Garden advice even the experts get wrong



thinking cartoon

Nobody knows everything!

We like to believe that the experts who write the books we buy, direct us with what we should do on television or on the internet, and write knowledgeable articles will always give us correct information. But there’s plenty of garden advice even the experts get wrong. We forget that these people are only human and can make mistakes, too.

So what is some of the garden advice that even the experts get wrong? Here are some misconceptions or poor advice I’ve run into.

“What has grown well for the experts will grow well for you.” Or maybe not. I know some of the top garden book writers who are positive which plants will grow well and which won’t. Yet after gardening for many decades, I can say for certain that just because a plant flourishes in one area does NOT guarantee it will be happy even in an area that appears to be similar. I’ve found this true particularly in Southern California where soils, humidity and temperatures vary widely – sometimes even within the same piece of property. One expert – with several top-selling garden books — assured me that a plant I know will not grow well inland in northern Los Angeles County MUST thrive because it does so well in the inland San Diego area. The person is highly respected in professional gardening circles – and wrong!

“Famous landscape designers and architects don’t make big mistakes.” Most of us who design gardens work hard not to make mistakes. A good designer or professional gardener will stand by his or her work and make right any errors. But all are human. There are a few designers who are highly esteemed (and extremely well paid) who prefer to keep up the illusion they know everything. I have been called in twice to fix mistakes made by two of these. I do not know if they genuinely believe themselves to be perfect or that is part of their effort of branding themselves. Just don’t buy into the illusion. Nobody’s perfect!

edible front yard

Raised vegetable gardens can look lovely and be productive. This yard is grown by Rosalind Creasy.


yellow aphids

Yellow aphids infest milkweed

Aphids have spindly legs and cannot climb back up stems once washed off with water.” I have been guilty of giving out this advice myself since it has been spouted by garden gurus forever. While washing off some aphids in my greenhouse a friend pointed out several of the little insects boldly trundling straight up her arm. “Those legs don’t act spindly or weak on me,” she observed. I have to agree.

“Ladybugs will solve all your aphid problems.” I was directly assured this by arguably the best known television garden celebrity. Ladybugs (and their immature forms) are excellent control for eating pests like aphids. They have ravenous appetites for aphids and will be an enormous help in the garden. But not only do they tend to miss insects hidden in tight folds of leaves, they will fly away to other feeding areas, often before the job is fully done. Enough pests can be left behind to spawn a new infestation in no time. This is also true for other natural predators like the praying mantis. These are excellent Eco-friendly tools for the garden. Please do use these natural pest fighters! Just don’t expect miracles.

cutting tree limb

Major pruning of tree limbs is best done in the autumn and winter months, but different trees require different pruning techniques

“Most tree trimmers know what they are doing.” Certainly all the butchered trees I see daily deny this belief. Trees are large and special organisms. Proper treatment and pruning is a science. If you want yours to grow strong and healthy, lasting for many decades, spend the extra to hire a good arborist. There is a reason these people spend years in their specialty. It may look easy to just chop off limbs, but trees take a long time to mature and their growth can impact your whole property. Just because someone knows a few of the “tricks of the trade” does not make him or her into a tree expert.

“Nurseries know all about the plants available.” Most nurseries do know about the plants they stock, but even experts in specific areas – such as fruit trees – are sometimes unaware of what other growers or nurseries are developing and selling. A very fine tree grower recently assured me that the ultra-dwarf fruit tree variety I have doesn’t exist. Happily, ignorant of this misinformation, my fruit tree is thriving and growing nicely into the tree it really is.

“If you follow the rules, your garden will always look great.” First of all, rules are always changing. Secondly, all living things go through periods when they don’t look great. Even plants need to take a rest every now and then. Nature makes her own rules and will always send the unexpected – and often uncontrollable — bit of weather, genetic weakness, pest attack or plain old serendipity to interrupt your plans. Love your garden for the amazing, constantly-changing beauty it has to offer. Nature doesn’t do “perfect”!

The moral of this story is you need to do your homework. With the internet, you have a tool to research your questions. Experts are people who have put much of their life into learning their trade. But they are still only human and they, too, can make mistakes. So get multiple answers when you have questions and accept that much of the fun of gardening is in the experimentation and the lessons you can learn with your own experience. You can figure out how ‘you can grow that’  with your own trial and error experiments. Use advice from others for guidance (most of it is very helpful) , then focus on your own learning journey as a gardener.


Don’t forget winter fruit tree spraying

fruit tree blossoms

Decorative peach blossoms will set fine fruits if insects don’t wreak havoc on them!

Healthy fruit trees are the result of good care. One of the more important aspects of getting good fruit and having beautiful, blooming fruit and nut trees is the winter spraying regimen. This is a job all too frequently overlooked even in mild winter climates which offer plenty of time to do the job. There are many ways to protect fruit trees from destructive weather and pests but don’t forget winter fruit tree spraying. It should start in the autumn, as soon as trees drop their leaves, and continue until springtime opens the blossoms.

fruit on the tree

A fine crop of pluots

Fruit and nut tree varieties should be selected for your climate – or even microclimate. They all have different needs. Equally, fungal infections and insect pests have favorite areas and favorite host trees. For example, in warmer coastal parts of Los Angeles, citrus trees fall easy prey to scale, whitefly and mealybug. In others areas, black rot can eat into the limbs of stone fruit trees (plum, apricot, nectarine, etc.). Fire blight can turn branches of fruiting and ornamental pears black just about everywhere. And leaf-rollers and aphids can attack a whole assortment of fruit trees in warm winter climates where they are not killed off by frosts.

Garden sprayer

Find the sprayer that works best for you.

Just as you have a lot of choices with tree cultivars, you also have a wide range of tree protecting sprays. There are plenty of commercial products for sale, but I prefer to use the organic or old fashioned remedies that are less toxic and work as well – if not better. The best sprays to use in autumn and winter are the dormant oil sprays, usually lime-sulfur or copper-sulfate. These sprays will help suffocate over-wintering insects and can function as fungicides. Neem® is an organic spray that is also used safely to kill insect pests on edibles. Try to spray trees as soon as you can after leaf drop and, ideally, spray every three to four weeks until the flower buds swell. Sprays can harm pollinating insects, so avoid any treatments while trees are in bloom. Do not use lime in any form on apricot trees – especially after they bud up – since they are lime sensitive. For more sensitive and evergreen fruit trees growing in the milder regions, try using a lighter fine oil spray made for leaf contact. Most of these treatments are all-natural and organically acceptable.

It is best to spray when winds are not blowing. Coat the whole tree from branch tips to base. Some fruit or nut trees can also be sprayed after bud drop. Do a little research into the needs of your specific kind of fruit tree(s). Make sure you read the labels and follow directions carefully. It is important to use the right proportions when mixing with water.

fruiting peach

Healthy peach on the tree

Weather and timing are critical for fruit spraying to be most effective. Proper winter spraying of fruit trees can make the difference between beautiful, fruitful trees and struggling, nonproductive trees. Sometimes these treatments can even save a tree’s life.

Aphid pests



The tiny aphid (Sketch by Jane Gates)

Aphids are little delicate bugs that suck juices from plants. One won’t cause any harm, but aphid pests multiply at an awesome rate and can coat leaves, buds and even stems in record time. They come in reds, yellows, greens, whites, blacks and browns. Colorful though they might be, they are also messy and destructive.

Some aphids will produce winged members when colonies get too big or the host plant becomes to weak and these flyers wing away to establish new colonies. Because aphids pests exude a sticky sweet liquid, ants love them and are happy to transport members to ever widening locations in order to extend the colonies. Ants actually will ‘farm’ these insects, moving them from one plant to another. More aphids feast on your plants. More sweet good stuff for the ants. More ants everywhere. More ailing plants. Yuck.

Aphids have weak little legs and if knocked off a plant with a stream of water, they are unable to climb back up again. Score a point for the gardener this time. Unfortunately, by the time an infestation is noted, there are often too many aphids to wash off. If you find an infestation is getting too widespread to wash off with water alone, try using one of the insecticidal soaps. Usually blasting with water and using the soap is enough to keep these insects pests under control.

The best way to keep aphids from getting ahead of you in the garden is to keep inspecting your plants. Keep a watch on tender, new, green shoots and the hidden undersides of leaves. New growth is most susceptible. Another natural control is to allow ladybugs, lacewings and other predators to feast on your aphids. Usually, so long as the aphid populations don’t grow too widespread, Mother Nature sends some of these voracious little aphid-munchers along to balance out the population. Keeping these friendly predators safe to do their jobs in the garden is one good reason to avoid heavy poisons in the garden whenever possible.

In short, vigilance, a squirt of water, horticultural insecticidal soap, and some help from pest-eating insects is usually enough to keep aphid pests from getting out of control in your garden.

Scale Insect Pests

scale insect

Scale settles in large communities and hardly looks alive.

Scale is a little insect that damages warm climate plants and house plants. It’s a strange little pest since the adult form settles into immobility on stems and leaves and looks like anything but an insect. The waxy blobs that cover the adult scale harbor nasty little sucking critters that drink out the life fluids from the plant. Immature scale is mobile and very tiny. Males are also small and have wings, but they do not feed or harm plants. The adult females, like aphids, sometimes excrete a sweet, sticky honey-like liquid that can drip onto surfaces below. The liquid can also attract ants.

Soft scale and armored scale are common in warm environments. They are killed off by frosts of varying degrees, but then so are many of their host plants. The mealybug is a type of scale, too. There are hundreds of types of scale insects. They come in a wide variety of shapes, textures, favorite host plants and climate tolerances.

Scale can be a serious pest to edible crops like citrus and debilitating to houseplants. There are some varieties that are used commercially to make shellac finishes and cochineal dye is a red pigment that has been harvested from some species of scale insects. But the scale insect is far better known for its destructive effects on plants.

Scale is difficult to control and natural preditors are the most effective. For individual houseplants and in the home garden, horticultural oils can be effective by literally smothering the insect. Some insecticides can kill the mobile young and the males on contact, but rarely penetrate the adult female waxy shell.


Pests in the vegetable garden


raccoon pests

Raccoons may look cute, but they are dangerous and trouble in the garden.

Look out for pests in the vegetable garden. Some sneak in at night, some fly in by air, some creep in under the soil and others find their way in riding piggyback on other wildlife. Pests will vary depending on where you live. Some are widespread and bother vegetable gardens in many climates.

There is nothing sweeter than a home-grown tomato. That’s why so many people find space to grow at least one tomato plant – even on a patio or balcony when there is no garden space. In warm, sunny summers tomatoes grow easily in all parts of the country. There are cultivars to fit into just about any space. You can even grow sun-dried tomatoes on the vine. But beware the ubiquitous tomato worm. It is green so it is hard to see and eats its way into growing very large (about three very fat inches long). Because these are the larval form of the hawk moth – a delightful creature often seen at sunset that looks like a tiny hummingbird – there are few places you can grow your tomatoes that will be inaccessible to the egg-laying adults. Hand pick the tomato worm or hornworm when you see it. These caterpillars are voracious and can reek a lot of destruction fast. On the positive side, the adults are important because they are prime pollinators of many plants — some can benefit from them more than from bees.

Even when summer ends, pests can be active in the vegetable garden. Insects can have a last rush at dining on your plants and even the animals that go dormant in the winter – like ground squirrels or gophers – are likely to want to party in your garden before taking a winter snooze. Racoons are perfectly happy to rummage through your landscape at any time of the year. In the eastern half of the country they can carry rabies, and even in the western half of the country in rural areas that had no raccoons they are becoming more and more common. I suspect it’s because of the increase in the human population. The recession may have slowed the influx of people in these areas, but the raccoons don’t seem much worried about the economy. The most useful deterrent I have found for these plucky critters (that can destroy ponds, vegetable gardens and trash can areas) are electrified fences for cattle or sheep. There is even a raccoon electric fence made specially for them.

Sometimes vegetables grow unmolested for the first few years until the wildlife discovers you’ve planted them a paradise. Those ridiculous old cartoons of people playing tug-of-war with a gopher on the other end of a vegetable plant lose their absurdity when you find yourself on the opposite end of your favorite plant as something greedy beneath the soil tries to wrest it from your grip. There are a hundred and one home remedies to use against gophers from chewing gum to kitty litter to tar-dipped corn cobs. Try them first if you want. Then try any of the noise vibrators, scent deterrents, smoking bombs, and, if necessary, poison baits. (Please use the last with caution so pets and other wildlife are not endangered.) If you don’t have success, go for the long-lasting solution of building physical barriers. Half-inch hardware cloth lining the vegetable garden underneath and up the sides, is usually a surefire, long term way to keep plants safe from gopher pests. Building a raised vegetable garden can help, too, especially if the bottom is lined with wire.

Physical barriers will keep out most of the other destructive rodents like mice, rats and rabbits. Mice and rats can be tricky, though, since they’ll find the smallest of spaces to sneak through. You’ll have to keep a careful watch on all gaps and seams. Rats and mice may find entryways before you do. I’m currently testing out the raccoon electrical wire to see if it will discourage the rats from entering the vegetable garden.

To keep out the rabbits, plan on making wire fences at least two feet high. And since rodents like mice and rats have skulls that can compress, these pests can fit into holes that look way to small for them to enter. You are safest using half inch hardware cloth rather than the chicken wire to keep them out.

For those of you who have better luck with exposed vegetable plants, sometimes cages wrapped with one-inch chicken wire are enough to protect sufficient crops for the table. When it comes to late season melons or winter squashes, try using plastic net bags (like the ones turkeys come in during the holidays, or sometimes onions and potatoes are sold in bulk with these nets). For some reason the gnawing pests seem to be put off their game by the bags, while air and sunshine are free to pass freely. Bag up young fruits and vegetables letting them grow to fill up the interior; the netting expands along with the growth. Maybe this trick will help you preserve more of your produce from those ravenous wild critters out there.

Insect pests are often controlled by hosing with water. If that doesn’t work, try an insecticidal soap or Neem®. If you still need to resort to poisons, make sure you read and follow the directions carefully for the most successful and safest applications. Personally, I prefer keeping poisonous insecticides out of edible gardens altogether if I can.

Speaking of insects, if you have celery plants, you might want to let some of them set seed. I find they often get aphids that then become magnets for ladybugs. Celery is best planted from seed and will be ready to crop in the late winter in warm climates. In the spring and early summer it will put out its flat-topped clusters of tiny yellow flowers that are likely to become loaded with ladybug families: eggs, pupae, nymphs and adults just in time to defend your garden from invading six-legged pests. All the members of the ladybug family (eggs excepted, of course) are voracious devourers of aphids all over the garden. You can even purchase live ladybugs. They will fly away over time, but only after their food supply of insect pests runs out.

Now if I could only figure out what plant I could cultivate that would intimidate the ground squirrel population. Maybe the electrified raccoon netting will work with them, too. (It shocks the intruders, but will not kill them.) I’ll let you know if this net fencing is successful as it is tested out in my garden during the coming year.

Identify and treat whitefly insects

Whitefly insect

Adult whitefly and juvenile form. Sketch by Jane Gates

Whitefly insects are tiny flying bugs that infest indoor plants and feed off of those growing outdoors in warm climates. These insects do not survive frosts, but then many of the plants they like best don’t tolerate cold either. Like aphids and mealybugs, whiteflies are sucking insects that can carry infections and will weaken the plant over time, potentially killing it.

If you spot tiny, flying, white moth-like creatures – the size of a pinhead — chances are you have an infestation of whiteflies. The eggs are even smaller than the adults and the immature forms are so tiny you won’t see them easily with the naked eye. Whiteflies will coat the underside of leaves where they quickly breed as they suck the life juices from your plant. Those tiny white moths are easy to identify as the adults fly off in clouds when disturbed.

Organic control can be done by hosing off all parts of the plant with a strong stream of water with particular attention to the underside the leaves, and/or spraying with an insecticidal soap or Neem solution. It is difficult to rid an infestation of whitefly with organic means only and you’ll have to treat frequently and regularly.

The most efficient way to kill off an attack of whitefly is to use a systemic insecticide that will be drawn up through the roots and into the sap. Insects drink the poison and die. Systemic poisons usually have a strong, unpleasant odor. They also make foliage and stems toxic so keep children and pets away from treated plants. Never use systemic insecticides on edible plants. Unfortunately, whiteflies have a tendency to quickly develop a resistance to pesticides, so it is best to continue with organic insect controls even after a chemical treatment.