Where Do Those Stories Come From?

Posted 3/3/19

In my humble opinion, the most enjoyable and sometimes even humorous aspects of home gardening is not necessarily growing those two pound tomatoes, or fifty pound plus watermelons, or even the prize …

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Where Do Those Stories Come From?


In my humble opinion, the most enjoyable and sometimes even humorous aspects of home gardening is not necessarily growing those two pound tomatoes, or fifty pound plus watermelons, or even the prize roses we like to brag about and show off to our fellow gardeners. I enjoy listening to gardening tips and stories passed down by generations of our more “seasoned” gardeners, and often I have written about many of the gardening folklore tips that I hear. It often surprises me that many of the old gardening tales and practices do indeed have some degree of scientific basis, although most gardeners from older times didn’t know exactly why they worked. I though that since warmer weather is here (well, as is common for Alabama in February we have bounced around from the low 20’s all the way to the mid 70’s and everywhere in between) but nonetheless since many of us are now thinking about gardening I’d share a few with you.

One of my all time favorites is “Drive nails into your pecan trees to get them to produce large pecan crops”. On the surface this sounds absolutely crazy, and it is until you think about it. Many modern house and roofing nails contain a relatively large amount of the element zinc. Zinc is actually a micro nutrient that most plants need in very small amounts, that is most plants except pecan trees. Pecans need to receive quite a large amount of zinc or else they will not produce mature pecans. As it turns out, many of our soils around here, especially soils that have a low pH, are deficient in zinc. When the nails were driven into the pecan trees, the tree absorbed enough zinc to overcome the deficiency and produced pecans.  Somewhere down through the years, an astute home gardener noticed this and passed along the story. Before I back myself into a corner, please DO NOT drive nails into your pecan trees. The risk of introducing disease and insect pests is too great. Instead try adding about two pounds of zinc sulfate (available at most any lawn and garden center) to your regular fertilization to give them their needed zinc and lime your pecan trees with dolomitic limestone to raise the soil’s pH.

One of the most common “old time” gardening practices, and unfortunately I heard this one passed down in my own family, is that applying Red Devil Lye will improve your plants. I can’t even count the number of times that I have been asked “How much lye do I need to put around my fruit trees”. This is a very simple question to answer….. absolutely NONE – just don’t do it ever! Red Devil Lye and other similar products are actually sodium hydroxide, a very caustic alkaline solution. I come from an area in East Cullman County where soils much like they are here tend to be very acidic. Many plants do not grow very well in a low pH soil and in severe cases when some gardeners of the past put lye around the plants, they did seem to do better… for a while. It’s no wonder that this gardening story got started and is still around today. Here is the catch, lye is extremely caustic and can cause severe root damage to plants, trees, and shrubs. It is also very harsh to our environment. Lye contains a lot of sodium that can cause severe plant injury or even death in very large amounts. The lye application did in fact raise the soil’s pH, which was better for the plants, but often times it had disastrous results. The better plan is to use regular soil testing and lime or basic slag applications to adjust your soil’s pH. As a side note, I can actually remember as a kid my grandmother using red devil lye to make lye soap in big boiling pots out in the backyard (funny or maybe not so funny) it was the same pot that she used to make cracklins for us to make cornbread with as soon as the soap making was finished.  In my opinion using lye soap is something akin to washing your hands in battery acid (take my word for it, avoid it at all costs). Thank goodness just like fertilizers that we talked about earlier, gentler more “user friendly” soap is readily available and CHEAP.

One wise gardener even shared with me the idea of putting Epsom Salts around garden plants to help them grow. Ok admit it, how many of you have actually done this. I know that I have. Epsom salt is actually nothing more than simple magnesium sulfate. Both magnesium and sulfur are plant micronutrients. Most soils that are very acidic tend to make magnesium difficult for the plants to take up and by adding magnesium sulfate, magnesium deficient plants tend to grow better. Magnesium is a nutrient needed by the plant for photosynthesis. The practice of adding Epsom salt was perhaps discovered by some poor home gardener whose feet ached from working in the garden all day. After soaking his or her feet in Epsom salt and water he poured the mixture in the garden and like magic the magnesium deficient plants grew better. Again, a good soil testing program and the use of dolomitic lime will provide the necessary magnesium your plants need. For those of you who still wish to apply Epsom salt, try using about one tablespoon per gallon of water and water your plants as usual. As for me, I’ve decided to give my plants dolomitic lime and save the Epsom salt for my own aching feet!

Do you sense a pattern here. Many of the old folklore practices and home remedies for gardening originated in a time before we actually understood the relationship between proper soil pH and soil fertility and growing high quality healthy plants. It was also before the time when liming agents and fertilizers of all descriptions were readily available and affordable. Does that mean that they are wrong or should be ignored? Certainly not, it simply means that we now understand exactly why they once worked and that we now have better, more efficient, and safer ways of doing the things that the old time gardeners knew all along.

Then there is the one final ( and arguably the most humorous of all the garden folklore tales I’ve ever heard). When I was a kid, one of our neighbors, told me that you must spank your non-productive fruit trees to get them to produce fruit. He was a firm believer in the old saying “spare the rod and spoil the child” and this belief seemed to spill over into his orchard as well. Spanking the trunks of nonbearing fruit trees can cause the tree so much stress that it thinks that it is going to die. The tree’s response is to put on reproductive or fruit growth. I absolutely do not recommend this because of the potential for disease and insect problems, not to mention the damage to the tree’s trunk. After a good beating,  the poor old tree may very well die just like it thinks. Simply maintain a good level of fertility in the soil, a good spray program, proper and timely pruning, and select the correct varieties for our area and your fruit trees will produce fruit just fine. Besides, could you imagine how embarrassing it would be if your neighbor caught you in the back yard spanking your trees with a large stick? What in the world would you tell them?