When gurus go bad; Gillman’s hall of shame


#3 Joey Green
It really kills me that Joey Green’s book Gardening Magic is published by Rodale Press, a publisher that usually produces high quality books. Green has written a number of books over the years such as Amazing Kitchen Cures, Clean It Fix It Eat It, and, finally, Monica Speaks: Genuine Pearls of Wisdom From Americas Most Famous White House Intern. Clearly, mass market appeal has become his sole criterion.
There are some legitimately useful tips in Green’s book. But when he recommends adding syrup and Geritol for ailing plants, I question his research. I question his research even more when he claims that Peru used to import guano as a fertilizer (Peru is a guano exporter and has been since the 1800s) and that Epsom salts can alter pH (they can’t; Epsom salts are pH neutral). Can anyone tell me why Rodale chose to publish this book? It’s a mess.

How dangerous are the recommendations to you? 3.5 (Most of these recommendations are relatively safe—ill-conceived and stupid—but won’t harm the user.)
How dangerous are the recommendations to plants and the environment? 1 (Many of his recommendations will hurt any plant that they’re applied to.)
How good was the research? 1.5 (There’s someone worse.)
Total score: 6

#2 The New Jerry Baker
Sometime after Jerry Baker published Plants Are Like People he decided to start recommending kitchen-sink type stuff for the garden. These mixes are bizarre, and, simply put, often dangerous to plants (and people to some extent). I have a lot of Old and New Baker literature. It’s OK to read just for fun. My favorite collection of New Baker wisdom though is a set of questions and answers that he did a few years ago on his website. I think he’s taken them off the site now, but I remember him mounting an eloquent defense of using chewing tobacco in the garden. For what it’s worth, chewing tobacco is at least as likely to contain tobacco mosaic virus as the tobacco in cigarettes, not to mention the other noxious properties in the substance. Nonetheless, Baker is a great marketer, and that is why he is so dangerous.

How dangerous are the recommendations to you? 2 (Too much tobacco, too much ammonia, too much hose-end sprayer applications.)
How dangerous are the recommendations to plants and the environment? 2 (Not as bad as Green, but not good by a long shot.)
How good was the research? 1.5 (Once upon a time he did his homework; now it pretty much comes off the top of his head.)
Total score: 5.5

#1 Myles Bader
The title of Myles Bader’s 1,001 All Natural Secrets to a Pest Free Property has both of the necessary characteristics of any guru book. That is to say, it includes both a big number (1,001 in this case) and the word “secrets.” (This is roughly the same formula that New Baker uses.) Whenever I see a book whose title includes a big number of “secrets” I know that I’m in for a really fun read, and Bader’s book does not disappoint. He has a long and illustrious publishing career, having produced such books as 20,001 Kitchen Secrets, 10,001 Household Hints and Kitchen Secrets, 6,001 Food Facts and Chefs’ Secrets, and many more. As if this list of titles isn’t enough to qualify him as an expert on almost everything, he also has a Ph.D. in Preventative Medicine.

It is my firm opinion that this book is stupid and dangerous. Bader is in a category all his own. His book is self-published, promoted on infomercials, and can be found on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. It claims that rotenone has low toxicity to humans and animals. Rotenone is the most toxic organic pesticide that you can buy. And here’s my favorite: “The product is called Sevin and contains a combination of pyrethrums and DE (diatomaceous earth). It is safe to use in vegetable gardens, which most other pesticides are not.” Sevin is actually carbaryl: a synthetic insecticide which can be pretty toxic. Bader’s book contains little or no information that is helpful and a ton of useless and dangerous tips. I treated it as a joke, until I realized that people actually believed the garbage presented in its pages (read the reviews on Amazon.com; it’s nuts).
On a final note—I don’t know what, exactly, a doctor of preventative medicine is supposed to specialize in, but Bader recommends tobacco and tobacco products more than any educated individual I’ve ever encountered.

How dangerous are the recommendations to you? 1 (Too much tobacco and no understanding of the dangers of pesticides.)
How dangerous are the recommendations to plants and the environment? 1 (Pretty bad.)
How good was the research? 1 (Research? What’s that?)
Total score: 3

That was fun, I feel better now.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I had never heard of Bader’s book – but that is just frightening! Sevin and Rotenone are safe to use around your pets and children!!! Run for the hills!!!!!

  2. And why is it that my non-gardening friends and family are drawn to these kinds of books when they decide to buy me a “gardening” related book as a gift? Thanks for a good post.

  3. Thanks, Jeff. You came to the right place to vent – I rant regularly against Baker on this site, also John Perez (“As Seen on TV”!!) What pisses me off hte most is Public TV’s reaction to complaints about their incessant promotion of Baker during their membership drives. E.g., my local affiliate never responded at all to a letter I wrote to them months ago on behalf of a DC-area garden club. Apparently a few local affiliates have removed his videos in response to complaints, despite their success in fund-raising for them.

  4. I’ve heard of John Perez and have been to his website, but I haven’t purchased his information yet. This is actually pretty embarrasing to me — it’s gotten to the point where, if I don’t have a “guru’s” book, I feel like I’ve somehow failed!

    By the way, thanks to Elizabeth for cleaning this up a little. It’s always nice to have a good editor sort out your words to make them clearer and more concise.

    Jeff Gillman

  5. Another pet peeve I’ve posted about is that About.com, which is owned by the damn New York Times and so has lots of credibility and huge prominence on Google results, promotes Jerry Baker up the wazoo. At least it’s Landscaping writer does; I’ve written about his utter lack of qualifications to write on the subject. By contrast, their gardening writer seems to be qualified.

  6. OK… I enjoyed this.

    And this one has the making of an historic “rant.” I like the attitude and energy thus far.

    What we need NOW is some point-by-point dissagreement with some irrational venom… and then some ad hominem attacks. If we can get THAT going, this oughta get really good.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know enough (about anything) to jump in.

    So… please people… let’s break out the psuedo-science and irrelavant facts! Let’s stoke this up!

  7. Hey Jeff, I’m pretty sure you address compost tea in your book. Comments? Please don’t tell me it isn’t the magic elixir I believe it to be, because it is so much damn fun brewing that shit up. (and I got my brewer for free, so that makes it even more fun.)

  8. Oh Dear, Compost tea.

    I am assuming that you’re talking about compost mixed with water and a sugar source and left to steep for awhile so the bacteria (and perhaps fungi) can go absolutely nuts? If so, well then, here is my take on compost tea: I don’t like it with a vengeance.

    I guess you’ll want some explaining?…..OK.

    For foliar diseases it just hasn’t proven itself on anything approaching a consistant basis — it has failed in my tests and the tests of plant pathologists who I work with. For soil diseases it might work — there have been some decent results. But the human diseases that might come from this stuff! E. coli and salmonella both can do well in these systems. In fact, there is a recent study that shows that, in the right situation, even though these diseases might not be able to be detected in the compost used they can still multiply and reach potentially dangerous levels in the stew that is compost tea.

    I’m not worried about this stuff too much though. One of these days the shit will hit the fan and a bunch of people will be poisoned and presto! compost tea will be gone.

    To take it a step further — I think that thoughtful organic gardeners and farmers should distance themselves from this stuff. There are certain practices that have the potential to give organics a really bad name and this, along with rotenone and copper compounds are at the top of the list.


  9. 1. Rodale has long published dubious “wellness” bullshit alongside its legitimate organic books. Green fits right into that lineup.

    2. Anyone who believes anything they read on about.com deserves what they get. Hell, anyone who knowingly follows a link to about.com is dangerous.

  10. Ok, I’m confused. I thought compost tea was for fertilizing, not diseases. I used to use it on my roses, until the big bucket containing it was banned from all house and garden premises. (This a small urban garden problem.)

  11. Yes, compost tea has many manifestations. I mostly talk about it as a control for plant disease because that is what I am most concerned about.

    As a fertilizer it works fine — nutrients in the compost get into the water and so the water becomes a source of nutrients when you water. Compost tea may also offer some bacteria and fungi that are beneficial to plants depending on how it’s brewed. The theory is that these organisms are present in the compost and then multiply when the compost hits the sugar water — this is fine as long as no bad organisms are present in the compost which might also multiply…

    If you want to find out more about compost tea Jeff Lowenfels has a book out “Teaming with Microbes” that does a good job talking about this stuff. Jeff and I have some disagreement about whether compost tea is good — I disagree with him. Still, his book does a good job explaining the theory.

    I have no grudge against mixing compost with water (no sugar and no letting it sit around for days and days) and applying this to a soil or media. That is actually a reasonably good fertilizer.

  12. Oh, right, it’s manure tea that I used to make. Not compost tea. The manure tea went into the soil.

    The other tea that you were supposed to make for roses was alfalfa tea. Never did that.

  13. Oh thank you. I’m not much of a gardener but Jerry Baker has a summer homein my neck of the woods and occasionally I have to listen to him on the local radio. I thought he was nuts to suggest this general fertilizer. So much so, I wrote it down because it was disgusting:
    1 can beer
    1 can cola (non diet)
    1 cup apple juice
    1 cup gatoraid
    1 cup liquid dish soap
    1 cup lemon scented ammonia
    7 tbsp Miracle Grow (in one cup hot H2O)

    Mix all in 1 gallon container. Add mix to fill 20 gallon hose sprayer-use every 3 weeks.

    I’m not a chemist or botanist, but even this hillbilly believes this concoction is more snake oil than good….

    This was one of his ‘Freebies’

  14. I used to do a lot of work with farmers who were making the transition to organic farming from conventional practices. A sizable group of those farmers were into what we called ‘input substitution’ — they wanted to trade one bag of expensive, sometimes dangerous stuff for another back of expensive, less dangerous stuff.

    That’s where I always thought Jerry Baker fit into the gardening world. Folks knew that they wanted to garden in more ecologically sound ways. But they always bought stuff to dump on their gardens and Jerry offered a different line of stuff.

    The farmers I liked working with saw through all that bullshit and changed their farming system in order to nearly replace the bags completely. Gardeners would do well to emulate them. That means focusing on improving soil (adding organic matter in most cases), matching plants to the site, and fostering a diversity of life in your garden. That, and realizing that not everything will work out perfectly — and if you’re a gardener that’s not the end of the world.

  15. Ellis you put that very well.

    Thinking about this post today my mind went to the fact that so many people are looking for some secret, some pill, powder or potion, a fertilizer or chemical for every gardening problem. The answer is “Add organic matter to the soil.” Except for plants adapted to grow under sparse conditions that is “The Secret”.

    Organic matter in the form of mulch is a dern good weed reducer too.

  16. Christopher: I come from a family whose foolish motto is, ‘If a little is good, a not is better.’ An early experience with Ben-Gay taught me to doubt that. The same is true even with mulch. Too much is not necessarily a good thing. All things in moderation is probably a better approach — at least when it comes to mulch.

  17. The sad thing is, when you go into a garden center—one that very well may have great plants and smart people—they will unerringly steer you to the toxic shelf when you ask about plant pests and diseases.

    I don’t know how to address this for those not online and not “in the know.”

    Baker and his ilk do know how to reach the masses. That’s the problem.

  18. I am prepared to adjust my 4 to 6 inch rule of thumb for mulch depth when I move to the mountains of NC. Here in the tropics that will disappear, back to bare earth in a year.

    As far as insects and disease are concerned people need to learn to expect a certain degree of loss and predation and that it is acceptable, even potentially beneficial in the big picture. If a plant is healthy and not in danger of severe damage or death it may be best to ignore it. This too shall pass in a healthy garden. Too many people think all bugs are bad and need to be killed on sight.

  19. Under the new Jerry Baker — I find all his tobacco-juice remedy alarming. It is illegal (at least in the USA) to use for this purpose. I googled this from D. Andrew White M.Sc.’s organic pesticide site: >>Basically, nicotine is considered too toxic, to birds and mammals, for some agricultural uses or for general garden use. The use of nicotine is discouraged by toxicologists. For certain applications the use of nicotine, a ‘level 1 insecticide’, is actually illegal. <<

  20. Just to be clear since Jeff mentioned he disagrees with me on compost tea: Compost tea,such a terrible name….too many substances use it. When I refer to it, I mean compost, water and vigorous aeration for 12 to 24 hours to be used preferably within 4 hours. Added sugars, if any, are extremely limited. Manure tea is not compost tea. Nor are non-aerated brews that sit for a few days or a week.


    jeff Lowenfels
    Teaming With Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.

  21. While I have heard of Jerry Baker before the other two we’re new to me. Don’t hear much about them out here. Which is a good thing. Maybe the people reading their works don’t shop at my place, or don’t want to mention it.

    “The sad thing is, when you go into a garden center—one that very well may have great plants and smart people—they will unerringly steer you to the toxic shelf when you ask about plant pests and diseases.” Eliz, since 90% of our products are organic we would steer you straight for an organic solution. I am finding out that organics really are a new thing for most garden centers, especially outside of California. That will change, but it will take time. It’s an area that the independent nursery can and should be addressing since the big boys are not.

    The best way to address this issue is right here. The people “in the know” are here, and the word will spread. You have to think like the small garden center and focus the attention on those who will listen and not worry about the “masses”. It will just frustrate. The masses are always late to the party.

  22. I doubt that a blender concoction I made several years ago did much harm or any good, but I sure had fun thinking it up and using it. I also should have known it was a foretaste of things to come: when I finally went back to school to finish a bachelor’s degree, I emerged with a biology degree and went on to a career in life science research. (explanation of logic at the end–all will be made clear).

    Back to the blender concoction: I decided I was going to put absolutely everything I thought might be good for my plants into a liquid I could put in my hose-end sprayer. So–I grabbed a bunch of orange peels, a whole bulb of garlic, some fresh jalapenos and some hot red pepper flakes, some cooking oil and a bottle of blackstrap molasses, dumped it all in the blender and whirled the mess with water until it poured easily. I didn’t add anything else, because I did use my blender for normal food preparation; I figured there was no harm in adding a mess of food products even if they wouldn’t taste good together.

    I dumped the mess into a small bucket and added a bottle of fish emulsion, a bottle of kelp extract and some insecticidal soap. After I’d stirred this witches’ brew with a stick until it was all the same consistency, I put it in the hose-end sprayer.

    I was hoping to do some feeding (the fish emulsion, kelp extract and blackstrap molasses), knock down bugs (pepper/orange/garlic), suffocate bugs (oil/soap) and make the stuff stick better (molasses/oil/soap) all at the same time. I even went so far to lament the absence of a good crop of slugs, because I wanted to honor the memory of my grandmother: she always wanted to blenderize slugs and spray them on her plants as a deterrent but never quite worked up the nerve to do so.

    I wasn’t at all surprised at the stink rising up from my bucket, but I figured dilution through the sprayer would dissipate the odor. WRONG!!!! The stuff reeked even shooting out the end of the sprayer. Most sensible individuals would have stopped right there and then, but I have never been known for being sensible. So I sprayed my entire garden liberally with the stuff until I ran out, leaving me with a foul-smelling yard for a couple of days. I didn’t mind, really. I find bad smells vastly amusing. The plants survived the treatment, fortunately.

    The bad smell was probably the indication that I was born to be a biologist. My physics professor said that you could separate the three scientific disciplines this way: If it’s biology, it smells bad. If it’s chemistry, it explodes. And if it’s physics, it doesn’t work. It’s true. Biologists love to find a bad smell, and then recruit others to confirm that it is, indeed a bad smell. It happened all too often in the laboratory where I worked.

  23. I want to settle something really quick. The concoction of beer, soda, mouthwash, dish soap and ammonia does indeed work. There have been many accounts of this working and if it isn’t safe for the lawn then I would hope there’d be some circumstantial proof instead of someone’s unaccountable opinion.

  24. kt, Jeff Gillman speaks at length about how ammonia and dish soap can damage plants in his book, mentioned here, and which I reviewed here. He is a scientist and thoroughly tested and analyzed each home remedy. His conclusions are well backed up by science. Here’s a quote from my review about dish soap and ammonia, but you really need to consult Gillman’s writings first-hand.

    …according to Gillman, household soaps are not formulated for garden use, could burn foliage, and, at best, are a waste of time and a substance that works much better on dishes. Deep watering is the better and more effective choice.

    3. Household ammonias contain a type of aqueous nitrogen that hurts, not helps, plants. Without intimate and precise knowledge of the exact formulation of your household ammonia, your soil, and the correct calibration needed on your hose-end sprayer, you could be harming your plants. Which isn’t really the idea.

  25. The last time I did a Google search for “Jerry Baker,” I found two links to “Garden Rant,” on the first page. That should help you, to get your message, across.

    My name’s “Jerry Baker,” but I’m not the one you’re writing about, so I wish you success.

  26. Hi, I’m just checking in, because no one has posted anything here, for the past nine months. I’m Jerry L. Baker, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, with no connection to the Jerry F. Baker, who writes all the funny gardening books. Best wishes to you, in your endeavors.

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