Check out our latest magazine... Read Online

Blooming Times Garden Lore - Fact or Fiction?

The horticultural world abounds with bad advice and old wife’s tales, but some pronouncements are scientifically sound, says Flo Whitaker, as she asks, “True, or false?”

Water droplets scorch leaves – never water plants when it’s sunny: False. In warm conditions, raindrops soon evaporate, resulting in zero/minimal damage. Plants are tough characters – they’ve evolved to cope with weather extremes. A hot summer sky may suddenly change to thundery, torrential rain, then the boiling sun comes out again – and nothing dies. However, casually splashing water about is wasteful, and some plants, particularly greenhouse dwellers such as cacti, pelargoniums and tomatoes, dislike getting their leaves wet. A protective greenhouse environment is, ironically, a place where scorching may occur, usually when wet foliage touches hot, sun-baked glass. So, as a general rule, water plants at soil level, enabling them to quickly take up moisture where they need it.

Digging is good: False. For years I’ve been labelled a 'Lazy Gardener', due to my 'Dig only if absolutely essential' philosophy. Now, (hopefully) attitudes are changing and no-dig methods are being increasingly used in commercial farming. Soil is an amazingly complex, fragile environment – leave it alone!

Parsnips and sprouts taste better after the first frosts: True. When subjected to stress, (cold weather, for instance) the chemical composition of maturing fruits and vegetables changes. Starchy compounds become sugary as crops endeavour to preserve themselves. Long-stored cooking apples often need less sugar to make them palatable and old carrots, when roasted, exude a syrupy glaze – yum!

You should pee on your compost heap: False. Listen carefully, chaps, (yep, it’s always blokes that obsess about this). Although urine has a high nitrogen content, which assists the breakdown of plant fibres, there are better ways to make good compost. Nitrogen is primarily found in ‘sappy’ materials, such as grass clippings and young weeds, but, unlike urine, plants also add essential minerals and humus-rich bulk to the heap, (if you suspect your pee is humus-rich, seek medical assistance immediately). 
Used pet bedding is full of nitrogen. Straw or wood/paper-based bedding will accelerate the composting process, so chuck it all onto the heap. While you may enjoy a nocturnal garden stroll, your compost heap really doesn’t need your ‘contributions’. Your startled neighbours will also thank you for desisting. Moving swiftly on …

Lawns are low-maintenance: False. You have to weed it, feed it, rake it, aerate it, edge it and mow it, (twice-weekly in summer if you’re after a perfect look). They’re expensive too – you either have to invest in a mower, or pay someone else to cut it. If you want a lawn, then have one, but don’t let anyone kid you they’re labour-saving.

Stroking/talking to plants encourages growth: True. Plants benefit from being gently brushed because movement helps stimulate the formation of sturdy roots. Once upon a time, it was recommended that newly-planted trees should be staked to prevent wind-rock. Nowadays the emphasis is to plant small trees without staking to encourage root development. Plants also absorb our carbon monoxide-rich exhalations and give us oxygen in return. They respond positively to low-level vibrations, so a gentle, quiet voice may be beneficial, but don’t shout, as loud sounds trigger their distress hormones. Awww.

When planting roses, bury banana skins at the roots: False. The internet is over-populated with self-appointed horticultural ‘experts’ who reckon we should behave like maniac squirrels and bury garlic, eggs, bananas, lard and heaven knows what else in our borders. "Bananas are high in potassium!” goes the cry – like that’s necessarily a good thing. Milkshake is also potassium-rich, but you wouldn’t pour it over your roses, (although I knew someone who fed rice pudding to a wisteria). Potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous are the three elements most essential to plant health. Confronted with a banana skin, a plant will swiftly use up localised supplies of other elements, (particularly nitrogen) in an attempt to convert the potassium overload into useable food, thus upsetting the soil’s finely balanced chemistry. Homemade compost is wonderful stuff because it contains well-rotted, diverse materials. Never apply fresh fruit or veg waste directly to plants – throw it on a compost heap. You can also add (nitrogen-rich) coffee grounds and teabags to the heap – although teabags may not compost satisfactorily as some types are constructed using plastic glues.

Salt is a good weedkiller: False. Salt acts non-specifically. Whether a prized plant or annoying weed – it’ll damage everything it comes into contact with. Rain will dissolve salt and wash it into soil, potentially contaminating an area for months. Stick to sprinkling it on your chips. If you must use a weedkiller, use a proprietary product, read the instructions and check weather conditions. Spraying on a sunny day may kill beneficial pollinators and spray droplets can ‘drift’ from the target area in windy weather.

For optimum results, sow seed when the moon is full: True, (probably). The jury’s still out, but there’s increasing evidence for superior seed germination during a ‘waxing’ phase, (a few days leading up to a full moon). Gardening according to the celestial calendar has been practised for millennia. Living in our cossetted 21st century world, it’s easy to forget the moon’s effect on our planet. Its power is most obvious around the time of a full moon, as it pulls oceans and rivers across the earth, creating extreme tidal flows. It probably accelerates the movement of plant sap too – particularly in leafy vegetables. Other environmental factors, such as temperature and pest attack should obviously be taken into account, but perhaps moon gardening isn’t hippy-dippy nonsense after all?

And finally… Parsley only thrives in a household managed by a strong-willed woman: I couldn’t possibly comment …

More from Homes and Gardens

  • Home Style: Bold Type

    Textile designer Zoe Davis and her husband James have transformed a Grade-II listed farmhouse with a vibrant pallet and vintage finds

  • Blooming Times: The Sky's the Limit

    The clematis family offers flowers in a wide array of colours and shapes, and there are varieties for nearly every month of the year, says Flo Whitaker

  • Home Style: A Better Way of Life

    When Catherine and her late husband Dr Brian Sack left London for a more rural lifestyle. They bought a 16th century cottage and created a home full of modern artwork and stylish vintage French finds

  • Homes Extra: Shed Space

    Are you thinking of a new shed, greenhouse or garden room? Sara Whatley gives you some food for thought on all three

  • Blooming Times: Top of the Pots

    How are your patio pots? Show-stopping, or lacklustre? Time to try some different planting combinations, suggests Flo Whitaker

  • Kids Zone: Get the Kids Growing

    Read on for some green fingered ideas to get the kids involved in the garden from Sara Whatley

  • Home Style: Pastures New

    The grass really was greener for this family, who left behind their recently remodelled London house for a new life in the country

  • Homes Extra: Let There Be Light

    Read on for the latest in home and garden lighting ideas for a bright and up to date space, says Sara Whatley

  • Blooming Times: Wisteria Hysteria

    With its exquisitely fragrant, show-stopping blooms, wisteria is the queen of spring climbers – yet it can be frustratingly sulky and thuggish. Flo Whitaker offers a quick troubleshooting guide to floral success

  • Home Style: Home on Wheels

    A plot on the family farm with stunning marshland views was the ideal spot for Freddie Pack and Katie McNie to build their new home – a cabin on wheels

  • Home Style: Modern Outlook

    Downsizing couple Pauline and Bill chose practicality over space, but didn’t compromise on their love of mid-century style

  • Blooming Times: Dahlia Mania

    Inexpensive, hardworking plants with blooms in a vast array of colours and shapes - no flower is perfect, but dahlias come pretty close, says Flo Whitaker

  • Home Style: Time to Heal

    After losing her husband, Tracy Nors threw all her energies into renovating a period terrace in the pretty town of Rye

  • Blooming Times: Spring into Summer

    Say the word ‘bulb’ and thoughts of spring immediately come to mind - but there are some bulbus characters to plant now for summer colour. Flo Whitaker selects a few of her favourites

  • Home Style: Farm Stay

    While living in a tiny cabin on the family farm, Freddie and Katie Pack saved up to build their dream house on a plot a few fields away

  • Home Style: Romantic Vision

    Tim and Jenny Backshall rescued a derelict timber-framed hall house, respecting its history while future proofing for generations to come

  • Homes Extra: Dining Style

    Sara Whatley is singing the praises of the dining table and looking at different styling options for it

  • Blooming Times: Spring Fever

    February is often labelled the cruellest month in the horticultural calendar. However, Flo Whitaker suggests there is still plenty of opportunity for growth

  • Home Style: Forest Idyll

    Moving the kitchen became the start of a much bigger project for the Buckinghams, as it created opportunities to change their new home

  • Blooming Times: What's in a Name?

    Botanical Latin may seem daunting, but it’s designed to be helpful and informative, says Flo Whitaker