Q: I saw information for taking care of house plants on a website. I'm pretty sure that it was wrong. How can I tell if gardening information on the web is correct or not?
A: There are several ways in which you can put your sleuthing skills to work. The first is to do exactly what you did — to say, "that doesn't sound right," and check the online information in another place. If the information from the second source is different, be suspicious. If the directions are the same from both sources, you may have learned something new.
The trouble, of course, is that anyone can offer gardening advice online. Probably none of the authors has a malicious intent, but they may have made mistakes in writing out their information. Or they may have tried something once, succeeded, and assumed that their solution was correct instead of a lucky freak. Or something succeeded in Missouri which would fail dismally in Massachusetts and Arizona.
Another way to evaluate online information is to look at the source. Information which comes from a university website or a state department of agriculture is likely to be accurate and well researched. Information from a commercial gardening company which operates by making a profit every year also is dependable. Those companies would not stay in business for long if they gave out bad information. However, it is sensible to ask yourself if the supplier of online information has anything to gain by having you believe them — selling you their product, for instance.
How old is the online information? Some gardening ideas have not changed in generations, but some are very different after even a decade of trying them out. As usual, evaluating what is read instead of assuming its accuracy is good exercise for the gardening brain.
Q: I am going to grow my tomato plants from seed this year, instead of buying plants. I don't understand the instructions. How warm should the plants be? How much light do the seeds need in order to sprout?
A: It is confusing until you think of it as a two–part operation; then it is simple. The temperature and light for sprouting seeds are different from the temperature and light for growing seedlings.
Except for a few flower seeds which must be planted on top of the soil and not covered, seeds need no light at all to start the process of germination. They need moisture and warmth. Moisture is provided by keeping their potting soil damp. Warmth is provided by keeping the seed containers at room temperature.
If the seeds to be sprouted come from plants that like hot weather, as is true of tomatoes, they will sprout faster if temperatures are slightly warmer than a comfortable house. The range between 75 and 80 degrees will get the seeds going most quickly. Do not keep seed temperatures above 80 degrees, because too much heat can damage seeds.
Various gadgets like heat mats are designed to keep a tray of seeds warm in a cool room — or a greenhouse in spring, perhaps. If you do not have a heat mat, sprout your tomato seeds in a warm spot in the house. At lower than 75 degrees they may need two or three extra days to appear above ground, but they will show up.
As soon as all the seeds have produced their first green growth, it is time to change their circumstances. Tomato seedlings will grow best at cool house temperatures, and they need all the light that you can provide for them. Finding a spot that is both sunny and cool can be challenging, especially in the afternoon. Do your best and don't worry. Tomato plants are strong and adaptable.
Keep the potting soil for the tomatoes moist, but never let water stand in saucers or trays. Try to give them good air circulation. Try to refrain from checking on them more than three times a day. Watching baby plants start to grow is an exciting occupation.
Q: If I order asparagus roots from a catalog, will they grow here?
A: Yes, they should, but unless you are planting them in a very protected place, I recommend the Mary or Martha Washington varieties. They are old standards and should survive our winters. The newer New Jersey all-male hybrids will make bigger crops if they survive. They may not live to make any crop at all. I know of local gardeners who have succeeded with those hybrids and others who have failed.
More important, I would try to buy asparagus roots locally instead of having them shipped from elsewhere in the country. Local nurseries will have roots which are well adapted to the local climate because they have been growing here. Also the local asparagus roots will cost less.
Local stocks of asparagus roots may not be large. To guarantee that the stock will not be depleted before you are ready to plant asparagus, I recommend ordering early, long before it is time to plant.
Q: How deep do you plant asparagus? Do you fill in a trench gradually, as the baby asparagus plants grow?
A: I plant asparagus four inches deep, and I fill the holes right away. Asparagus has contractile roots. That means that if the plant wants to be deeper than four inches, the roots will pull themselves down to the exact depth they like. Those roots are smarter than I am about what they need, so I let them make the final decision.
I am careful to give each asparagus plant at least two feet of ground to call its own. That may look like a lot of space the first year, and there may be a lot of weeding required, but those asparagus crowns will soon grow big. They will live and produce far longer if they are not crowded.
Is gardening work?
Why is it that otherwise sane people squander their spare time in taking care of plants? Here is one answer from Valentine Low, in his book One Man and His Dig: "Now, I already had one job, and to be honest that was quite enough, thank you. While the world is full of people who — for reasons of ambition, martyrdom or perhaps just sheer stupidity — choose to make a virtue of working fourteen-hour days, I am not one of them. To be honest, in my view the old fashioned nine to five is enough of an imposition as it is without trying to take on more. Yet the curious thing is that while I often rushed home from work, changed into my gardening clothes ... and put in another couple of hours, I never regarded it as a burden. If anything, it was a bit of a relief; after a stressful day at the office, there was nothing like performing a simple task such as watering or hoeing as the late afternoon sun played on your back to make your daily cares just melt away."