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March Mania

Fact or fiction? Debunking 10 yard and garden myths

Don Kinzler, Growing Together and Fielding Questions columnist. The Forum1 / 5
Today’s "Growing Together" discusses common gardening myths. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 5
Does the number of bumps on a pepper determine its sweetness or make it male or female? Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 5
Can cornmeal prevent weeds? Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor4 / 5
Is a layer of rocks inside a pot necessary for good drainage? Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor5 / 5

FARGO -- I’m often asked if gardening information is true, or if it’s “an old wives’ tale.” As I’ve often said, I’m never quick to dismiss old wives’ tales, because some of the best gardeners I’ve ever known have been old wives. And plenty of old husbands have told a tale or two.

Did you see the internet article claiming you can tell a female pepper from a male pepper in the grocery store, and one is sweeter? Can you really prevent weeds by sprinkling cornmeal over the soil?

Let’s examine the reality of some common yard and garden myths.

Myth 1: Adding a layer of rocks or pebbles in the bottom of houseplant pots is necessary for proper drainage.

Reality: For over 100 years, soil scientists have demonstrated that water does not pass easily from a layer of soil into a layer of coarse material below. Water first supersaturates the potting soil before exiting into the rock layer, increasing the chance of overwatering houseplants. For best drainage, just fill the pot with high-quality potting mix, and skip the layer of pebbles.

Myth 2: Applying pruning paint or sealers to pruning cuts or injuries will help the tree’s wounds heal.

Reality: Trees have the natural ability to recover from wounds, as they’ve done for eons. Applying paints or sealers can interfere with the formation of the tree’s natural protective tissue, while causing moisture and rotting organisms to flourish under the artificial coating.

Myth 3: When planting trees and shrubs, amend the soil with compost or other organic material, so the plant has better soil in which to grow.

Reality: Adding ingredients to the planting hole or backfill soil creates an area that is overly favorable, causing roots to remain within the planting hole, instead of growing outward into the non-amended soil. Instead, simply backfill the planting hole with the surrounding natural soil.

Myth 4: Ants are necessary for peony buds to open properly.

Reality: Researching this is easily done by simply excluding ants from a peony, showing that flowers open normally without ants. Ants are attracted to the bud’s sticky sap, so although ants aren’t necessary, they’re usually found in close association with a peony that’s blooming nicely.

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Myth 5: When shopping for bell peppers, choose female peppers, identified by the four bumps on the base, as they are sweeter. Male peppers have three bumps.

Reality: There’s no such thing as male and female pepper fruits. All pepper fruits result from the pollination of the female ovary, so all peppers and other fruits are ripened ovaries, by definition. The number of bumps on bell pepper fruits are random, usually caused by growing conditions.

Myth 6: Cornmeal will prevent weeds if sprinkled over the soil.

Reality: A product called corn gluten meal might have limited benefit in some weed suppression, but that’s a different product. Grocery store cornmeal does not prevent weeds.

Myth 7: Adding Epsom salts to the soil prevents blossom end rot of tomato fruits.

Reality: Blossom end rot is caused by the plant’s inability to temporarily access soil calcium, which is plentiful in our soil. Epsom salts contain magnesium, and have been shown ineffective. If the application of Epsom salts has seemingly worked, it’s coincidental, and it isn’t recommended as it can cause other soil problems.

Myth 8: Applying acid-based materials to our alkaline soil will turn hydrangeas from pink to blue, and help us grow maples and blueberries.

Reality: Attempting to acidify our region’s natural alkaline soil is like trying to change the color of the ocean by adding food coloring.

Myth 9: Newly planted trees should be staked.

Reality: You find very few trees staked in nature’s forests. Trees develop stronger tissue if allowed to bend naturally in the wind. If needed to stabilize a newly planted tree, stake loosely, and only for one growing season.

Myth 10: Landscape fabric will prevent weeds.

Reality: Weeds can eventually germinate in the soil slivers that accumulate in rock mulch, and easily in wood product mulches. Weeds root readily down through fabric, making removal difficult. When fabric is used, vigilance is required to attack weeds while tiny.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at or call 701-241-5707.