BACK-YARD RESEARCH

By Staff
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ILLUSTRATION: FROG 974/FOTOLIA
Beginning gardeners who start with the easiest plants to grow will experience the satisfactions of their chosen hobby sooner.

SEASONS OF THE GARDEN

Learn from your own homegrown lab.

By Greg and Pat Williams

IT SEEMS THAT FEW PEOPLE SHARE our belief that back-yard
gardeners should be encouraged to do amateur research.
After all, there is a pervasive mythology about the
difficulties of conducting scientific investigation: It is
supposed to be expensive, time-consuming, dangerous, boring
and esoteric–in short, best left to
specialists.

Of course, some scientific work is hardly
appropriate for amateurs (particle physics, for example),
but many horticultural experiments are inexpensive, safe
and anything but boring. The results of such experiments
can lead to substantial savings of time and money, as well
as tastier produce and more-attractive landscapes. And for
a variety of reasons (including funding limitations), these
experiments aren’t likely to be done by professional
researchers–so if they are carried out at all, it
will be by amateurs.

Homegrown horticultural research also offers one enormous
advantage over reliance on professionals: The results apply
directly to you. The soil type is your soil type, the
cultivars used are ones you’re interested in, the weather
conditions are yours, and so forth. And one of the most
delightful aspects is that (when experiments are designed
and performed in a reasonable way) there are no “wrong”
results, only results that might differ from previous
expectations–thus enabling you to correct those
expectations in accordance with the actual ways of the
world.

The North American Fruit Explorers (membership $8 annually
from NAFEX, Rt. 1, Box 94, Chapin, IL 62628) is perhaps the
best current example of an association of amateur
horticultural researchers. Their quarterly, Pomona
, is filled with reports of members’ experiments, along
with suggestions for additional studies. And Improve
Your Gardening with Backyard Research
by Lois Levitan
(Rodale Press, 1980) is the reference for beginners on how
to design, set up and perform horticultural experiments.
It’s currently out of print but might be available through
your local public library.

There are many areas that could benefit from amateur
research; natural pest management, mulch, fertilization and
intercropping are just a few. In all, the home gardener
seeking the truth can help all of us learn and grow. So
this year, when you’re planning your plot, why not plan one
or two home-grown experiments as well?

Research Briefs

Soak it to me! Indian botanists claim that
soaking tomato seeds in distilled, room-temperature water
for about six hours, then air-drying them before planting
increased subsequent fruit yields by 44%! The technique
might work for some other vegetables, too.

Bug-fighting cabbages. According to field
trials conducted by the New York Agricultural Experiment
Station, the “old-time” cabbage varieties Danish Ballhead
and Early Jersey Wakefield show more resistance to thrips
than do newer commercial ones. Red Danish, another “senior
cabbage,” shows moderate resistance to both thrips and
cabbageworms. However, of all 24 varieties tested,
up-and-coming (not yet released) Geneva 8395 has the most
resistance to both pests!

Grow your own peat . Purdue University
researchers have found that milled, low-quality alfalfa can
substitute for up to 30% of the peat moss in container
growing mixes if the alfalfa has first been composted for
at least a week. Apparently, the ammonia in fresh alfalfa
can damage seedlings.

The ecological price tag . Two Western
Illinois University scientists, attempting to determine the
“ecological value” of a tree, estimated that an “average”
silver maple might be worth $456 (the value of its
providing such environmental benefits as erosion control
and wildlife habitat). If such figures are valid, many
trees how cut are actually worth more to society than to
lumber mills.

Hi-pro corn . A new corn variety with
twice the usable protein of most other types has been
developed in Mexico. The U.S. National Research Council
predicts that the new corn “will be grown worldwide before
the turn of the century.”

Apple lure shoot-out . Utah State
University tests show that some commercially available
apple-maggot lures (those red, sticky ball traps) last much
longer than others. Ladd Research and Trece lures were
effective for only four or five days. Great Lakes IPM and
Consep Membranes (both AA and BH types) were long-term
performers.

Gleanings

West Coast gardeners will appreciate the evaluations and
access listings in the 14-page booklet Vegetable
Varieties for Home Gardeners
(send a $1 check, payable
to U.C. Regents, to University of California ANR
Publications, 6701 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, CA 94608)….
The 64-page compendium Make Compost in 14 Days is
available free of charge from Organic Gardening, Dept.
OG-14, 33 E. Minor St., Emmaus, PA 18098. . . . Over 1,000
rose varieties are briefly described and rated for quality
in the 1989 Handbook for Selecting Roses (send $1
and an SASE to the American Rose Society, P.O. Box 30000,
Shreveport, LA 71130)…. For a free software catalogue
that lists 58 horticultural and agricultural computer
programs (each costs around $20), write the IFAS Software
Support Office, University of Florida, Bldg. 1120, Room
203, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Editor’s Note: Greg and Pat Williams raise most of
their own food on a small farm and publish
HortIdeas,
a fine newsletter on gardening research and products
(available for $15 a year from G. G. & P. Williams, Rt.
1, Box 302, Gravel Switch, KY 40328).