Wednesday 25 July 2018

Should gardening be evidence based?

As clear as mud
I keep reading it should be and then find myself informed of  a research finding I think inappropriate. Why should my hackles rise when evidence based action in life is my fundamental philosophy?

An alternative expression of the importance of evidence is it should be supported by experimental data or that horticulture should be science based.

I think my problem is that evidence is frequently flimsy and often contradictory. Not just in gardening but through the world over.

I spend hours avoiding 'fat free products'
Where excellent research has been done in fields such as health and nutrition it is usually overlaid by misreporting, wrong conclusions, special interest lobbying, propaganda and fear of litigation. How often do I read a report of good science interpreted by a none scientific journalist whose account is littered with repetition of fashionable dogma. Even scientists themselves sometimes seem to say “my research points another way but carry on eating fat free food and taking the statins” 

Much good science is lost for the sake of a cheap headline or company profit. Much is rejected because it does not sit with established belief.

Reasons to be cautious
I sometimes lose confidence in horticultural research for the following reasons.

1. Much research is of poor quality. It is frequently done with insufficient duplications, very few safeguards and is statistically invalid. However feeble it may be, it is often represented as fact on the net! Worse it is inflated and republished by vested interest.

Insights come from very simple things

2. Although excellent insights worthy of further investigation often come from very simple trials carried out by inexperienced or ‘narrow’ researchers it is premature to proclaim it as fact.

Peter likes to see for himself
3. Much research is carried out with vested interest in sight. Scientist Peter Williams says before I believe it I should ask who is paying. Ask the right research questions and you get your required answer. If the answer does not suit you there is no legal requirement to publish.

4. I fear much research is contradictory and cannot be repeated by others.

Many professional composts are honed to grower's needs and are unsuitable for the gardener. Many amateur's composts are just rubbish
5. Components of gardening knowledge comes from a vast diverse range of specialist fields such as agriculture, commercial glasshouse production, market gardening, ecology and garden centre trade - and that merely scratches the surface of numerous fields of endeavour and their subsidiary components. I have always considered there was much transferable knowledge between them but unfortunately precise research is honed to a sector’s individual needs.

6. Gardening is so diverse and there are so many variables such as the crop, soil, weeds and climate. Such criteria might change from day to day, season to season or one place to another. 

It makes me happy
7. What is a gardening measure of success? Is it beauty, yield, profit, labour saving, producing pristine produce, supporting the environment or personal satisfaction? Every gardener’s needs are different. To me the measure of success is to be happy and healthy even though to critics a gardener’s methods might not pass muster!

8. And of course many so called facts are supported by no evidence at all. There are few restrictions on gardening product claims

A more positive view
There is high quality gardening information out there and without unbiased investigation where would we be? My own personal view is that a knowledge of biological sciences helps you sort the wheat from the chaff but then some of the best gardeners I know have no science at all. Gardening takes its adherents from diverse fields of endeavour.

In my youth I got even more satisfaction than now from gardening and perhaps made my best garden when I had no technical knowledge at all. 

Here are a few suggestions how to build up gardening knowledge

1. Initially devour all gardening reading you can, but learn to question its provenance. Is it written by a hack journalist who has trawled the literature or a gardener writing from genuine experience?

I try something different with my tomatoes every year

2. Go beyond the level endlessly recycled by gardening television and gardening magazines. It’s often good stuff but after a couple of years you will have heard it all before.

Decent gardening courses are rare and college extension none existant
3. Listen to gardeners within their own specialist fields but don’t let your respect for them blind you when they spout nonsense about things like bonemeal. They too have grown up with recycled information.

Read related science
4. Read about plant related things from diverse sources and in your mind file them away

5. Be suspicious of so called gardening experts. Some of the best gardening knowledge resides with amateurs who have followed their own passion. 

6. Search out information on the net but duplicate your sources to take in diverse opinion and filter the chaff. A sound source of advice is ‘gardening extension information’ published by states in the US and Australia and no doubt elsewhere. Dare I promote the RHS despite their sometimes sloppy journal and their extreme PC?

You can water at any time of day
It's a juicy centipede

Large cut nicely healed at the edges after a year
7. Most gardening myths are harmless and an endless source of amusement. Never the less they are sometimes seriously wrong. Blogger Robert Pavlis will debunk them for you. The ‘Garden Professors’ blog is a good independent source of ‘gardening extension information’ (Something sadly lacking in the UK). I fear the professors rely excessively on so called evidence base.

What on earth?
7.Try things out yourself and always be ready to move on in your methods. Unlearn your early lessons. My own gardening is never the same from one year to another. In my opinion too many gardeners do things precisely the same way every time!

8. Break the rules and find ways to be a better gardener.

There are so many exciting things in a garden
Every year brings new challenges


  1. As i’ve said in posts on my blog - gardening is not an exact science. When we first got our allotment we were informed that we would never grow carrots on our site, that our rows went the wrong way and given a multitude of gardening advice. We did things our way and baffled the long established allotmenteers. There is only one way to garden and that is the way that works for you. We see many gardeners taking pains to grow things the ‘correct’ way and then fail. We find the easiest way that works for us which may not work for others as there are so many variables at play. Scientists often talk of things being proved and will not change their views even when their ‘proof’ is debunked. Think back to the flat earth people and how they treated the scientists who disagreed. The same happens today and vested interests and money comes into the equation in all sorts of things. I think some scientists come up with a theory and just look for evidence to prove this disregarding anything that disputes their theories. Often it’s a case of who is paying the piper and what tune they are paid to play!

    1. Thank you Sue for your long and helpful response.
      I remember when a former student -and now a dear friend who opens her garden to the public, she attended one of our 'amateur gardening course. As a completely inexperienced gardener she took an allotment and astounded all the locals with her and to them unorthodox methods and taking all the prizes at the flower show

  2. It is difficult to know who to believe about anything these days, someone called it ‘fake news’.
    I shall continue to follow for your critical look at anything, we should always question the excepted norm. Why? Is always a good question in all aspects of life.

  3. For some reason my comments are not always published on google blogs, the last time I tried to leave one it just vanished even after three attempts. I am there even if you don’t hear from me!

    1. Good to know but best to share your wisdom. I wonder why you have a problem. My friend Peter Williams has had difficulties.Perhaps get a google identity?

    2. That is the annoying thing, I have one!


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