Sunday, June 8, 2014

Guest Post: Coffee for Roses

5 Myths About Growing Vegetables

-- From gardening expert and author C.L. Fornari

There is nothing so satisfying as walking out into the yard and asking, “What’s for dinner?” Freshly picked vegetables are infinitely more flavorful than any purchased produce. It’s no wonder that gardeners and foodies alike want to grow their own.
I’ve been tending vegetable gardens for over three decades and can’t imagine being without homegrown food. Much information that I learned over the years about growing veggies remains true and valuable today, and in many ways my husband and I grow veggies the same way we did when we were fresh out of college. But over the years I’ve discovered that some of the tips and practices that are passed on as gospel are untrue, unnecessary, or misunderstood.

Here are five falsehoods included in my book about garden myths, Coffee for Roses.

1.          Blossom End Rot and Calcium – Anyone who has grown tomatoes eventually picks a fruit that is marred by blossom end rot. This is a large black scab that can develop on the bottom of the fruit. A few years ago it was thought that such scabs were created by a lack of calcium in the plant, so gardeners were told add crushed eggshells when planting tomatoes. Some went so far as to drop Tums or other calcium supplements around their plants! Current research has shown that stress, not the lack of calcium, is the culprit here. Tomato plants that are kept evenly moist through deep watering and mulching are less likely to develop the black scab. Even plants that initially produce black-scabbed fruit usually grow out of it.
2.          Planting Squash on Mounds of Soil – For years my husband and I piled up dirt in our veggie gardens because the seed packets said to “plant in hills.” This was problematic because when the seeds were germinating and the plants were young it was hard to keep these mounds well watered. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the seed packets weren’t telling us to mound soil at all. They said to plant in hills, not on them. It turns out that hills is an old agricultural term meaning groups. Those instructions were just saying to plant the seeds in clusters. What a difference one letter can make!
3.          Vegetable Gardens Belong in the Backyard – When I was growing up it was common practice for anyone growing vegetables to place such gardens in their backyard. Such spaces were usually large and sunny. Today’s properties aren’t usually as large and many homeowners find that the most open, sunny space is in the front. Fortunately landscape styles are changing and neat, well-tended, front yard vegetable gardens are becoming more common.
4.          Adding Sugar to Tomatoes Grows Sweet Fruit – If this myth were true, imagine what would be possible: we could mix bacon in with the soil and get a tomato that already tastes like a BLT! The sweetness and flavor of fruit is largely genetically determined, however, and sugar just isn’t absorbed by roots. In fact, sugar can actually stunt the growth of plants. Sugar water increases the amount of carbon in the soil, tying up soil nitrogen and resulting in smaller plants.
5.          Marigolds Repel Insects From Veggie Gardens – For all the years we’ve grown vegetables we’ve planted marigolds in our gardens because we were told that this plant kept bugs away. In Coffee for Roses I compare this belief to the party game of “Telephone” because it’s an example of how information gets distorted when passed from person to person. The long and the short of it is that marigolds do nothing to repel insects. My husband and I still plant them in the garden, however, because they and other flowers attract pollinators. Besides, for us the smell of marigold foliage is now synonymous with summer.

It was fun exploring various myths, lies and all the latest dirt about gardens for this book, and the debunking of many long-held beliefs has ultimately saved me time and effort. Bon app├ętit!

C. L. Fornari is a writer, professional speaker, radio host, and self-described “out-of-control plant person.” Author of five gardening books, in 2013 she won silver awards from The Garden Writers Association in the categories of Broadcast Media, Radio; Electronic Media, Blog; Electronic Media, Website. A sought-after lecturer, she is a twelve-year host of “GardenLine,” a weekly radio show on WXTK, now streamed worldwide online, and has been a frequent contributor to NPR’s “The Cultivated Gardener.”  The author manages a blog, Whole Life Gardening, and website,

One of the best kept secrets in rose gardening is coffee grounds.  Most people know they’re good compost, but have no idea of what they’ll do for the soil in your rose garden.

In the March/April 2011 issue of the American Rose there was an excellent article called “A Cuppa Joe”, by Paulette Mouchet of Acton, California, which was the best explanation of using grounds in the garden I've seen.  Here is an excerpt:

“What makes coffee grounds so wonderful in the garden anyway?  Earthworms love them.  They make a decent fertilizer.  You can use them as mulch or as a green ingredient in the compost pile….  Organic gardeners know that earthworms are essential to a healthy garden.  When it comes to improving soil structure and water-holding capacity, earthworms can’t be beat….  While earthworms will eat most any organic matter, coffee grounds are like earthworm candy.”

But here’s the best part for rosarians.  The article goes on to say that Sunset magazine sent a batch of Starbucks coffee grounds to a soil and plant laboratory in Washington State for analysis.  Turns out that the pH of Starbucks grounds is a slightly acidic 6.2, which is right in the middle of the pH range we’re shooting for in growing roses. And that’s not all: they’re also a slow-release fertilizer with 2.28% nitrogen, .06% phosphorus and .6% potassium.

P.S. The Starbucks in my neighborhood sells coffee grounds for a nominal price. I turn coffee grounds and crushed egg shells into the soil around my roses.