Do Pros Understand Amateurs?


Check out this fantastic New York Times Magazine piece by Pete Wells about the nonsense professional chefs dish out to home cooks–namely, the idea that all the prep work must be accomplished before cooking can begin. The concept even has a French name, mise en place.  The problem is, what home cook has time for that?  Not to chop the peppers while the onions are frying, but to chop them ahead of time?  Only one who is unemployed and has a staff, that's who. 

This piece interested me because it reminded me of all the nonsense advice pros try to push off onto amateur gardeners, too, particularly in the vegetable garden.  The advice that drives me most crazy revolves around soil preparation: till every spring and add some carefully calibrated mix of bagged soil amendments.  Wrong.  In any vegetable plot small enough to be mulched by wheelbarrow, mulch is the easy answer to all questions: fertility, soil conditioning, weed control, water conservation. 

How about you?  Is there any advice designed for commercial applications–but not domestic life–that makes you crazy?  I'm asking the landscape professionals, too.  What's the worst advice you've ever heard a peer give an amateur?


  1. Here lies part of the problem and it is blatantly evident by reading the intro :
    In some cases amateurs aren’t seeing the whole or bigger picture.

    Point in case; The basic good advice about soil prep in the spring.
    That is generally all around good advice for the average home gardener.
    But you are eschewing it to fit your own small criteria ; ie , not everyone has a small enough plot to be mulched by a wheelbarrow or two nor is everybody’s soil profile the same as yours.
    Hence the saying , “ your mileage may differ”.
    Understand that and you’ll realize that there is many shades of gray.

    Advice that drives me crazy that I hear as a professional from both pro and amateurs alike :
    Combining subsurface and surface drainage in one pipe.
    Simply stupid.
    One bad rain storm and you’re going to have liquid soil pouring out of your house gutters at the roof line. – Not a pretty look.

  2. I don’t pay attention enough to remember anything specific but I will add that there are experts that truly believe it is important to paint a ‘wholelottahardwork’ picture to a newbie asking for advice and at the same time there are newbies that want someone to explain things in very specific terms down to the ‘nth detail with no wriggle room for things such as weather.

    Gardeners come in all shapes and sizes.

  3. I am also a little confused by “In any vegetable plot small enough to be mulched by wheelbarrow, mulch is the easy answer to all questions: fertility, soil conditioning, weed control, water conservation.”

  4. Veeta, an annual tilling and campaign of careful fertilization is hard work–and of questionable value in scientific terms, since you are basically destroying the soil structure and a lot of the life underground.

    Mulching a vegetable garden every spring or fall with wood chips, leaves, spoiled hay, sheep bedding, or composted yard waste keeps the weeds down, enriches the soil, keeps water from evaporating, and keeps the gardener from wilting.

    If you can manage it–and most farmers can’t–a mulch is the way to go.

  5. All she is saying is that instead of going through a multitude of processes to ready your garden, simply mulching it will do the trick.

    Spend one season tilling, purchasing, unnecessary amendments, spraying/pulling weeds, and excessively watering exposed soil (as many would have you do). You’ll know what she’s talking about.

    Soil type and garden size may be different everywhere, but seeing garden success when natural processes are actually allowed to run their course shouldn’t come as a shock.

  6. The biggest difference I see is advice on designing a garden: The pros have to have it all planned in advance, with a beautiful little design drawn up so they can get in, plant, and get out. Designing a garden at home is much more of an evolution — putting things in, seeing how they work, moving, things, looking for holes, filling holes. Never ask a landscape architect how to design your garden!

  7. I can’t imagine how tilling can be easier than mulching, unless one is a farmer with a tractor, even if it’s too big for a barrow load or two.

  8. I would like to comment on behalf of those gardeners who also cook. Pete Wells advice, to prep the ingredients in advance, is right on. I first saw this time-saving and stress-relieving technique on the cooking shows of old and adopted it in my home kitchen.

    Now, cooking has become an efficiently flowing process and last minute emergencies and stresses have been eliminated. It does not take longer to prep ingredients in advance and no auxiliary staff is required. The extra time needed to prep up front is canceled out by time saved later on when ingredients are combined.


  9. Joseph – right there with you. My husband thinks I should know everything I plan to put in the yard or garden, where it’ll go, & how it’ll look in 5, 10, 20 years. Except for large items like pergolas, retaining walls, or fruit trees I view it all as transient.

    Allan Becker – I’m a gardener & cook, but cannot for the life of me enjoy cooking when everything is prepped before hand. Part of the enjoyment is in the timing of prep with the processes. If, once the burner is lit, all I had to do was wait to add ingredients at the proper time, I’d fall asleep. But to each his own, right ?

  10. Totally with you allanbekcer-g.

    I’m very much employed, and I HAVE to cook by prepping everything first. Otherwise, entire ingredients get skipped or I scald/burn stuff while I’m bumbling around trying to locate and/or prep other stuff. There’s nothing froofy or snobby about that; it’s common freakin sense. Home ec, anyone?

    I actually hate when big box garden/landscaping employees try to validate their jobs by jabbering at me about the products I’m buying. Maybe I just appear ignorant or something, but I really do know what blood meal is for. I’m not buying it to feed my blood.

  11. I understand why tilling every year would be destructive to soil structure (not to mention labor intensive), but I was shocked to hear that mulch alone could contribute to soil fertility. Obviously I must do a soil test, but I guess I then think of specific amendments to be added as fertilizer, not mulch. Am I still missing something here?

  12. It makes me crazy to read advice concerning watering at soil level. I haven’t the cash to invest in drip irrigation or the temperment to hand water my tiny little raised vegetable beds. AND my question is what about the overhead RAIN.
    if a truck farmer depends on rain why O why must I water at ground level only???

  13. double digging- every organic gardening book says to dig deep- especially in the west, this is counterproductive, as well as being really hard work.

  14. It really depends on where you garden. Here in the Sierra Nevada foothills mulch, by itself, just ain’t going to do it. We are lacking in many major and minor nutrients, like calcium, iron, boron, phosphorus, etc. In addition copious amounts of soil conditioners need to be mixed into what might be nicely called decomposing granite.

    Perhaps in Michele’s area this things are not needed. Here, without the addition of the vital nutrients plants just will not produce.

    As a nursery professional we walk a fine line between too much info and a confused customer, and not enough info and a disappointed customer.

    I think the problem lies in the way the information is disbursed to the customer. As a customer I want the facts, and I’ll decide what to do. Leave out important info and I may not come back.

  15. My pet peeve (and abbreviated rant)… Mel Bartholomew is responsible for selling more vermiculite to hopeful new gardeners than anyone in the world. Having grown vegetables in a typical row crop, and a raised, square foot, urban bed, I can’t think of anything more useless than stirring a bunch of vermiculite into your soil. I’ve worked at garden centers for 6 years or so, and can’t help but dissuade people from buying the vermiculite. What a waste! Just get another bag of compost, if you are itching to spend your money so badly.
    I also find it hard to deal with the “how much soil do I need” question, because the real answer is: as much as you can afford. If you can afford to buy a buttload in one shot, bully for you. If not, start with what you can get and keep amending, as you are able. Something will surely grow there.

  16. I dislike the compost “pros” who imply there is a formula. I guess there is if you want to use one. I’ve been composting for the last nine years, and my compost has never failed to break down into good stuff, and I never follow any ratio of browns to greens. I also put lotsa’ stuff in there that isn’t recommended…like a whole gallon of cake icing, old mayonaise, etc. buried in the middle of the pile. Of course, I might not do this if I had a tiny backyard.

    I also agree with Trey above that you don’t need vermiculite to do square foot gardening. I couldn’t afford the stuff so I made my own soil from homemade compost and other additives and my blackberries, asparagus, and Jerusalem (sp?) artichokes haven’t complained yet…

  17. Unless I’m doing something I can do with one hand tied behind my back, mise en place saves me time….

    That said, what drives me crazy is advice written by experts who forget what it was like to be first learning about these kinds of things! So many don’t start at the beginning with their beginning advice–they start somewhere in the middle, and you just have to catch on!

  18. Did the soaker hose once but mine kept getting plugged up with dirt they dont work so good with ditch water or unfiltered water. Went back to sprinklers.

  19. THE PARAMOUNT stupidity are:
    Turf, palms, hedges and topiaries.

    They all require time, effort, pollution, creating tons of organic waste landing in city dumps.

    That is the most irritating
    feeble minded advise down in Puercorico, USA.

  20. First off perpping ingreients before cooking takes no more time than doing it while cooking.

    The worst advice I have heard:

    1) You can grow tomatoes in an EarthBox and not have to water everyday

    2)Just fertilize a diseased lawn. This from someone I work with who thought that just because some lawn diseases respond well to an app of N all diseases can be cured this way

    3) Mulch garden beds before they freeze to keep them warm in winter

    4) Anything Jerry Baker says

    5) Larry Czonke on WAMC (NPR affiliate in Albany, NY) “compost dog poop and use it in your garden.

    6) Topsy Turvy stops tomatoes from getting disease

    7) Ranters saying lawns are evil


  21. The most expensive garden lie:

    Drip irrigation/soaker hoses:

    Very difficult to get a bed properly watered by soaker hoses. Drip irrigation is nice but storing it off season not so nice.

  22. Depends on the soaker hose–though all my water (well) is filtered. It’s really the only sensible way to water my beds because of their shape. (And if real gardeners water by hand, then I’m not a real gardener.) The flat ones seem to work much better than the round ones–the water is a LOT more even. I gave up of “real” drip irrigation, though. Seriously, an emitter for every plant? HA!!!!

    I’m reseeding right now. If nitrogen runoff is such a problem from yards, then why are the stripes that I missed so clearly brown? I can’t even get my nitrogen to “run off” two feet to the missed areas after a rainstorm. I can’t imagine the quantity I’d have to apply for it to cause problems a substantial difference away. I suspect either the culprit is misidentified, that nitrogen from yards used to be a problem before most was changed to slow-release, or that lawns are just an easier target than, say Fido.

    I’m done with this after next year, though. I just found out about a running turf grass for shade. And yes, grass DOES have a place in a gardener’s yard. Looking at the amount of energy most of my neighbors (fail to) put into their yards, I really think most of the anti-lawn stance is sheer snobbery–an assault against something that’s now too common and middle class.

  23. I got to thinking about the posts regarding vermiculite. Long ago when Mel wrote those books the vermiculte that was widley available was a chunky material with particles about the size of perlite and it did work well as an additive. Nowadays all you can find, at least in this part of the country, is powdery fine vermiculite. Baby food for plants. It is great for starting seeds but forget about mixing it in potting mediums or the garden.

  24. This reply is a bit late so I doubt it’ll be read by many, but …

    Obviously, many people love mise en place when cooking. Still, it bores me to tears. Kinda like following the recipe to the teeth-achingly level teaspoon.

    And drip irrigation may not seem like a big deal – or it may seem like a huge pain – to many. But here in the arid West we can’t count on rain to water our gardens between April and October. Because every drop is precious & costly, the water MUST go where it is needed. For plants that grow large & are spaced far apart, yes, that means an emitter (or a few) for each plant. In the veggie garden, it means strings of in-line emitters, micro jets, foggers, bubblers or small diameter soaker hose, etc that can be adjusted and moved as you change your plantings. I’m fortunate that we can have actual winter gardens here & have never had to store the drip lines. During the winter it’s there for the dry spells or – heaven forbid – drought.

  25. Water your garden, indeed. Water is very expensive even from a fragile well.

    1.)I’m gardening during a severe drought according to,SE

    2.)I accept that intermittant flooding and drought has been SOP in Central Virginia for at least 800 years. Re: Bartram’s letters and tree rings.

    3.) Crackling dry mulch (shredded leaves, pine straw, fresh wood chips) is lifted away by gusting westerly winds.

    4.) Mature trees are dying.

    5.) Today’s rains are soothing but we need something bibical.

    6.) Have a little sensitivity for those of us who coax life from the soil in this see-saw climate.

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