Dig­ging into gar­den­ing myths

Toronto Star - - HOMEFINDER.CA - Mark and Ben Cullen are ex­pert gar­den­ers and con­trib­u­tors for the Star. Fol­low Mark on Twit­ter: @MarkCullen4 Mark and Ben Cullen

In gar­den­ing, there is al­ways ten­sion be­tween lore and sci­ence. We hear about it all the time.

One per­son will chal­lenge some­thing that we say based on what they learned at the knee of their grand­mother, or lore. An­other will ques­tion us based on what they know of sci­ence.

We have re­spect for all sec­ond opin­ions, re­gard­less whether they are grounded in sci­ence or anec­dotes.

One per­son who has ded­i­cated a lot of time to dis­pelling the per­sis­tent myths of gar­den­ing is Guelph writer and mas­ter gar­dener Robert Pavlis. He was trained in chem­istry and bio­chem­istry, and gar­dened for over 30 years be­fore sell­ing his soft­ware busi­ness to fo­cus more on his gar­den­ing pas­sion. To­day, he ap­plies his sci­en­tific mind to chal- leng­ing gar­den myths through aca­demic re­search and trial in his five-acre pri­vate gar­den, called Aspen Grove Gar­dens, with more than 3,000 peren­ni­als. He writes about his find­ings on his web­site gar­den­myths.com and in his re­cent book, Gar­den Myths: Learn the truth be­hind ur­ban le­gends and hor­ti­cul­tural mys­ter­ies.

Ben sat down with Robert to dis­cuss some of the myths he tack­les. Make your Christ­mas tree go the dis­tance: We agree that there is noth­ing like a real Christ­mas tree. We run into a lot of lore where tree preser­va­tion is con­cerned.

Peo­ple have tried to pro­long cut-tree fresh­ness us­ing tree preser­va­tives, mo­lasses, su­gar, bleach, soft drinks, as­pirin, honey and fer­til­izer. Pavlis puts it bluntly: “None of these prod­ucts work. Test­ing has shown that none of these ad­di­tives work bet­ter than just plain old wa­ter.”

So what can you do to make your tree last as long as pos­si­ble — other than just adding wa­ter? Pavlis says: “Make a fresh cut when you set it up and get it in wa­ter right away. Do not re­move any of the bark. Don’t let the tree dry out. Keep the tree away from fire­places, heat vents and other warm ar­eas.”

Does cut­ting the tree on an an­gle, to max­i­mize the amount of wood avail­able for wa­ter up­take help at all? “No,” says Pavlis. “Cut­ting on an an­gle will do noth­ing to im­prove wa­ter up­take. In fact, an an­gled cut runs the risk of be­ing ex­posed when the wa­ter level drops — which will ac­tu­ally make the tree dry out faster.” Noted: keep the bot­tom cut per­pen­dic­u­lar.

Are poin­set­tias re­ally ex­tremely poi­sonous? “No,” Pavlis says, “you would have to eat an en­tire plant to even get a stom­achache. So, would a cat or a dog.

“The poin­set­tia is a Eu­phor­bia, a genus of plants that have a white milky sap. Some peo­ple do have an al­ler­gic re­ac­tion to the sap when they get it on their skin, and it is very likely to ir­ri­tate the mouth.”

We didn’t ask if it was worth al­lergy test­ing the dog. How can I bring my Christ­mas cac­tus into full bloom for the hol­i­days?

We’ve heard of peo­ple lock­ing their Christ­mas cac­tuses in dark clos­ets for 12 hours ev­ery night to try and max­i­mize blooms. Says Pavlis? “Myth.” Let the cac­tus be free! “A dark pe­riod of 12 hours will help, but they don’t need to­tal dark­ness.” And 12 hours, let us point out, hap­pens to be the length of night right around Christ­mas.

Pavlis adds: “The first thing to re­al­ize is that the most com­mon Christ­mas cac­tus sold is a mis­la­belled Thanks­giv­ing cac­tus ( Sch­lum­berg­era trun­cate) which blooms in mid­fall. The Christ­mas cac­tus ( Sch­lum­berg­era x buck­leyi) blooms right around Christ­mas. These are ap­prox­i­mate bloom times and, in the home, they bloom when they get the con­di­tions they need.”

The trick, then, is to make sure those con­di­tions are met.

“The most crit­i­cal re­quire­ment for set­ting buds is low tem­per­a­tures. The typ­i­cal cool fall tem­per­a­tures work well. Leave them near a win­dow or in a cool porch for six weeks and they will set buds. Let­ting them dry out be­tween wa­ter­ing will also en­cour­age the de­vel­op­ment of buds,” Pavlis says.

So, please ac­cept our gift: some sci­en­tific sup­port for best prac­tices as you meet with rel­a­tives dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son.

And if that’s not enough, con­sider buy­ing the book: Gar­den Myths, by Robert Pavlis, CreateS­pace In­de­pen­dent Pub­lish­ing, $20.


Poin­set­tia plants have long been con­sid­ered poi­sonous to peo­ple and an­i­mals. Mas­ter gar­dener Robert Pavlis sheds light on that ru­mour.


A fresh cut and lots of wa­ter is the best way to make a Christ­mas tree last.

Christ­mas cacti, top, are ex­am­ined by Robert Pavlis in Gar­den Myths.

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