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GARDEN MAIDEN: Mythbusters for gardeners and farmers

Tackling 6 garden questions and legends

Fall is upon us. Leaves are slowly changing as time gets changed for us. But you cannot trick nature. And our body clock, especially as farmers, will stumble in the dark morning hours regardless of Ben Franklin’s notion to save oil by having it stay lighter longer during family gathering evening hours. Yet, we continue to abide, because someone way back when made it so, and convinced the majority it was good and laid it into law.

In the garden, there is no law, but certainly a trusted gathering spot of the Old Wives Club. Tales fueled by fear of disparaging matriarchs spread quickly and became a "you better or else" way of doing things.

For the mirth of it, let us explore a few misnomers as you frame up the fall garden task list.

Daylight Savings Time

First let me bust a particularly peevish grind of mine. Daylight Savings Time (DST) was not created to help farmers. It was proposed by Franklin during the dawn of electricity and finally incorporated decades later by the Germans during wartime to save the daylight for evening family gathering instead of burning fuel for lights.

It was American farmers who didn’t buy it. Though the U.S. Government attempted to enact DST in 1918, farmers lobbied against the notion. Their livelihood began with sunrise, not the hands of a clock. And if city markets and railways changed local time, their produce would not be as fresh and their day’s work another hour longer. For nearly five decades, propaganda targeted American farmers convincing them of unproven benefits such as crispier apples if waiting an hour to pick them after the dew dried off, until finally DST was enacted as federal law in 1966. Along with the twice-annual time shift, the pro-farmer messages stuck, too.

Pollen and allergies

If chronic allergies wreak havoc on your wellness, you may have an anti-bouquet message stuck in your head. Well, I’ve got great news! Not all pollen is created equally, and lots of pollen won’t bother you a bit.

Not because it is any less intense, but because plants relying on insects for pollination don’t spread their pollen into the air. Hydrangeas and impatiens are examples where their large, sticky pollen is too heavy for wafting into the wind and the flowers rely on insects for spreading their pollen. Some flowers, like geraniums and sunflowers, are actually being bred to be pollen-free to accommodate a trend in retailing messless, hypoallergenic bouquets. Hyacinths and daffodils are considered hypoallergenic blooms, producing smaller amounts of pollen than most flowers. Now is an ideal time to bury these bulbs for aromatic but nearly pollen-free spring blooms.

The buzz on bees

Pollen is sticky business. Especially for busy bees stocking up stores for winter. More than once I’ve heard heated debates as to whether the yellow legs of bees are carrying pollen or nectar. The answer may be either, but likely never both.

Bees are on a direct mission each trip and generally forage on a single type of flower for either pollen or for nectar, depending on the needs of the colony. But one myth for sure is that bees use pollen to make honey. While pollen may be carried back to the brood, its sole purpose is to nourish baby bees as their one and only source of protein. Nectar is what bees carry to turn into honey as a food source for the whole colony. And yes, bumblebees make honey, too.

Feeding soil

Gardeners are busy like bees, always finding something that needs our attention. If you’d like to free up some of the time you spend fertilizing plants, feed your soil instead.

We are in Illinois. America’s heartland where dense, lush prairie rolled between marshland and wooded forests. When I feed plants in the garden, it’s usually an effort to boost nutrients in the plant or to produce record-breaking yields for the sake of sheer adventure. Gardening for market may increase production up to 30% when adding fertilizer, but for the average gardener the cost of fertilizers may outweigh the bounty. Plus, timing of application and proper ratios of nitrogen to phosphorus and potash can significantly alter the plant's natural cycles, such as adding too much phosphorus during bloom time or adding nitrogen so early that plants produce more foliage than fruitful yield.

Build balanced soil nutrition throughout the year with cut and drop composting in-row by leaving healthy spent leaves, shoots, fruits and uprooted seedless weeds to decompose and return to the earth. Along with a fall cover crop that gets turned in each spring, this is often plenty of nutrients for root veggies, onion, carrot and other light feeders. Then only specialty crops and heavy feeders need feeding next season.

Dividing plants

To split, or not to split? That is often a pressing conundrum as we tackle whatever we can that might shorten our spring to-do list. And while we often are told that dividing plants can happen in either season, University of Minnesota Extension educators remind us that perennials with fleshy roots such as peony and oriental poppy actually prefer being split in the fall. But don’t wait too long! Divisions will want the next four to six weeks to establish new plant roots before the ground freezes.

Fall bloomers like aster and mums prefer to be split in spring. For some species, knowing the cultivar matters in regards to its preference. Specifically, Echinacea purpurea, a native coneflower with a fibrous root system, is forgiving of dividing and transplanting right now. Other coneflower species have a long tap root and a woody crown that are a bit finicky when it comes to uprooting and may not survive splitting in the fall. Some finicky plants like sea holly and artemesia resent splitting altogether and are better multiplied from cuttings.

Turning the bulb

Some fall tasks that add years of longevity to blooms go directly against what has been passed down a hundred years. If you’re disappointed with tulips puttering out after a single season, it may be that bulbs planted tip-up are rotting in the off season.

While I am not about to dig up all the tulip beds each fall, I have discovered a way to extend the life of tulip bulbs a few more seasons. Shhh! Don’t tell Aunt Maude!

I actually spend a bit of extra time laying tulip bulbs on their sides if I come across them while lifting dahlia and canna lilies in the fall. Once a tulip blooms, the tip of the bulb actually becomes a bit indented, with some varieties seeming nearly flat on the top. If left erect, ground moisture collects during late summer, fall and winter, deteriorating the life of the bulb.

The sun’s tug and earth’s awakening will pull them upright as their stems break through the thawing ground next spring. Bulbs planted upside down, however, many not have enough energy stored to make a U-turn and still bloom in time to restore the bulb again.

Share your myth-busting garden stories with me at gardenmaiden.com.

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tsloup@shawmedia.com; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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