How do you find gardening advice you can trust?
There are all sorts of website, people, and businesses willing to provide advice to gardeners, but the question, especially for the new gardener, is whose advice do you trust?
I’ve seen a “gardening magazine” publish advice that’s just plain wrong and refuse to correct it. Irresponsible? Yes. Surprising? No. Gardening is big business, editorial teams with gardening knowledge are scarce, and the consequences of publishing misleading information are slight; no one’s going to go to jail for telling people to prune their lilacs at the wrong time. Unfortunately, the loser here is the gardener who follows this bad advice with predictably poor results.
Now, I will note that there are times when even experienced gardeners and scientists disagree on the best approach to a garden challenge; sometimes there really are multiple good solutions and true differences of opinion exist. But what I want to address is this article is how you can avoid incorrect or misleading advice.
Here are some of the principles that I use when searching for information online:
Is the source credible?
- Many educational institutions and government agencies have public education as part of their mandate. If I’m googling a plant problem and I see an article from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) or a U.S. Extension Service I know it’s likely to contain scientifically valid information, and is not likely influenced by commercial interests. When people ask me for advice about lawn care. I always refer them to OMAFRA’s fact sheet, not the lawn fertilizer company’s website. The fertilizer company might have good information, but they might also just want to sell me a lot of fertilizer I don’t need.
- Online gardening forums
- There are a lot of gardeners who participate in these who know what they’re doing and genuinely want to help other gardeners. You’ll generally see multiple participants in every discussion. As with any sort of review site, from Amazon to movie reviews, as you read through the discussions you can usually spot the differences between honest divergent opinions and people who talk a good game but have never actually grown anything. One forum I like is davesgarden.com—it’s been around for quite a while and has a large number of contributors. I think of it as Wikipedia for gardeners.
- Garden bloggers
- While garden blogs can be a great source of information, anyone can write one. I like to read the bloggers’ profile (usually found on a page called “about” or “bio”) to see what kind of experience and education they have. I also poke around on their site to see if they have photos of their own garden (and what kind of shape it’s in—brown and bedraggled doesn’t instill confidence), what kind of comments appear on their posts (are multiple people correcting serious errors they’ve made), and whether they link to reputable sources (see above) for more information.
- I also check if their posts are sponsored (i.e. paid for by a company), and if they are, and I’m not familiar with the blogger, I will take the time to review other sites to see if there are differing views on the topic I’m researching. I’m not against sponsored posts (in fact, I’ve discovered some really useful products through sponsored posts on my favourite bloggers’ site), but I know that some bloggers will write for anyone who pays them, without regard for whether the product is useful or not. (Note: if you ever see a sponsored post on The Fabulous Garden you can trust that it’s a product I would buy myself. If I don’t believe in the product I won’t do a sponsored post for it.)
Is the advice consistent with what I’m seeing elsewhere?
A friend of mine wanted to cut back his Sansevieria (a.k.a. Snake Plant or Mother-in-laws-tongue) because it was too big. He did a search online and couldn’t find anyone that would recommend doing that but he kept searching and finally found a video with a person who said yes, you can cut back your snake plant leaves by half and they will sprout new growth, right where you cut them; you’ll end up with a nice bushy plant. That’s exactly what he wanted to hear. So he chopped his plant back and waited. And he waited some more. Finally, he asked me about it. And I had to break the news to him that no, it wasn’t going to grow back from where he’d cut it—that’s not how Sansevierias grow. There’s a reason that he could only find one person who said this was possible. They were wrong.
Does the advice apply to my geographic area?
Good garden advice for Floridians is likely going to be quite different than good garden advice for Calgarians—the climate and soil are different. While certain practices are universal (e.g. watering plants thoroughly, not in little dribs and drabs) others are very location specific (e.g. winter protection for roses is a must in Calgary and likely harmful in Florida). Take note of where the garden advice you’re getting, especially online, is from.
Test it out for yourself!
Confused by conflicting advice? Conduct your own test and learn the results for yourself. As long as what is being proposed isn’t going to harm you or the environment, why not? I was once told by a former tomato farmer that putting a spoonful of powdered milk in the planting hole for each tomato would dramatically increase my yield, so I tried it. I watched the plants over the season and didn’t see any difference in plants that had the powdered milk and those that didn’t. So I didn’t do it again. If it had worked I would have continued the practice.
Recognize that good advice doesn’t just come from online sources:
Reference books–I still believe in the value of good reference books. Every spring I take my Perennial Gardening Guide (John M. Valleau) with me to community plant sales, and I always find myself flipping through it to look up some new-to-me specimen. I’ve been known to heft Michael A. Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants into the car when heading out to buy a new tree or shrub. And I’ve passed many a chilly February evening with the words and pictures of other favourite garden writers.
I generally trust the advice in gardening books more than what I find on random websites. My rationale is that it takes considerable expense and effort to produce a book, especially through a publisher (as opposed to self-publishing), so therefore the advice within is more likely to have been reviewed by experts. I do realize that just because something’s published it doesn’t make it true (I have seen some wild and weird gardening tips inscribed on paper with ink), but I think it does add an extra layer of credibility.
Gardening magazines–despite how I started this article, I don’t distrust all gardening magazines. Some of them do feature writers who are also true experts in various areas of horticulture, and boast highly knowledgeable editorial teams. When you find quality garden periodicals they’re certainly worth subscribing to if you want to continue to grow your gardening knowledge.
The gardeners in your life–A truly wonderful way to learn is to talk to experienced gardeners. Whether it’s your next door neighbour who always seems to have fabulous roses, your aunt who grows the best tomatoes you’ve ever tasted, or the members of your local horticultural society, you’ll usually find that gardeners are keen to talk about their gardens, share their advice, and sometimes even share their plants. They won’t do your gardening for you, but they’ll almost certainly answer your questions. I first learned about gardening from my father and my maternal grandmother long before I could read hefty gardening books and, yes, before the internet. Dad’s lessons–not stepping in the planting area, the importance of compost, and making sure to water plants deeply–have stuck. And they’ve been added to over the years by additional garden mentors, both in face to face conversations and through attending lectures about various gardening topics.
The great thing about gardening—there’s always something more to learn. Learning from other people’s mistakes is the best way to advance your skills (and saves you the pain of making them yourself), but don’t be afraid to try things yourself. Gardening is both an art and a science, so don’t be afraid to experiment!
What or who are your favourite sources of garden advice?
Photo note: the banner image for this article is from the 2013 Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Garden. This living sculpture is called The Man Who Planted Trees.
My favourites are Eliot Coleman (The New Organic Grower) plus his YouTube videos; and Paul Gautschi http://backtoedenfilm.com plus many YouTube videos under Back to Eden.
Good stuff. I haven’t really tapped into YouTube as a source of advice but I should use it more–you always seem to find great info there, and certainly everything you’ve shared with me from Eliot Coleman has been really interesting.
Thank you so much for this information! As a beginner gardener (though I’ve kept a vegetable garden for a few years…not always successful), I don’t know where to turn to for good advice, nor do I have the time to research information from credible sources.
You’re welcome. My vegetable gardens aren’t always as successful as I’d like either–sometimes the weather doesn’t work with you and sometimes your plants get hit with something (like an especially prolific crop of earwigs, ugh!) But if it was easy all the time it wouldn’t be so interesting!