The End of Cultural Requirements?


Lily post
Like most 21st century gardeners, I learned about gardening by reading.  I didn't know any gardeners aside from my friend Gerald, and while he would talk movies all day long, I always got the sense that he considered my gardening chatter faintly impolite.  Maybe he was bored by my ignorance.  Maybe it was a subject like love…too important to discuss.

Or maybe he had already arrived at the conclusion I've just been coming around to: Advice is nonsense.

So, to learn what I was doing, I just read a lot.  And much of what I read were long catalogs of plants and descriptions of various degrees of fussiness: doesn't like manure.  Will overwinter if well mulched.  Must be sprayed against thrips. 

And so, because I read that clematis prefer a more alkaline soil, every time I sweep out my fireplace, I give my clematis a dustpan full of wood ash.  I've noticed that given this treatment, some of my clematis have thrived–mainly the smaller-flowered ones like sweet autumn clematis or clematis viticella 'Purpurea Plena Elegans'–and most of them kick the bucket anyway.

On the other hand, lilies that the catalogs assure me will reach 4 feet tall top 7 feet in my garden.  I lifted some bulbs last fall to give to a friend, and they were as big as cantaloupes.  What magic cultural requirement am I meeting?  My soil is very sandy.  Otherwise, this success is pure mystery.

I amused myself recently by picking up a vegetable gardening book and reading through its growing advice for a long list of vegetables.  At least 75% of the advice would be lethal if practiced in my garden.  The author was British.  What works in Devon on some velvety green hillside above the sea won't necessarily work in Washington County, NY, where I've seen the thermometer reach -35  degrees Fahrenheit on more than one occasion.

Yes, of course, a basic understanding of whether a perennial prefers sun or shade, dry soil or wet, is helpful–the kind of thing you can generally understand at a glance by seeing whether the plant has big, slick, moisture-loving leaves, or small, grey, drought-loving ones.  Yes, in the vegetable garden, it is helpful to know whether the plant wants heat or cool, whether it prefers to grow while the days are waxing or waning.

But beyond that, I am increasingly convinced that trying to answer the needs of any individual plant is like trying to psyche out a relationship with a human being.  It either works or it doesn't, and the subtleties involved are so subtle that they are almost beyond human comprehension. 

It was my vegetable garden that led me to this radical conclusion. I started gardening at a weekend house, so I had to find a way to succeed without a daily effort.  To my surprise, I was much more successful doing less.  All I do now is mulch.  I don't dig anymore.  I don't lime my soil.  I don't add bagged fertilizer.  I've given the management of the joint entirely over to the worms, and they are far better at understanding the demands of my plants than I ever was.

There have been a few superb books in recent years confirming my sense that the interaction of plant and spot is so complicated that it makes cultural advice seem like a very blunt instrument indeed, including The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart and Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

Read these books, and you'll understand that what's occurring underground between the organic matter and the minerals, the bacteria and fungi and protozoa and worms is very intricate.  Read these books and the question, "What did I do wrong?" when some expensive perennial dies begins to seem like a really witless form of narcissism.

By focusing on the particular requirements of individual plants, we are missing the forest for the trees.  If we want to be successful in the garden, it's all about healthy soil, baby.  So mulch.


  1. While there is a lot of good information in Teaming with Microbes, you need to also read The Informed Gardener by Linda Chalker-Scott or go to her website for a thorough, scientific discussion on brewed compost tea.

    The microbes in each compost pile are not fully known. By artificially enhancing their populations with molasses and aeration, you might be spreading unacceptably high levels of E. coli or other pathogens around your yard and on your edible crops. In normal, un-enhanced compost, pathogens are rarely a problem if you follow a few guidelines such as not using manure from carnivores such as dogs or humans.

  2. Ginny, you’re right. Teaming With Microbes also discourages people from using manure in their compost. I’m sorry–that’s just ridiculous.

    So it’s not the advice that impresses me in that book–it’s the vivid picture of life underground.

  3. I use compost (I’ve got chickens) and mulch, and sometimes some greensand and rock phosphate, but I am not scientific. Over the years my soil has improved and so have my gardens, veggies and everything else. I have a lot of faith in the wisdom of Mother Nature.

  4. Add to the underground complexity the above ground impact of weather. We can only do so much. A lot of it is outside our reach and our understanding. I think we should be careful what we take credit for, so much of it is out of our hands.

  5. As a pro I don’t bother much with the fancypants fads like compost tea and such. People don’t want to pay us to fiddle with things that may or may not work.

    We have great success with the basics – compost, mulch, and organic slow-release fertilizer a few times a year. Most things thrive, and when someone wants something fussier, it’s easy enough to just tweak that zone a bit.

    But honestly, if a plant is so fussy that the basics of good soil, fert, and water aren’t enough, the majority of people don’t want to bother with them after all.

  6. I concur, reading books about how to become a more knowledgeable gardener is a beneficial thing.
    But I feel it it the combination of in field gardening experience, complete with failures and successes, hybridized with our book reading is the way to become a more confident gardener.

    I’ve been very fortunate in my education as a gardener. I went to school to study landscape architecture and ornamental horticulture. But some of the best classroom learning experiences were learned by making mistakes , experimenting and taking chances while cultivating ( and sometimes killing ) the garden.

  7. All of my plants hate me right now due to unseasonably cold weather and snow.

    I think a combo of good botany/physiology knowledge and experience makes a good gardener. Can you argue that pruning does not go better if the person understands the concept (if not the words) of node and internode?

  8. Clematis should like manure though I haven’t tried it. Manure is a good soil ammendment for non acid plants.

  9. Maybe I wasn’t clear. It’s the BREWED compost tea that is promoted in Teaming with Microbes that you need to worry about. The aeration and the molasses create a culture and a medium for artificially high populations of whatever microbes are in your compost. Please read Linda’s reports on this topic. She states the case much better than I:

    I use horse manure in my gardens without worries because horses are herbivores and because I do not artificially enhance the microbe populations.

  10. Katie Elzer-Peters, I’m not anti-knowledge–the opposite in fact. I’m just against all the myopic and unscientific cultural advice that gardening books are crammed with.

    My time would have been much better spent learning about nodes and internodes!

  11. Michelle pretty well nailed my gardening experience. The only absolute about gardening that I have concluded is that everything hinges on the soil. I have put the leaves from my own 4 large maple trees plus neighbors leaves in the ground for over 10 years and this helped. I found a cheap source of mulch about 5 years ago and this helped more. Last year I was able to buy fresh compost for $25/ton and used about 8,000 lbs for soil amendment and mulch. This resulted in my most satisfying overall summer ever, even with a drought affecting my area.

  12. Last night I went to the last Sundance Film Fest sceening of Dirt The Movie. A well done movie, but not much of it was new to me (or would be to anyone here), however it would be an excellent school teaching movie.I think they just had too much to cover in an hour an a half. According to the director, the movie is just the tip of the iceberg on what they would like to accomplish. They have a website,
    Havent checked G-rant in a couple days and thought this movie was fitting for this post. They talked a LOT about manure and domestic animals link to the soil throughout agricultural history.
    Dirt is a much better Sundance movie than Manure (yes really) about a manure company that featured parachuting fertilizer salesmen in the 60’s. I’m not making this up.

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