Weekly Gardening Tips: Bad advice

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By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of a man named Bob Beyfuss.

My job for 31-plus years as a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent was to advise farmers, homeowners, gardeners and pretty much anyone else who had a question that Cornell might have an answer for. Now, I continue to offer advice to anyone who reads these weekly columns.

I always prided myself on providing “research-based” answers, as determined by Cornell. Cornell frowned mightily on making up the advice or not using an “approved” source, such as some other university or USDA. They had to be, since they were legally responsible for what I told people. If my bad advice resulted in financial loss, Cornell could be sued.  

When I retired, I began my retirement speech by apologizing for all the bad advice I had given out over the previous 31 years. I can honestly say I never deliberately gave out bad advice, but sometimes my sense of humor got me into trouble.

The first time I almost got fired was when I wrote, in my bi-weekly newsletter, that you could tie a rope to a chicken’s feet and use it to clean out your chimney by putting the chicken in the flue and yanking it up and down. The flapping wings and feet were a sure way to remove the crusty creosote. I neglected to mention that I was kidding and I soon found out that some PETA people were not at all amused.

I survived that blunder to commit several others over the years, including advising people to smear axle grease around their tree trunks to prevent gypsy moth caterpillars from climbing up and down the trunk. The axle grease really did work, but it also killed more than a few thin-barked trees.

On another occasion, I jokingly told a homeowner who was complaining about his neighbor’s dog using his lawn as a bathroom to get a BB gun and shoot it in the butt! I had a tough time explaining that gaffe to my boss!

So today, unencumbered by Cornell attorneys reading my stuff, I continue to offer advice that may not necessarily be “research-based,” but it is usually harmless and has been tested by time to work. These are generally “home remedies” that offer an alternative to strictly “research-based” data.

The rotten egg/rancid milk deer repellent mixture that a reader suggested, and I shared because it works, is a case in point.

In addition to bad advice, there is also “useless advice.” A few weeks ago, I wrote about installing a new lawn, which can be a pretty expensive undertaking considering the price of grass seed. Despite my weekly rants about the ongoing drought we were having, I failed to realize that some communities were under mandatory water restrictions. As much as you may want a new lawn, if it cannot be watered, usually daily, at first, it will not survive. Good advice on my end, but useless to the readers in Kingston.

There was a time when many people with gardening questions in rural New York simply called “Cornell,” but these days, people are more likely to consult the internet. Asking “Google” almost anything will yield about 5 million answers in a half second. Whether the answers are correct or not is subject to one’s own interpretation and that is a sad situation.

What is even more disturbing is when people deliberately provide false or misleading information because they have a political agenda they want to promote.  

Gardening is generally not considered a “political” topic, but the fact is that it is used by many to denounce or promote gardening practices, and those people who embrace them, such as maintaining a nice lawn, using pesticides, applying fertilizer, eradicating “exotic, invasive aliens” or cutting down trees! Some people are offended by their neighbor’s lawn, or his or her decision to cut down a tree, or the plants selected for the landscape.

To the people who judge others, or are offended by someone’s gardening practices, I say, “Get over it!” We are far too easily offended these days, when no offense is intended or warranted.

One of my former Cornell colleagues was a gentleman named Bob O’Kninefski. Bob was a turfgrass specialist from Suffolk County who maintained a “putting green” lawn of Bentgrass. Bentgrasses are the most intensively managed type of plants I know of, requiring daily mowing in many cases and lots of added inputs, fertilizers, pesticides etc. Today, Bob would be considered some sort of “environmental terrorist” by far too many people who think it is their right to judge what he likes or dislikes.

If you refuse to use any pesticides in your garden, that is fine with me, but if you choose to use legal, presumably safe (as determined by actual research, not internet opinions) pesticides, that is also fine with me.

I promise not to be offended by anyone’s gardening practices.      

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