Tips and Tricks of Yesteryear Gardening

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Every gardener worth his or her salt probably has a few tried (if not true) gardening tips and tricks up their sleeve, passed down from a family member or learned over time… Perhaps something they read years ago, an old wives’ tale someone thought worthy of re-telling, or advice from an old neighbor.

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Legend and Lore…

Modern science and the increased study of horticulture, botany and entomology have proven most of these proverbial gardening words of wisdom false. A few of these lessons passed from one green thumb to another do have some scientific merit, practical purpose and sound reasoning, though… Gardeners tend to their gardens in the manner that works for them, and would not so readily share instruction with others if such was not the case.

A few sage tips have proven effective over time and continue to be practiced by the seasoned gardener, but perhaps are not yet known to the newbie. Others have faded into gardening myth and legend. It is not recommended to try any of these tips without first researching each and do note that what may be good for one plant could be bad for another.


Pinterest has Nothing on the Past…!

Interesting gardening tidbits told over-and-over again include pouring a ring of gravel around bulbs when planting to discourage moles and other bulb-lovers from eating them, and placing pinecones in flower beds to deter cats from digging (a Pinterest modern-day take on this utilizes plastic forks instead of pinecones).

Violets are said to bloom longer and more luxuriously if rusty nails are added to nearby soil. Old pennies (newer pennies are not made from copper) in the garden will keep slugs away.  Slate in the soil will grow your hydrangeas blue. Broken terra-cotta pots in the soil are believed to be good for azaleas.

Gardeners have long been saving eggshells, coffee grounds, banana peels, and other kitchen scraps to add to their gardens.  Epson salt added to tomatoes and peppers will make them flourish. Ashes, banana peels, and teabag residue around roses is thought to nourish them.  Wood ash around fruit trees in the fall and winter will result in sweeter fruit, and wood ash or lime around lilacs will increase bloom. Pickle juice is good poured around gardenias, ferns, and cleyera. Beer has been used to trap and drown slugs and/or added to the soil around hollyhocks to promote growth.

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Polyculture by Common Practice…

Forefathers of today’s “Companion Planting” include dill near tomatoes to discourage worms and radishes or spearmint near squash, acting as a natural insecticide. Growing alium and garlic chives near roses deter japanese beetles, and french marigolds in the garden keep bad bugs at bay.

Other gardeners advise to leave a few carrots overwintering in the ground so that they bloom the following spring. Carrot blooms resemble Queen Anne’s Lace and attract beneficial insects to the garden.


Planting by the Moon and Getting that Garden Started…

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And as for gardening lore regarding the actual planting of a garden…?  Some say to plant food-bearing plants when the moon is waxing (increasing to a full moon) and ornamentals when the moon is waning (decreasing). Willow water or Aspirin is heralded as helpers for rooting starts, and cinnamon or chamomile tea and water sprayed on seedlings may deter damping off disease. Soaked cigarette tobacco in water (five cigarettes to a gallon of water) is reported to kill fungus and slugs on all non-food plants, and baking soda spray (one to five tablespoons per quart of water) is used as a fungal control.

And finally, an old saying reminds that when planting trees and shrubs; “The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps.”

Master Gardeners grow cranberries “the size of quarters” in home garden

A bounty of  cranberries from the home garden.  Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski
A bounty of cranberries from the home garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski

Cranberry salad … cranberry sauce … cranberry relish … cranberry juice … cranberry cocktails — aah, the holidays are upon us.

There are many ways to enjoy this tart native fruit during the holidays and the whole year-round that don’t include cutting off a slice from a jiggling cylinder of cranberry goo.

You can even grow your own cranberries at home, no bog required!

Vaccinium macrocarpon is the native species of cranberry in North America, and is also the one commercially grown here in the United States.

It is in the same genus as the highly regarded blueberry, the oft-reminisced huckleberry, and the lingonberry, which is famous in Scandinavian circles. It’s even related to something called a sparkleberry, which sounds like it would be grown by someone who likes glitter just a little too much.

Cranberries in cooperation

In 1930, the commercial success of cranberries changed course when three competing companies formed a cooperative called Cranberry Canners Inc. While you might have never heard of that company, I assure you they are still big in the business.

You may know them by their product line, which became the cooperative name in 1956 — Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.

The cooperative formed to develop markets for cranberries beyond the holiday season. Their first product beyond canned cranberry “sauce” was juice cocktail, giving birth to a whole new world of alcoholic concoctions. An early ad for cranberry juice proclaimed that it was “a pleasant, smooth drink with delicious flavor and sure relief from faintness, exhaustion and thirst. A glass when retiring promotes sleep and a clean mouth in the morning — even to the smoker.”

While the juice may promote a clean mouth, research is showing that its health effects when it comes to urinary tract infections might be more hype than help. There is a compound that can reduce bacterial growth (hence the “clean mouth”), but it isn’t a high enough concentration to help with bladder problems.

Cranberries at home

It is quite possible to grow cranberries in the home garden. While in the wild they do grow in acidic bogs and marshes, you don’t need those to grow them yourself.

Master Gardener Susan Maslowski grew cranberries the size of quarters in her West Virginia garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslsowski.
Master Gardener Susan Maslowski grew cranberries the size of quarters in her West Virginia garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslsowski.

I’ve been preaching for years that people need to grow cranberries at home. The native growth in bogs has more to do with the acidic soil than anything else, and commercial cranberries are grown in artificial bogs that are flooded for easy harvest, since ripe cranberries float.

Here in West Virginia, we have Cranberry Glades, a native bog that is home to cranberries and many other rare species, including several orchids and carnivorous plants (I highly suggest a visit). But we also have the farm of Bob and Susan Maslowski in Milton. Bob and Susan are Master Gardeners and are always friendly and smiling at meetings and conferences, eager to share their own story.

Susan started growing cranberries a few years ago in a raised bed, and has been so pleased with their success that they are adding a second raised bed of cranberries. From one single 4- by 8-foot raised bed, she raised enough cranberries to make it through the holiday season (and Susan cooks a lot — she writes a cooking article for the local paper).

The cranberries they raise are the size of a quarter — that puts what you buy at the grocery store to shame.

As Susan tells it, she even had plenty to freeze some for later use, but she found them missing from the freezer. As it turns out, Bob, a winemaker, found the cranberries and turned them into cranberry liqueur. I’m not sure what Susan was planning on cooking, but I think I like Bob’s recipe better.

Growing cranberries

Cranberries form a dense ground cover.  Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski
Cranberries form a dense ground cover. Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski

You can now find cranberry plants in several garden catalogs and even at big box retailers during the growing season. The thing to remember about growing cranberries is the need for acidic soil.  They do appreciate moist soil, so you definitely need to keep them watered.

You need to test your soil, then lower the pH accordingly using something like powdered elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate or ammonium sulfate. Adding in lots of peat moss may lower the pH slightly, but will provide more of the soil texture and organic matter that the plant needs than altering the pH of the soil.

It will take only a few plants to get started. While the individual plants may be small and short, they will easily spread to form a mat or groundcover (you can easily use them as a ground cover in acidic locations too — they don’t have to be stuck in a bed).

Bob and Susan are adding a second raised bed because their plants have quickly outgrown their raised-bed borders.



This post was originally published in the Charleston Gazette by John Porter, WVU Extension Agent.  You can find more of his articles archived at WV Garden Guru.  You can follow him on Twitter @wvgardenguru or Facebook at Garden Guru John Porter.

Thanksgiving flavor from ancient herbs

Family and friends are gathered ’round the table. The dog sits patiently below, waiting for a morsel dropped by accident or on purpose.  Platters and bowls fill the table, a reminder of the bounty that sustained our forebears when they first arrived on this continent — and a current testament to overabundance and gluttony.  My mom gets so excited about Thanksgiving dinner that she can’t wait for the day to arrive. She often has to have turkey and dressing sometime between mid-October and Thanksgiving.

Among the smells that waft from the holiday table, the ones that elicit the strongest memory are those of the herbs used to flavor the dressing (or stuffing) and the featured poultry.  These herbs include sage, thyme, rosemary and marjoram.  Let’s take a minute to learn a little bit about these herbs so that we can be even more thankful for them.

Sage, rosemary, and thyme are ancient herbs that are the backbone of Thanksgiving flavors.
Sage, rosemary, and thyme are ancient herbs that are the backbone of Thanksgiving flavors.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) has been used medicinally for centuries. The name Salvia comes from the Roman name for the herb, and means to heal or feel well (the root of the word “salve”). Not only has the herb been used as a diuretic, anesthetic and tonic, but it has also been used to ward off plague and even evil. That’s one powerful herb.

Sage, along with all the other herbs we celebrate and consume at Thanksgiving, are members of the herb family. They’ll have square stems and, most commonly, blue flowers (that bees adore).

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a native of the Mediterranean, where it thrives on rocky sea coasts. The Latin name comes from ros (dew) and marinus (sea), meaning dew of the sea. It has also been long revered as a medicinal plant, and has even been used as a love charm and as a divination tool. Those wishing to divine the identity of their true love would write the name of potential suitors on pots of rosemary. The plant that grew the fastest and healthiest would foretell true love … or so the story goes.

While sage would repel plague, rosemary was said to repel witches. Having a garden full of rosemary was sometimes associated with the woman ruling the home, much to dismay of their husbands. This is probably when men started taking over the garden chores (or at least “accidentally” cutting down specific plants).

Rosemary is also a sign of remembrance, and can still be found as such a symbol at funerals, war commemorations and weddings. The significance of remembrance also led to the belief that rosemary improves memory.

Thyme (Thymus officinalis) may appear on more than just the Thanksgiving table at your house. Thyme oil contains the compound thymol, which is a strong antiseptic. Pre-antibiotics, thyme oil and thymol were used to soak bandages to reduce infection. It is still in use today, in products such as mouthwash (Listerine, for example) and natural, alcohol-free hand sanitizers. It’s even reported to be effective against toenail fungus, which explains why I’ve seen people on Facebook say to soak your feet in mouthwash.

The name, in Greek and Latin, means to “rise in a cloud,” which could be attributed to either the strong smell it gives off or to its historical use as an incense. The ancient Greeks thought that thyme incense would bestow courage, a tradition that continued through the Middle Ages when ladies’ favors given to their favorite knights would often contain the herb.

Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is the least appreciated and understood of the poultry players. And with good reason. It is in the same genus as oregano, which we usually ascribe to Italian, or sometimes Mexican, cuisine, and in some parts of the Middle East the two are synonymous.

To Greeks and Romans, marjoram was a symbol of happiness. The word is connected to, but not directly derived from, the Latin word meaning “major.”

Growing your own Thanksgiving flavors

Most herbs are among the easiest-to-grow edible plants. They grow wild in regions that are dry and are usually drought-tolerant.

Rosemary, for example, does not do well with overwatering. It can typically grow on its own, without your help. Both sage and thyme are pretty hardy and there shouldn’t be any trouble growing them here. Rosemary is sensitive to harsh winter (most of them died in the Kanawha Valley last winter). Marjoram can also be tender.

Sage and rosemary grow as upright woody shrubs, while thyme and marjoram grow as woody groundcovers. They also make great houseplants.

You can usually find rosemary around the holidays, trained up to be mini indoor Christmas trees. You can sometimes also find live plants in the produce section of the grocery store. My local grocery store typically carries thyme as a live plant year-round.

Herbs like lots of light, so keep them in a very bright window or grow them under lights. If you can’t find any this time of year, be sure to add some to your garden next year to flavor your holiday favorites. You can also plan early next summer and pot up some plants to have on hand indoors to keep your turkey perky.


This post was originally published in the Charleston Gazette by John Porter, WVU Extension Agent.  You can find more of his article archived at WV Garden Guru.  You can follow him on Twitter @wvgardenguru or Facebook at Garden Guru John Porter.