I am Not a Science-Based Gardener

If my Facebook feed and many prominent gardening blogs are any indication, “science-based gardening” is trending.  Here is my feeling about that:


Hey, I know there’s a lot of bad gardening advice out there, and it’s great that there are strong and trustworthy voices ready to stamp it out, but gardening is just not something that I (and dare I say, the majority of gardeners?) approach scientifically.

For me, gardening — like cooking — is something to be approached intuitively, even sentimentally, rather than methodically.  I would rather bake and eat the chocolate chip cookie made from my mom’s recipe on the yellowed index card than the one whose sugar/butter ratio was tested and deemed superior by a panel of food science doctoral students.  (Yes, I can taste her love in the cookies, don’t tell me I can’t!)

Same with gardening.  My planting choices are often guided by pure emotion, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  The little voice that tells me I really oughtn’t to plant a banana tree in my yard just because I saw it done in that little garden in Charleston with the amazing wrought-iron gate with the pineapple motif and the whole vignette just about made my heart stop — that’s a voice I often just ignore.   The banana is going in!

Years ago I got a soil test done.  I carefully followed the instructions given to me by the Master Gardeners: I selected several different spots in my yard, dug a few inches down, collected the prescribed amount of soil, placed it into the designated receptacles, and sent it down to the lab at Virginia Tech.  The helpful people at the Extension service sent back a detailed report indicating acidity levels and the presence of micronutrients, etc.  I recall they suggested that I add a quantity of lime to my lawn — even specifying how much per square yard and such.  It was awfully nice of them.

soil test

I carefully folded the report back into the envelope, stuffed it into my Gardening for Dummies book, and drove to the garden center, where I purchased plants that spoke to my eye and heart, which that year was probably columbine and clematis.

I never did lime my lawn.

Unfortunately, the way I usually learn what NOT to plant in my yard is by heartbreaking trial and error, and not by flipping through Foolproof Plants of the Midatlantic.  I have learned many other life lessons in this same painful and unscientific manner, and it seems to be the only way that things stick.  And let’s face it, sometimes it’s more fun not learn the lesson at all.  Sometimes life is best lived by moving from one gloriously impractical idea to the next.

So I shall continue to stumble along, letting my ridiculous, irrational brain guide my gardening choices.  And the banana shall be planted forthwith!


8 thoughts on “I am Not a Science-Based Gardener

  1. Lol! I have volunteered at a community vegetable garden and for the past 3 years our leader has read the latest research from many universities. He implemented many significant changes based of his readings and for those 3 years our produce yield has continued to decline significantly while the work load has increased. This year he has decided to go back to what was proven to us in the past to work. Everything so far is far superior than our “research years”. Sometimes what works in one setting does not work in another. Good to know we can still learn from our mistakes.

    • Interesting. I am sometimes skeptical about research as well, simply because there are so many variables at play in the average person’s yard that aren’t necessarily replicated in plant trials and other experiments. Not saying the science isn’t extremely valuable, but what I observe with my own eyeballs in my own yard is going to count for more.

  2. So enjoyed reading this….And I had a hardy banana plant for years in Hastings on Hudson, NY. Came back taller and wider every spring…just when I thought it hadn’t made it!!! Still chuckle when I daydream about what the new owners think.

  3. Thank you, Becca. I am trying to pick a location for a banana… either full sun but where it is more exposed to the weather, or in a protected spot where it only gets half sun. What would you recommend?

  4. I disagree with you totally. Your garden and your knowledge of gardening depends on the scientific efforts of the botanists, chemists, naturalists and the horticulturists who came before you and your garden and by those doing research today. It is through their efforts that you have a banana to plant in your garden! The point you are missing is that by knowing the science behind the way plants grow, fertilizers, soils, microorganisms, etc., gardeners can make informed decisions to positively or negatively impact the environment. Plus, you may be able to save money. Yes, you can still have fun and enjoy gardening (we all do) but being a Smart Gardener or Informed Gardener is just plain being environmentally responsible. BTW I live in Michigan and I grow bananas and trial and error is very much a part of science. Be excited that science has brought you that new variety to trial in your garden!

  5. But wait… What is the “Black Walnut Dispatch,” if not scientific endeavor? Per Wikipedia, Science (from the Latin word scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. So .then isn’t collecting data of what has been found thriving under walnut trees over a wide range of experiences a great example of citizen science?
    Thanks- Love your site! E. Wolshock

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