pesticides Are Safer
- 4 Myth #4 – Compost Piles Are Supposed to Smell Bad
- 5 Myth #5 – Baking Soda Can Cure Black Spot
- 6 Myth #6 – Adding Gravel to the Bottom of Containers Improves Drainage
- 7 Myth #7 – Cacti Don’t Need to Be Watered
- 8 Myth #8 – There’s Nothing to Do in The Garden During Winter
- 9 Myth #9 – Tea Can Be Used as Fertilizer
- 10 Wrapping Up
To stake or not to stake? That’s what you’re probably wondering every time you plant a new young tree because that’s what you’ve heard that you should do. Well, this first myth is rarely true because most young trees do not need that mechanical aid you are giving them.
Here’s the deal: if your tree is not top-heavy and it is also not on an especially windy site, it doesn’t need staking. In fact, allowing a little movement for your tree can be good, especially for young ones. Just as humans grow their muscles larger with exercise, tree trunks also grow stringer and thicker when they can move and “exercise” a little bit.
If you’d grow two identical trees at the same time, you’d notice that the staked one will grow taller, but its trunks would be skinnier and weaker than the tree you didn’t stake. Plus, its root system would also be less developed than the root system of its unstaked counterpart.
Besides that, when done incorrectly, staking can also lead to more problems that can affect a young tree. For example, if the tree is tied to a stake too tightly, girdling can become a problem and even weaken the tree to the point where it can die if the issue isn’t addressed in time. Tying the young tree too loosely to a stake can result in other problems. For example, the bark would be continuously rubbed, which would cause wounds that may never heal properly.
Myth #2 – Tree Wounds Need Painting for Protection
If you are asking for gardening advice from an older family member, you’d definitely get this advice: paint the tree wounds to protect them from disease and insects. However, painting tree wounds with pruning tar or other similar compounds is a practice that was left behind many years ago.
This myth is based on the idea that without protection, trees would be vulnerable to pests and diseases. However, this misconception was clarified by Dr Alex Shigo of the US Forest Service back in the 1970s and 80s. More precisely, Shigo found that when trees are injured, as is the case with trees that have their branches lopped off, they respond with chemical and physical changes that form barriers that stop and slow the spread of disease and decay to the entire plant.
What’s more, research also suggests that painting tree wounds can do the plant more bad than good. This practice has been found to slow down the trees’ natural healing process, which is sealing cuts with a tough layer of the so-called “woundwood.”
So, when pruning your trees, there’s no need to paint them afterwards. All you have to do is to use clean and sterilized sharp tools and make clean cuts. What’s more, you should prune your trees only during the cold season as diseases and insects are dormant during the winter.
You can read this paper by Linda Chalker-Scott, PhD Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor, to learn more.
Myth #3 – Organic Pesticides Are Safer
There is a huge hype around organic stuff these days, including food, clothing materials, and gardening supplies. That’s how this myth has found its way to many gardeners who are now spreading it as a truth.
So, here’s the deal: misused pesticides, whether they are considered organic or synthetic, can still be very harmful. What’s more, there are many natural pesticides that are actually potentially harmful. For example, pyrethrin, an insecticide extracted from chrysanthemum flowers, is hazardous to people, pets, and some of the beneficial inhabitants you may have in your garden, including bees and frogs.
So, you’re likely wondering what your best option is. Well, the best thing you can do, when possible, is to select the least toxic option available. Research the ingredients and see how dangerous and how effective they are. As a general rule, know that safer choices usually include products that contain insecticidal soap and Bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt.
In addition to that, there are many safe options to get rid of weeds naturally and you can learn more about these practices from our complete guide to getting rid of weeds. You might also be interested in reading our organing gardening guide.
Myth #4 – Compost Piles Are Supposed to Smell Bad
You know that compost is great for any garden, and you also appreciate how it allows you to reduce the amount of waste that goes into the landfill. So, you’re likely thinking about starting your own compost pile. But, that’s when you remember what some other gardener told you: compost piles smell really bad. So, you’re now thinking, “I don’t want my outdoor space to smell bad too.” Well, it won’t if you know how to maintain a compost pile properly.
Here’s the deal: this is just a myth, and compost piles aren’t really supposed to smell bad. In fact, if a compost pile has any other odour but a pleasant earthy smell, that means it is not being properly worked.
A bad smell coming from your compost pile is a sign that there is a lack of oxygen there, and the compost is also too wet for the same reason. The compost will still break down, eventually, but the problem is that it will fill your outdoor space with a swampy smell.
So, here’s the solution: turn the pile regularly to allow oxygen in and help mitigate any odour. You can also add some leaves and a few shovels of soil to keep the materials in your compost pile from turning slimy.
Read our compost-making guide to learn more!
Myth #5 – Baking Soda Can Cure Black Spot
Black spot and powdery mildew are very common garden diseases that affect various plant species and drive all gardeners crazy when they make their appearance. You probably also fear that your plants may be affected by these two issues. Or, even worse: you’re already dealing with them and started looking for remedies. That’s when someone recommended baking soda.
Well, sorry to disappoint you, but baking soda won’t do wonders to help you save your plants from these two diseases. While baking soda may work relatively well for powdery mildew, it is simply not effective on black spots.
This one is a frequently shared misconception among well-intentioned gardeners. However, baking soda doesn’t stop black spots on roses or other plants. Some research found that the combination of baking soda and horticultural oil was effective on powdery mildew on roses. However, the results were not as satisfying for stopping black spots from spreading.
So, if you really want to prevent black spots on your roses and other plants, you should ensure good air movement and well-drained soil.
Myth #6 – Adding Gravel to the Bottom of Containers Improves Drainage
Adding gravel to the bottom of containers to improve drainage is another myth that never seems to die. And the problem is that it can actually be very dangerous for some plants. This myth is shared as a way to prevent root rot. However, rather than preventing this issue, it may make it more likely to occur.
Naturally, water is pulled down through the container by gravity, building up near the drainage hole as you water your plants. But, with gravel at the bottom, the water may not pass through and run out of the drainage holes. Instead, the gravel may move the pool of water higher up in the pot, which means that the roots will undoubtedly sit in the water for a long time. This means that your plants’ roots are more prone to rot.
So, instead of using gravel which may do more damage than good to your plants, ensure adequate drainage by using potting soil made with coarse materials, like pine bark. Some extra handfuls of perlite can also help by keeping the potting soil light and airy.
Myth #7 – Cacti Don’t Need to Be Watered
Imagine you’ve got lost in the middle of the desert on a terribly hot day, and you desperately need some water. That’s when you remember that the rumour has it that you should be looking for cacti as they reportedly hold a basin of portable water inside them. From this perspective, knowing this might save your life in a desert scenario.
Yet, from a gardening myths perspective, you shouldn’t allow this theory to make your cacti suffer from being underwater. This gardening myth can make your lovely cacti feel extremely thirsty if you believe that they do not need water.
While it is true that cacti, like most succulents, can store a certain amount of water inside them to survive periods of drought, it doesn’t mean that you should allow them to struggle only with their water reserve. That’s something they should be forced to do only in the desert.
In your garden or home, your cacti need a proper watering schedule to thrive. It’s best to water them at least once a week. Depending on how hot the weather is in your area, maybe more often than that. What’s more, when watering your cacti, make sure to give the soil a good soaking, allowing the water to run out of the drainage holes of the pots.
Read our complete guide to watering drought-tolerant plants to learn more.
Myth #8 – There’s Nothing to Do in The Garden During Winter
It’s well known that spring, summer, and autumn are very busy seasons for gardeners. There’s just so much work to do from planting to watering, pruning, repotting, and moving all your plants. And then, when winter starts, you might be tempted to think that there’s nothing left to do in the garden. This simply isn’t true.
Although gardens become more dormant during the cold season, you still need to do many things to help your plants get through winter and be ready once the season shifts again. So, don’t store your gardening tools as soon as the cold season arrives because there’s still some work to get done.
For example, before snow covers the entire garden, make sure to clear up any weeds or dead plants that might spread infections to your other green friends. Another thing you can do is to prune back any perennials and cover exposed plants for the coming spring. What’s more, note that some plants are suitable for winter sowing, including broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, or herbs like sage and oregano. These cool-season crops can be seeded in January.
Myth #9 – Tea Can Be Used as Fertilizer
If you love tea as much as we do, it’s only natural to feel bad for throwing out the used tea bags and using them on your plants might seem like the perfect hack. If tea is good for us then it must be good for our plants, right? Not quite. There are so many different teas available on the market and not all of them are safe for plants.
Tea leaves can contain all sorts of different chemicals as they go through a complex process before reaching the shelves. The main compounds of tea are known as polyphenols, but there are also minerals, vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, minerals, and let’s not forget about caffeine. The truth is that unless you’re making an infusion with dried leaves of known origin, you can’t really know what your tea is made of. Research has shown that 80% of tea brands including some very famous ones contain traces of pesticides, and half of them has levels that exceeded the safety limit. This doesn’t tell us much about how our plants will react, but it does indicate that we should only drink organic tea that comes from reputable sources.
Most articles that you’ll find online mention the fact that dried tea leaves are a good source of nitrogen. While there might be more nitrogen in tea leaves than in some fertilisers, there are other compounds such as fluorine, aluminium, and manganese that are harmful to plants.
Another aspect worth considering is the soil pH. Tea can be quite acidic and it can impact the pH in your soil when used in large quantities. There are some plants that might benefit from a slightly more acidic soil such as Poinsettia, Oxalis, and Ferns, but it is wise to check the soil’s pH to ensure that you aren’t doing more harm than good.
Teabags are another controversial issue when it comes to using tea as compost. While tea leaves are compostable, not all tea bags are. Many companies use synthetic tea bags which are made of polypropylene. This material will not decompose and shouldn’t be composted. Synthetic tea bags are usually softer to the touch, slippery, and have a heat-sealed edge. If you are adamant about using the leftover tea, you can empty the tea bags, use the contents for compost, and discard them.
So, is adding tea to your plants; soil really worth the risk and the effort? We wouldn’t be so sure. While adding organic tea to the compost pile is harmless and recommended by most specialists, it might also be the only completely safe way to use tea in the garden.
A lot of quality gardening advice has been passed down through the generations. But so did some erroneous recommendations that did plants more bad than good as no gardener did some research to see whether or not they are accurate and backed by science. So, next time a fellow gardener shares some piece of advice with you, make sure to weed out fact from fiction.
What are some common myths that you’ve tried and didn’t work out? Let us know in the comment section!