Sunday 30 April 2017

Garden Myths by Robert Pavlis

Blogger and myth buster extraordinaire 

The mists will fall from the eyes of many gardeners when they read about 120  gardening misconceptions in Robert’s new book. With razor sharp focus he exposes lies, misunderstandings, wrong explanations, erroneous assumptions and stuff that’s just plain wrong. He finds myths I never knew existed!
He is a trained chemist and lifelong gardener. His diverse horticultural interests are illuminated by his other two fine books on orchids and ponds. (I personally learned from his blog the significance of an orchid’s velamin root cover to its watering and was delighted to read someone else saying ponds do not have to have filters and pumps and other paraphernalia)
He is totally fearless in condemning hyped up useless products and snake oil selling. Just like his blog the book references and links all his sources. He shows great ingenuity in devising simple experiments that expose common fallacies. It’s all done with a wry sense of humour. 

He attempts to distil sound gardening advice from his myths and recommends good garden practice in rounded discussion. He mostly succeeds but it is awfully difficult when giving advice not to create myths of your own!

It is not surprising that I admire Robert Pavlis. He shares much of my own gardening philosophy and stubborn foibles. It is music to my ears to read support for almost all my own thoughts on the benefits of minimum cultivation. It would seem that his naturalistic approach is sometimes even more extreme than my own and I wonder if his six acre garden is as scruffy as mine. (Like me he directly recycles most of his organic matter). Like me he has no fundamental objection to gardening chemicals but in most cases finds no need to use them. He never talks about glyphosate. Now there is a difference!  
(Since writing this post he has mounted a stern defence on his blog for the safety and utility of glyphosate. To me popular fears about this chemical that has been used safely for more than fifty years is the greatest myth of all)

It is an almost impossible task to write a perfect book about gardening myths. Their is such a difference between the gardening knowledge of readers. They range between weekend - or even bank holiday - gardeners with little plant knowledge or scientific interest and those who like me are complete gardening nerds. I think to provide adequate rebuttal of those myths that are merely simple delusions or misconceptions is so very different to discussing more sophisticated and widespread beliefs. Mr Pavlis bridges the gap rather well.

I know (hope) that Robert would like me to discuss some of the myths he has raised. I cannot resist the opportunity. 
You will find we have differences of styles, opinions and gardening philosophies but complete agreement on actual facts

We disagree on definition as I discussed here. Language between North America and ourselves can be a barrier as well as a union. We do seem to agree that there are many gardening circumstances where fertilisers are not needed at all. We are both suspicious  of do-it-yourself soil analysis and are both keen to advice gardeners to bring local observation to the fore when making decisions on plant nutrition.
We disagree whether professional soil analysis is ever worthwhile to the amateur. Robert wants to correct any nutrient deficiency precisely. I prefer a generalist approach and use my general yaramila fertiliser - er generally - and let the plant take up the nutrients it needs. I would find it impossible to translate a complete professional soil analysis for the very diverse needs of the plants that I grow.
Robert publishes a very interesting list of plant nutrient deficiency symptoms. We both agree that in the real gardening world they are of limited value.

The mystery of the sinking soil
Apparently our friends over the water have garden soil that sinks! I do not recognise this as a problem over here. It is explained in terms of added organic matter decaying - as it certainly does! (And we both agree why - not least as a result of excessive soil stirring).
I do hate sunken borders where the innocent new gardener excavates out his weedy soil and bins it!  (Any one dumping good soil in a wheelie bin ought to be horse whipped - but perhaps that is a myth).
My own experience is that borders rise - perhaps in my own case casting worms remove soil from my lawn. I remember at horticultural college the student plots after several years needed to be lowered. They were of course very heavily manured and new planting had attached soil and all end of season debris was dug in.
I remember years ago a former student gave us a lecture about his landscaping experience in America. We were horrified how a new site was completely stripped of all vegetation and soil! Surely they still do not do that now?
It does seem that American gardeners frequently cover their soil with a substance called triple mix. It is a mixture of third parts peat, soil and garden compost. Do they throw all their old soil and organic matter away? We know that organic matter is lost to decay but not soil’s sand, silt and clay.
I know that Robert is very hot on recycling his own organic matter. I bet he personally does not need to import topsoil. 
In my view it is a myth that organic matter needs to be imported to maintain soil fertility. You can grow it yourself.

Spring bulbs

Robert Pavlis would approve that these bulbs have been reappearing for more than ten years

I initially thought that Robert was scraping the barrel about some gardener’s false belief that Spring bulbs such as daffodils, hyacinths and tulips are better lifted after flowering and should only be planted after first frost. The latter being both particularly stupid and unlikely! The earlier Spring bulbs are planted in late Summer/Autumn the better!
On further thinking one can understand how the first myth might have developed. In traditional Spring bedding, borders are replanted for Summer. It is convenient (but bad practice?) to get the bulbs out of the way. Lifting bulbs before they die down is particularly damaging and their quality is hugely diminished. 

Keukenhof garden 
Last year we visited the famous Dutch garden at Keukenhof. where they plant fifteen million bulbs every year. After flowering they are lifted and thrown away. No wonder some gardeners think that bulbs should be lifted! Robert and I prefer to leave them in the ground for ever.

I expect some of these were even upside down

When I planted 8000 bulbs for Lyndi last Autumn I was glad I already knew that It did not matter a jot whether they were upright or at what depth they were planted. You will see from his book that Pavlis agrees.

Myths or just lack of knowledge?
Robert observes that many gardeners think that fungus diseases - take powdery mildew as an example - are all the same. It is important to realise that they are not and that for example apple powdery mildew is not the same powdery mildew that spoils michaelmas daisies. This is important but does it count as a myth?

Language divides us

A very strange herb.  Our guide gave us several ‘facts’ about its life cycle - mainly wrong
I remember when Monty Don confused the nation when he declared bananas were herbs. I was amused that our recent tour guide in Maderia said the same thing when we visited a banana farm. Fellow punters listened with wide eyed innocence and filed the ‘fact’ away in their minds.
This nonsense stems from the word having two meanings. In as much as a banana is a herbaceous plant it is a herb. However to most of us  herbs are such as mint (a herbaceous perennial), sage (a shrub), thyme (a sub shrub) and parsley (a biennial).
I may be pedantic but Robert’s #myth 64 ‘Lavender and Russian sage are perennials’ is wrong!  I hope you can get your head round the double negative - the statement is true and it is not a myth - they are perennials - at least on this side of the pond! 
To make me happy it only makes sense if the word ‘herbaceous’  precedes ‘perennial’. Then I agree that the sub shrubs - the woody perennials that Robert writes about makes a very valuable point.
I was intrigued with his suggestion that you can regenerate gnarled old lavender by earthing up and new rooted plants can be later detached and planted.
I thought this practice was one of my own foibles! I call a modified version ‘piggy back planting’. I dig out the old sub shrub and immediately replant it very deeply with only the tips showing. The old root eventually dies but the rooted tops carry on to make a new plant. It works with some other plants too.

Rejuvenating Dianthus 'Doris’

I know my soil is acid and that carnations like lime. I have no idea if this dolomitic limestone will do any good!

Job done

Final thoughts
Under the cover of myths Robert has written a very fine book on to how to successfully grow plants and cut out the nonsense. You need to read carefully his rounded discussion. Not all myths are as clear-cut wrong as they seem and there are sometimes exceptions.

Robert’s defence of glyphosate


  1. Our soil rises too. What a waste throwing all those bulbs away, some of our tulips have been in the ground for years.

    I'm replacing some worm out lavender and I did wonder about deeply replanting. I may try it,

  2. There would be problems with uniformity and timing for the bedding out at Keukenhof.if they did not lift them. As there are more than a hundred bulb growers anxious to display their wares they do not need to keep them and probably don't want to demonstrate they can be left in the ground.
    We were informed by a worker that the bulbs 'go to compost'. I imagine a few find their way into gardens!

  3. Hi Roger, great book review, there's probably myths there I never knew existed too! As for what to do with gnarly old lavender, I have always heard you should never cut into old wood...but last year I had one old lavender I thought was just useful for the compost heap so I decided to do an experiment. I cut it down to one inch last June. Oh no, not supposed to do that! Well, the lavender didn't look that good last year but you should see it now, really beautiful and full of buds. I will post a photo when it is in full flower. Some myths are there to be broken.

    I have been rather absent from the blogs so far this year, too much to do both indoors and in the garden. Just want you to know that all the dicentras you gave me are doing well and two of them are flowering. I have posted a photo of 'Pink Punk' this month. Thank you again for them :-)

    1. Great to be in touch again HELENE.
      You have done well with your lavender. Sometimes you can resurrect an old plant.
      As you know if lavender is hard pruned every year it does come from the ground very well.

  4. Thanks for the great review. The comment about herbaceous perennial is interesting. In my talks I usually extend the meaning of perennial to include almost anything that is not an annual.

    But over here perennial is used as an equivalent to 'herbaceous perennial'. Any book on perennials does not include woodies. Nurseries even treat ornamental grasses as a separate group - they are not perennials either - but biennials are consider perennials. I think most gardeners here would not even know what the word "herbaceous" means.

    I think the reason for sinking soil is that when new homes are built the soil is replaced with something like triple mix. Being 60% organic, it shrinks over the years. At the same time, most people here do not mulch or add organics back into the soil making shrinkage more of a problem. My gardens were built on real soil and they don't shrink.

    If I need soil, for example to make a new raised bed, I always use top soil. But the supplier always tries to sell me triple mix because it grows things better. Soil is so poorly understood by most gardeners.

    Thanks again for your support.

    1. Thank you for responding to some of my observations. Your comments are absolutely fascinating. They are much appreciated

  5. Well - Hello Mr.Brook "Sir" from an ex Askham Bryan Student - I was hunting for garden myth busters on the wonderweb and was delighted to find your blog, I will start reading your past offerings with interest.I enjoyed my time at college though am sad to say I never did manage to make use of soil sterilisation in a glass house - as demonstrated by you :-)
    Did make use of lots of other information gleaned during my time there,
    Best wishes to you from Bridget Moody

    1. It's really good to hear from you Bridget. I love reconnecting with old students and by jove you were a long time ago. Keep in touch. I am married to a cook myself, Brenda used to teach domestic science!
      Demonstrating soil sterilisation eh, was I on my teaching practice then? Don't tell anyone but I had learned to dig in the pipes the previous day. I fear some of the stuff we taught was a bit irrelevant to some of you!.I do believe however the horticultural education you got was better than much of that available today

  6. 1981 was my first year there and I definitely agree about the excellence of the horticultural education, it was far ranging and comprehensive, it was a great place to be a student and stood me in good stead as my job as Head Gardener and on my stint as panallist on gardeners Question Time and other radio programs, can't think of anything nicer to be doing - well apart from cooking and eating :-)
    Glad you've got a cook in your life as well as gardens!

    1. We both seem to have combined hobby and career! Keep in touch

  7. This was a very nice book review. Thank you for sharing your observations.

    I personally do not care for the writing style of Robert Pavlis. While what he writes is factual (always), the style he writes in is arrogant and divisive. I get the impression (from his blog) that his writing is more about telling other people they are wrong than elucidating what is right. He will go to great lengths to explain why other people are completely wrong, even when that argument amounts to a subtle difference in language. Personally, I will stick with authors who seem more concerned with gardening, than "being right" about gardening.

    1. You have obviously given this much consideration unknown. It would of course be invidious for me to comment about a blogger I respect and admire.
      Cathi was recently reminding me about how arrogant my own earlier posts were. The question is, is my (I hope) more reasonable self these days the real me?


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