Thursday 9 October 2014

Book Review. Gardening Myths and Misconceptions by Charles Dowding.

A book about myths written by a no dig (organic) gardener is too good an opportunity to miss! Peter brought it round, he had devoured it that morning. He confessed a little disappointment. I think he expected a little more depth - pun intended. Perhaps there is too much muck and magic in there and too many assumptions of unverified facts.
For me it is charming collection of old gardening lore and analysis of modern misconceptions. Charles has a fund of sound gardening knowledge that spills out of the pages. 

Poppy devoured the book too

Charles Dowding is a very different gardener to me. He grows organic vegetables on a semi-commercial basis. When I see pictures of his magnificent healthy high yielding vegetables and fruit on his blog I wonder how I have the cheek to venture any opinion at all.They are so beautifully grown and displayed. He meticulously records details of all his ongoing trials that test no dig principles. My own use of glyphosate, inorganic fertilisers and in his own words, synthetic chemicals would be anathema to Charles. (I could never understand why synthetic  materials such as plastics were acceptable and synthesized fertilisers and pesticides were not - I  promise this will my only dig at organic gardening today).
What I most admire about Charles Dowding apart from his fine standard of horticulture is his questioning mind. All of his opinions have been tested over the years when he has challenged orthodox practice. He passes on the results of years of successes and failures. I would like to think that I am the same although we have not always come to the same conclusions. I am 100% in agreement with all the benefits of no-dig he writes about in his books and on his blog.
En passant, I noticed on his blog his intriguing source of seed and potting compost. It has all the advantages of peat  - because it is peat - but without perceived doubts about coming from an ethical source. I have no personal experience of this product. 

 Is this the best thing since sliced bread? I have no idea.
Like most organic gardeners Charles imports into his garden horse and cow manure from external sources. Although my former boss P.K.Willmott described stable manure as the very finest bulky organic material you can add to the soil - it had an x-factor  he could not explain - I never use it. This is somewhat eccentric of me as I agree that it is wonderful stuff. I used to have half formed thoughts of being self sufficient in organic matter and on my Bolton Percy allotment sought to demonstrate how un-dug soil becomes black with organic matter if one merely recycles the products of in situ photosynthesis. Mr Dowding recycles his weed and debris via composting, whereas I do it directly by leaving fresh organic matter on the surface. He does not consider this appropriate in UK conditions. When it comes to tidiness and other practical considerations he is right. When it comes to  benefit to the soil, plant health and his fear of slugs I disagree.
I have two problems that stop me using farmyard manure. My local source is free manure at the garden gate in a near village and I fear it may be contaminated with aminopyralid herbicide. Sue Garrett blogs about this scourge. Charles mentions a simple seed germination test which I imagine involves sowing any quick growing seed, but only when the manure has been ‘made’ and is no longer fresh.
Unfortunately my local manure is full of weed seed. This would never do when I have gone to such lengths to prevent my own weeds seeding.

The book
Written for a wide gardening public there are over a hundred headings each containing either major misconceptions or groups of related myths and unsound practices. Some gardening lore is quite trivial and is often repeated by those with no fundamental knowledge. It must be quite daunting for new gardeners to sort out the wheat from the chaff. 

Even beetroot can be transplanted. Best when several seedlings are planted together from a small pot or module.
The book not only is valuable to any questioning beginner but tackles concepts fascinating to an advanced gardener. I looked for myths that I have covered myself on this blog, found most of them and that we were in broad agreement. 

This achimenes has water scorch, a very real affliction but not caused by droplets of water concentrating sunshine. It’s not even caused by sunshine at all. The fact that water scorch occurs on gesneriads does NOT mean that you cannot spray water over the rest of your plants.

Charles correctly states that it is a myth that you can only water plants in the evening. When I noticed my kohleria was wilting this morning I watered it immediately.
I wondered if the book might suggest myths I might write about in future and found questions relating to row and greenhouse orientation, crocking and staking trees. I was pleased to find our agreement on many technical issues such as the gardening press's confusion with compaction and firm settled soil and indeed the general erroneous conception that 'fluffy soil' is a good thing! 

Greenhouses can be orientated in any direction. Much more important is the absence of shade from buildings and trees. nb my hedge is on the north west side and casts little shade.
Mr Dowding is up to date with modern happenings such as the discovery of glomalin in 1997 that transformed our understanding of the nature of the world's organic matter. I agree with his doubts about the fashionable adding of mycorrhiza from a packet when it is best to leave things to nature. Although mycorrhiza are fundamental to certain plant's survival in the wild I rather doubt that in his own highly fertile vegetable garden, mycorrhiza are of any significance at all - any more than in mine.

Charles has important and in some cases novel things to say about about sowing dates. He flirts with astrology to of course dismiss it. He has done trials with correlating planting dates with phases of the moon and reluctantly - I think - dismisses them too. I could be persuaded that the moon does effect plant growth - just perhaps - but not in any predictable way. In my view the major factor that thwarts success of a recommended sowing date is the vagary of the weather.   

It is not necessary to transplant leeks and insert them deeply to blanch them - but it is not wrong to do so. 
Where Charles and I would appear as one is that he contends that if you grow plants well - in his case organically - that they will succumb to far less pest and disease. He quite rightly does not claim complete success against virulent pathogens or in difficult seasons.

I was interested to read about Dowding's compost tea which he recommends as a soil conditioner. He also suspends decaying organic matter over water to catch its soluble content to make liquid feed. Not very different to my own methods when I leave fresh organic matter to decay at the soil surface in preference to composting. 
Why should I imagine that 'bacterial washings' from decaying vegetation should benefit my soil? I have observed nice crumbly soil directly below fresh surface decaying vegetation and I once read the tale, but I do not remember where. Now that's how myths are created!

And a final thought
Peter Williams made a perceptive observation when he commented that myths often arise when authoritative figures make dogmatic statements. I would back Charles’ authority against most TV gardening gurus, but even he can be wrong!

My previous book reviews 

To read my own take on myths put 'myth' in the search box at the bottom of this site.
..whoops this morning it did not work! I tried ‘Roger Brook myths’ on the main google search site and got a much more thorough record than I have ever seen before. I looked out this post where I reviewed some of my own myths.


  1. Oh dear he has beaten you too it.

    Re the testing for ap contamination in manure, Sowing seeds in the stuff doesn't give a conclusive result. I was told even lab testing is problematic. The lignin in which the pesticide is trapped takes a very extended length of time to fully break down and release the contaminant so testing could give a negative results during a resting period in the decaying process. Testing can only really prove that the manure IS contaminated and not the opposite. They talk about ap persistence in half lives!

    Another point is that the while of a manure heap may not be affected in the same way as usually it is collected iber a period of time and stored in the yard,

    Then there is the theory that if weeds are growing on a heap it must be pesticide free. Myth :) A higher dosage of pesticide is needed to kill weeds than to kill cultivated plants,

    Fortunately we have a clean supply that we can trust. for now.

  2. I could never write a book! Not enough patience and the blog satisfies my ego! Even though Cathi-next-door runs a very excellent self publishing company for paper books and internet.
    Thanks for correcting me about the seed test.
    I know Mr Dowding,like yourself has reliable sources of manure, that seems to be the answer

  3. pink links on a pinky background. who's bright idea was that?

    1. I need computer literate sons to keep me right!
      I don't actually see the problem, my background is cream!

  4. Sounds like an interesting book. It's funny how different ideas come in and out of fashion and are even adopted by people thought to have real expertise. Wish I had a source for animal manures, I have to buy composted manure at the garden center.

    1. I guess that is one of the burdens of 'Gardening in a City'
      (Jason's blog)

  5. I have the first two books by Charles Dowding and am a no-dig gardener too. About five years ago I visited his garden and wrote an article about his approach for a Dutch magazine. In the interview he mentioned how many "facts" are just repeated without anyone really questioning their validity. It is great that he wrote a book on the topic now. Thank you for this thorough review - I think I will get the book!

    1. At least I have got him a sale!
      I would like one day to visit his garden and am quite an admirer of the old boy!

  6. Although this is a tiny book, less than a hundred pages, it does a fine job of cutting through old gardener's tales to the truth about many aspects of gardening. The author is a well-respected organic gardener in Britain.

  7. This is indeed a beautiful little book. Hardback bound and with its own little red ribbon bookmark. A book to keep and cherish and to give as gift.

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