I firmly believe that a lot of garden lore derives from job creation for the legions of under gardeners that used to exist. I have a habit of doing gardening jobs as and when they occur to me and I tend to trust my instinct more than referring to books unless it is to remind me how to take cuttings. I believe that this is how you learn through trial and error rather than mindlessly following an instruction from a book or fellow gardener without questioning it. So I was very pleased to be offered a review copy of Charles Dowding’s new book Gardening Myths and Misconceptions
Like me Dowding has a questioning and challenging approach to life and in his introduction he explains that he has been trying and testing various myths for some 30 years. Hardly surprising to hear from an influential vegetable grower who advocates a no-dig approach to growing; going against the long-held practice of double digging practised by many a veg grower.
In the introduction Dowding discusses the idea of myths and how we are brought up to believe various facts which it never occurs to us to question. He gives a number of random examples such as Marie Antoinette did not say ‘let them eat cake’ which I was taught was an example of the aristocracy attitude to the poor and lead to the French Revolution instead this apparently was said 50 years earlier by Louis XIV’s wife. Equally the claim that Mussolini made trains run on time is based on the fact that he banned the reporting of delays rather than the efficiency of the train system! Once the ‘facts’ you were taught at school have been challenged your mind becomes open to the idea that other ‘facts’ may be untrue and so we go to horticultural practices.
The book focuses on the growing of edibles including watering, compost making, fertilising and soil. I only grew edibles for a short time on an allotment, where fact and lore abounded and I found the whole experience quite daunting. I consulted books and the internet and my confusion grew as one fact contradicted another and to be honest some made little sense.
Dowding argues that when presented with these ‘facts’ you should ask the giver why this is true and challenge them to explain the reason behind their belief. I tried out one of the myths on twitter the other evening. Dowding argues that you don’t need to wash and sterilise seed trays and pots. He states that he hasn’t done this for 30 years and rarely had a problem. Some tweeters were aghast at this idea and when I challenged them, as per Dowding’s instruction, they all argued it was to remove pests and diseases and to prevent damping off. However, Dowding argues that the only diseases he has encountered is from sowing too closely, which I know is a cause of botrytis, and humidity. This makes complete sense to me and I know the other tweeters were celebrating that this tedious task was not that necessary. The RHS is also now agreeing with this view.
The crux of Dowding’s arguments come down to seeing the horticultural practice as a whole and understanding how one thing connects to another. So green manure might provide some nutrients but you also have to take into account that the it can harbour slugs as well as beneficial creatures and the decomposition of the green manure can take weeks rather than days so may remove nutrients from the seeds or plants that have been planted, if planted too soon. As with many things it is a case of weighing up the pros and cons and making an informed choice that suits you rather than blindly and unquestioning following a prescribed view.
For anyone who grows edibles or for that matter gardens intensively I would recommend this book. You might not agree with all of Dowding’s views and arguments but you will find yourself questioning what the ‘experts’ tell you and this in turn will lead you to be a more intelligent and successful gardener.