Turns out, a lot of these common gardening practices are more fiction than and fact.

By Tim Latterner
September 21, 2020
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Whether you've been planting and maintaining a garden for years or you're starting one for the first time, keeping your outdoor space properly managed and irrigated can be a tricky task. For every book, article, blog, and forum out there with an answer to your most pressing gardening questions, you're also bound to stumble across a piece of misinformation. To focus on the best ways to keep your garden growing over time, we dispel some of these common gardening myths.

woman cutting dahlias from garden
Credit: Getty / Betsie Van der Meer

Myth: Deer repellents work.

Deer may be cute, but they can cripple your favorite plants—anyone with a garden in a suburban area has looked out the window and seen deer nibbling on their crops at some point. A common myth, however, is that store-bought deer repellents act as an iron wall to keep these creatures out. Some work at first, but they need to be reapplied constantly to be effective; others deter deer while also attracting nefarious pests and critters. And some never even work to begin with. According to Dr. Leanard Perry, a professor at the University of Vermont's Department of Plant and Soil Science, some formulas even attract unwelcome fauna. "Studies actually have been done on soaps to repel deer, finding that those containing coconut oils may attract them. The repellent factor seems to be tallow, that part derived from animal fatty acids," he explains. "Studies have also found that deer can feed to within three feet of soap in the garden. This means a 100-foot border may need over 30 bars of soap!" Try planting repellent plants that are highly aromatic—and offend deers' nostrils—instead, says Dr. Perry, who notes that perennial herbs like artemisia, tansy, and yarrow, and culinary herbs, such as mint, thyme, tarragon, oregano, dill, and chives are most effective.

Myth: Potting soil should be changed out regularly.

Over time, all plants need to have their soil either swapped out or topped off with a healthy dose of fertilizer. For some placed in planters for irrigation purposes, this can be as simple as pulling up the whole structure, shaking out the soil, and putting everything back into a fresh pot—but you only need to do this annually, at most. Jeana Myers, a North Carolina State horticulture extension agent, recommends attempting resoiling in the spring, when plants and crops have the most sunlight and time to grow and develop.

Myth: Lawns need around-the-clock water.

All through the summer months, you hear them going: Sprinklers shooting water across the lawns of suburbia. Many homeowners believe that lawns need to be watered at night, particularly in the summer, to keep the water from just evaporating into thin air instantly. But that is just not the case—watering your turf multiple times a week, even during the hottest months of the year, can do more harm than good. "More fine turf is damaged in Arkansas each year from homeowners over watering than underwatering," notes Aaron Patton, assistant professor and turfgrass specialist at the University of Arkansas's Division of Agriculture Research. "During most summers (from June to September), your lawn will need supplemental watering, in addition to rainfall to maintain color and density. Turf seldom needs irrigation from October 1 to June 1."

A better course of action? "Water only as needed when the lawn first shows signs of water stress, which include a bluish­-gray to brown color of the grass and/or footprints that remain for an extended period after walking across the lawn," Patton adds. "Lawns should be watered in the early morning hours as needed."

Myth: Cacti don't need to be watered because they hold so much H2O inside them.

The rumor goes that if you are wandering around the desert, you should look for cacti, which reportedly hold a basin of potable water inside them. From a gardening myths perspective, the same theory is used to justify that cacti and most succulents don't need water, because they're naturally carrying enough to survive how "they do in the desert." But according to Encyclopedia Britannica, such a plant would not last long in this type of arid habitat, filled with thirsty predators.

Therefore, developing a proper watering schedule for cacti and succulents in gardens like these can keep them growing and hardy ahead of the cooler winter months. "While growing, cacti and succulents should be watered at least once a week. Some people water more often than this. During each watering, give the soil a good soaking, so that water runs out of the drainage holes of the pots," notes a report from the Cactus and Succulent Society of San Jose. "When the weather cools and day-length shortens, plants enter a rest period. During that time, increase the interval between watering, and let the potting mixture dry out between watering."

Myth: Adding gravel or sand can help irrigate plants and improve drainage.

Possibly the most pervasive gardening myth out there—as it just seems to keep being purported as fact—is that filling the bottom layer of planters with gravel or sand promote better irrigation. Unfortunately, this isn't true. The only thing planters need to be properly irrigated are drainage holes at the bottom. Everything else comes down to monitoring how dry the soil becomes over time. "Nearly 100 years ago, soil scientists demonstrated that water does not move easily from layers of finer textured materials to layers of more coarse textured. Since then, similar studies have produced the same results," says Linda Chalker-Scott, an extension horticulturist and associate professor at Washington State University. "Additionally, one study found that more moisture was retained in the soil underlain by gravel than that underlain by sand. Therefore, the coarser the underlying material, the more difficult it is for water to move across the interface. Imagine what happens in a container lined with pot shards!"

Myth: There isn't any work to be done to a garden in the winter. 

This simply isn't true. Even though gardens are more dormant during the winter months, there are still ways to winterize gardens to get them ready to go once the seasons shift again. During the cooler season, before the snow covers the entire plot, clear up any weeds or obviously dead plants that could spread infections to others. You can also prune back any perennials and cover any exposed plants for the coming spring. Some plants are even sowed in the winter. Depending on your hardiness zone, anything from parsley and leeks to cabbage and cauliflower can be seeded in January.

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