By Gene Sumi Homestead Education Coordinator
The real expertise in any given field of study is not gained just from the knowledge learned from formal education, but by applying that knowledge in the real world and learning from what actually happens from that experience. This fact was put into perspective for me when I once worked with a part-time garden center employee who I learned later was a retired USDA researcher with a Ph.D in plant pathology. He said that he had many years of research behind him on specific plant pathogens, but had little applied knowledge of plant pests in general, and how they could be controlled specifically. As for me, I do not have any formal education in horticulture or any related field. My gardening knowledge, what there is of it, is from working in the garden year-round, seeing what happens and having the insatiable curiosity to learn the “why” and the “how” of what I observed. This, plus a good memory for storing and recalling these facts, is the “secret” to my expertise as a horticulturist.
Trying to Fool Mother Nature
Sometimes I resort to doing “dumb” things to learn something. This summer, I planted tomato seedling late in mid-July to see if I could get them to produce any decent-quality fruit by summer’s end. I knew that this was late and that I was probably doomed to failure, but so many of my customers ask me if they could plant tomato plants that late and still get good results. Well, the plants tried to play “catch-up” and they had a good chance, since our summer this year was long and hot. But I soon saw that you just cannot always manipulate nature to meet your own designs. The tomato plants grew fast, but they did not develop the same way as plants planted in the spring. The plants took their cue from the long days and high temperatures and tried to produce flowers and fruit before their plant structure was mature enough to support them. It was apparent that they needed the long weeks of cooler spring to build up roots and branch structure that would have supported a summer of repeated flowering and fruiting. The lesson that was important to me was not that I confirmed what I had known, but I could see clearly how nature directs the destinies of plants, whether we plant them in season like we're supposed to, or break the rules by planting them out of season.
So my gardening advice amounts to basically telling people what are nature’s rules and how to follow them. I also let them know if some of the new technologies that promise to help plants get around nature's rules really work. Some do, but I caution them that they often result a compromise in the quality of their results, and that playing by nature’s rules would have produced far better results.
Photo by Sierra Valley Girl.