During my training as a master gardener volunteer and my two decades of writing for gardening magazines, I’ve learned a lot of great science-based information. Occasionally, I remember to use it.
Some scientific facts are easier for me to apply than others. For instance, contrary to what the good folks at lawn-care corporations would have you believe, research shows that in our neck of the woods, it’s ineffective to fertilize your lawn much after Labor Day. I remember when lawn-care corporations advertised the “winter” application as being the most important one. Not so. Research shows that in our climate, the roots of turfgrass stop taking up nutrients as the weather cools. So, save money and take something off the to-do list. That’s a no-brainer, right?
I’ve also learned that quite a few unsightly and even scary-looking problems are just cosmetic. Tar spot, those round black circles on maple leaves, are not hurting the tree. Ditto the various lumpy growths (called galls) on hackberry trees and goldenrod stems and coneflowers. They are the plant’s response to nearly microscopic wasps feeding on the plant’s tissues. Similarly, left to its own devices, turfgrass will usually grow out of various fungal infections such as snow mold and rust. No chemicals required.
(Great fact sheets about many insect, disease and plant-care problems are available for free on the University of Wisconsin-Extension website. Extension also offers insect, plant pathology, turfgrass and soil labs. There’s an impressive amount of assistance available to us through the university.)
Other scientific data has proven harder for me to put into practice. Take soil tests, for instance. Every county extension agent will tell you to get a soil test before applying fertilizer so you can add only the nutrients your soil actually needs. Makes sense, right?
I have dutifully had my soil tested — twice. Each time, the computer-generated results confounded me. I understood that the results indicated I should apply 3 pounds of nitrogen per 100 square feet. But what’s next? Bring a scale into the garden to weigh the nitrogen first? Actually measure the square footage of my garden? Are you kidding?
As if this isn’t sufficiently off-putting, fertilizer is generally sold in mixes. The bags have formulas on them: 10-20-10 or something similar. That means the bag has 10 percent nitrogen, 20 percent phosphate and 10 percent potash. If the bag holds 3 pounds of fertilizer that’s 10 percent nitrogen, and I need 3 pounds of nitrogen, how much of the bag do I use per 100 square feet? So this is why I should have been paying more attention to story problems in math.
As a word person, I was definitely treading water in the vast pool of scientific data. I scooped handfuls of fertilizer from the bag and flung it into the garden. There. The garden has been fertilized, I thought with satisfaction. Cross another item off the to-do list. Now that’s blitz.
Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living magazines.