Gardening myth buster

‘Renegade Gardener’ Don Engebretson turns dictums upside down

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comJanuary 22, 2014 

Don Engebretson’s takes on both garden mythology and the peddlers of worthless products. His website, The Renegade Gardener, carries no advertising.

“I need to be free to state my opinions,” said the Minnesota-based garden writer and landscape designer. “Your average garden writer is too often beholden to the industry. As a horticultural speaker you want to be beholden to facts.”

Those facts and opinions will be freely expressed this week when he speaks at the Tacoma Home and Garden Show.

Engebretson has written for “Better Homes & Gardens” magazine and dozens of newspapers. He’s appeared on HGTV and worked as the on-camera landscape designer for the PBS how-to program “Hometime.” He’s published five books on gardening and design and keeps a busy speaking schedule.

In between all that he operates a residential landscape renovation business.

His topics at the Tacoma show will cover container gardening and myth busting.

“My one slim talent is I can make people laugh. I can give a good saucy gardening talk,” Engebretson said.

Sometimes his opinionated stance wins him both admirers and detractors. A column he wrote titled “Enough with the damn daylilies” railed against the overuse of the pretty but gangly plant.

“They quickly grow into a giant monster that looks like Jabba the Hutt,” Engebretson said.

Engebretson soon heard from daylily gardeners all over the world. The reaction was both negative and positive.

He said he sometimes finds himself on a stage sponsored by a business that creates the very products he’s not too fond of, such as concrete retaining wall blocks. He uses natural stone in his walls.

There are just too many products out there being sold to solve problems that don’t really exist, Engebretson said.

“The garden industry freaked out and decided that gardening was too complicated and too much work and that everything needs to be easy and foolproof. They are the only industry that I know of that tries to reduce the time people devote to their hobby,” he said.

Engebretson urges gardeners to educate themselves rather than buy labor-saving devices and products.

“People are being bamboozled into ridiculous products and erroneous shortcuts,” he said. If a greenhorn green thumb learns about gardening, such as knowing the Latin names of plants, it becomes easier and more enjoyable for them, he said.

“There’s a ton of stuff to learn and you get better and you develop your own style and evoke your own personality,” Engebretson said.

It’s a confusing horticultural world out there for the budding gardener. And some of the nurseries that cater to them aren’t helping. Already in Puget Sound, a few local stores are putting out petunias, pansies and primroses in full bloom. Most likely they were grown in greenhouses, not outdoors.

“There’s absolutely no reason to sell plants that early,” Engebretson said. But, in the same breath, he said he’s sympathetic to the trade.

“Nurseries make 65 to 75 percent of their income in the spring,” he said. They need to sell as much as they can as early as they can. So growers will force plants to bloom early with fertilizer and hothouses.

“You plant these things in the ground and they struggle,” he said. If a consumer does buy a plant in full bloom, he advises to pinch the flower buds off which in turn forces the plant to produce better roots and flowers later in the season.

“The worst is when they bring out tomatoes and peppers too early,” he said. “What it will take — which will never happen — is statewide collusion. Every nursery in Seattle and Tacoma would get together and say ‘Guys, for the sake of the industry, we need to hold off on our sales.’”

Delayed planting of tomatoes will produce a better tomato crop, he said. “Everyone plants their tomatoes too soon.” He doesn’t plant his until roughly June 1 in Minnesota.

Engebretson loves to bust myths. And he has no shortage of them. They come from the industry, your local nursery and even universities. “And, of course, most of them come from your grandmother or your neighbor.”

A common one he hears is the admonishment to never amend the soil when planting a tree. That came from university research, he said, which has since been discredited. The truth is: Only the soil knows for sure.

“If you’re digging your hole and what you are digging is fairly dark and crumbly, it drains well and has organic content (you don’t need to amend it.) It you’re digging it and you discover it’s potter’s clay or it collapses because it’s sand, bring in organic amendments — copious amounts of compost, peat moss,” he said. You may end up digging a larger hole but it’ll be worth it, he said. Engebretson even takes the time to perforate the edges of the hole so it doesn’t become one large impervious dirt bowl.

He’s against staking trees when planted unless a garden gets winds strong enough to blow a tree completely over. A swaying tree, Engebretson said, makes a strong tree. “When a young tree sways in the wind nature created a fix for that,” he said. There’s even a fancy word for it: Thigmomorphogenesis. The tree’s branches and trunks become stronger.

Another myth Engebretson dispels is that wood mulch attracts termites. Termites need solid wood in which to bore and make their nests and can’t survive in chips. But, in that same vein, wood piles — which do attract termites — should never be closer than 25 feet to a house, he advised.

He’s against landscape fabric as an alleged weed preventer. “That’s a perfect example of a product that’s unnecessary, superfluous and harmful. It doesn’t block weeds,” he said. Instead it inhibits water and drastically reduces oxygen levels in soil. “It winds up harming the plants and they don’t develop in to what they could be.” Instead, use mulch which will naturally decompose over time. “You want your mulch to disappear. You want to replenish your mulch.”

Organic gardening is a hot topic but it’s full of myths as well. The most common Engebretson hears: Gardeners who only use organic products because they are safer for people and the environment.

“It’s a complete utter myth,” Engebretson said.

Engebretson adheres to organic principals. He only uses organic fertilizers and strongly advises against the use of chemical products unless “all hell breaks loose.”

But, Engebretson said, organic gardeners need to keep in mind that just because a product says “organic” doesn’t mean it’s not a chemical.

“It’s not a choice between organic and chemical products. Your choice is between organic chemical products and synthetic chemical products. Either way you are using chemicals.”

Horticultural soaps, for instance, are toxic and kill insects just like synthetic products do. “(Accidentally) spray yourself in the eyes with it and when you get back from the emergency room it’ll dawn on you you’re using a chemical,” Engebretson said.

“There are some organic gardening products that are much more dangerous and have a longer impact on the environment than synthetic products,” Engebretson said.

For instance, Engebretson said, there are two types of organic horticultural oils that are used to control fungal diseases. A vegetable-based version doesn’t work well but a petroleum-based one does, he said. But the petroleum version is more harmful to the environment than the herbicide Roundup, he said.

The same goes for copper sulfate — a “natural” fungicide that is used on organic tomato crops. The long list of harmful effects it has on humans and the environment is sobering. “It’ll kill you,” Engebretson said. “Copper sulfate makes Roundup look like mother’s milk.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

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