There Are Many Ideas That Confuse Gardeners. This Includes New Gardeners & Those With Years of Experience But No Understanding Of Key Gardening Techniques & Science. Just Because Our Ancestors Did It Doesn’t Make It Right. Here Are A Few Things That Are Often Misunderstood.

Let me start by saying when I started I had no experience or knowledge. We all have to learn from scratch. In my own case I went to college, worked on farms, started a market gardening business that supplied supermarkets and commission markets and eventually taught horticulture as we all writing a gardening column.

One thing I learnt very early on was the number of years experience people had wasn’t the same as being a good gardener. I met people with little experience that intuitively understood plants and how to grow things and people with a lifetime of experience that really didn’t understand very much at all.

It’s Not The Gardener’s Fault

I’m not writing this article to lay the blame for not understanding at the gardeners feet. Gardening science is complex and takes time to learn. Rather I’ve written it to help explain areas that confuse many gardeners. It’s meant to be helpful not critical of gardeners.

Is Anyone To Blame?

Believe it or not TV gardening presenters are some of the worse examples of not understanding gardening. When I worked in colleges I met a lot of them. Most were time served apprentices that had risen through the ranks due to merit to go on to become journalists, TV presenters or whatever. I’m thinking of people like Geoff Smith and Alan Titchmarsh. Both really understood their plants and growing techniques. Others didn’t, and don’t, reach their high standards

Other Presenters Whose Ideas Confuse Gardeners

Yes, there are others, and I’m wise enough not to name them as I know some are adored by some gardeners. Sadly these “celebrity gardeners” quite frankly don’t know as much as they think, make glaring errors in their commentary and are laughing stock amongst professional gardeners. On screen they have wonderful gardens with successful flowers, bushes, trees and veg crops, but it’s all just a stage set. It’s pure theatre. Their gardens are often managed by professional gardeners brought in by TV companies to create watchable TV (because it gives them ratings and makes them valuable advertising platforms). Some of these gardeners also write books. At least their names are on the cover of books. But in these cases the books are ghost written by other, more knowledgeable, gardeners.

So what sort of things confuse gardeners? Here are just a few things .. and I’ll be adding more over the next months as I see them.

Sowing Versus Planting

seeds 3

When asking questions or making comments on Facebook and elsewhere I see a lot of confusion between sowing and planting.

It’s simple really, we sow seeds and plant plants. We can’t sow plants or plant seeds.

Of course in some ways it doesn’t matter, it’s just a bit confused. And it doesn’t matter until we start asking for advice.

But if someone says to me that they sowed some plants I don’t have a clue what they mean.

Did they sow seeds or plant plants.

And if they say they sowed some lettuce I naturally assume they mean that they sowed some lettuce seed …because you can’t sow a plant.

So clearly if someone confuses the use of sow and plant it’s going to be difficult to give them good advice if they haven’t made the question clear.

More Ideas That Confuse Gardeners Below

Confusing America With the United Kingdom

I know that sounds a bit strange. It’s not about confusing the countries, it’s about confusing advice from the different countries. What might one good advice in America is often very poor advice in the UK simply because we get different pests and diseases and don’t even call some plants by the same name. Eg cilantro and coriander, rutabaga and swede.

So when in America they talk about early blight and late blight it becomes confusing, because we normally only get late blight here. Early blight would be an exceptional occurence.

The real problem with this is that people in the UK sometimes read about tomato blight on American sites and believe the advice applies to tomato growers in the UK. It normally doesn’t.

They also read about the devastating impact that tomato hormworms have on tomatoes and peppers. I understand how this happens as at least one UK garden website has a whole section on Manduca quinquemaculata in UK gardens, The only problem with this is that Manduca quinquemaculata don’t normally live in the UK. They are an American species and have only rarely been transported in to their country … and soon die.

We do have moths of the same family but they aren’t generally a pest of crops in the UK. In growing tomatoes and related crops commercially for decades I only ever saw moth damage once on a single pepper plant. And it wasn’t Manduca quinquemaculata.

Crop Rotation V Crop Succession Confusion

I recently wrote an article on this and I said that crop rotation’s weren’t necessary unless there was a pest or disease problem in the crop. I also said that I planted several different crops one after another in succession. Several people then came back and said that if I grew different crops in succession this was a form of crop rotation.

It’s not!

Crop rotation is a term that started in agriculture and is about growing rotating crops on an annual basis. So traditionally a farmer in the 1700’s would have grown wheat in year one, then turnips in year two, then barley in the third year and finally clover and grass mix in the fourth year.

Crop rotation: an ear of Wheat
Crop rotation: Wheat is part of the Norfolk Four Course Rotation.

This was called the Norfolk Four Course rotation. But it didn’t commence in Norfolk though. It started the previous century in Belgium.

Today some people claim this is the reason to rotate crops in gardens or allotments because it is claimed that this was done to ensure pests and diseases didn’t spread. They claim that the different types of crops broke the pest and disease cycle and that the clover enriched the soil for the next crops.

The reality is that most of that is fallacy.

In the Norfolk four course rotation we have wheat, barley and grass in three of four years. These are all gramineae (grass family) crops … in other words we have the same family of plants in three out of four years. Crops that carry the same or similar pests and diseases in three out of four years.

Turnips Weren’t For Human Consumption

The turnips weren’t grown for people to eat. They were for sheep to graze on winter. The sheep needed feeding as they didn’t have silage etc in those days. And the sheep droppings were a useful fertiliser for the soil. In essence they were using the sheep to feed the soil.

Turnips. A successional crop and Vegetable Garden Tasks In August
Turnips, One of Vegetable Garden Tasks In August

As for the clover supplying nitrogen to the succeeding crops. Yes they do. But not a much as people often think. Most of the nitrogen produced is used to help the clover grow. It’s why they produce it! There will be some left in the root nodules when the plant is ploughed in, but it’s not going to be huge amounts. There is no profit in a plant overproducing anything beyond what it can use in various ways.

What clover and other leguminous plants do contribute is organic matter and the nutrients in their leaves, stems and roots when they die. But so do all plants. So again, don’t expect huge volumes. Having said that anything that is free is worth having.

Another Crop Rotation Flaw

Some crops need loads of space and some very little. For example if I were to grow potatoes I need quite big area to feed my family for more than a few days. Potatoes could become the root element of my rotation if I were to rotate. But what can I do with such a large plot of land the next year. I don’t want wheat or barley. The potato plot is too big for my peas and beans and in any case they are short term crops only in the grown for a few months, whilst potatoes can be there for much longer.

Follow this logic with my brassica and onion family crops such as leeks, shallots, onion and garlic and its very clear that the size of plot I need for each plant family is very different to one another. If I try to rotate I’m going to be running out of space for some crops and having land left empty with others (and resting the soil isn’t needed).

Thats a very inefficient way to grow crops.

What If You Don’t Have Sheep?

Clearly the Norfolk Four Course (NFC) rotation, which I’m often quoted as evidence that crop rotation goes back centuries, is an agricultural rotation. For it to work its necessary to graze sheep on the grass and winter turnips. So if we don’t have sheep we can’t follow it.

The NFC rotation is unrelated to gardening. It’s irrelevant.

How Many Crops A Year Should Be Grown In A Rotation?

The Norfolk Four Course Rotation consists of one crop a year, Wheat, Turnips, Barley and Clover/Grass over four years. The reason being that each of these crops are slow growing and need months to mature and be harvested. For example wheat is sown in autumn or spring, (in the1700s most would have been spring sown), and isn’t ready for harvest until late summer or autumn. There simply isn’t time or opportunity to fit another crop in the time the ground is empty. In winter the field would have been stubble and visited by flocks of birds that consumed the spilt grain and seeds of the numerous weed seeds. It was a weed strewn landscape, good for wildlife, but bad for farming.

In the garden or allotment, with limited space, we need to grow more than one crop per year on each square yard of land. Many of us would grow at least two crops a year, maybe potatoes followed by brassicas or leeks. Or brassicas followed by peas or beans. And if we are very efficient we will annually get 3-7 crops from each plot. Especially if we grow winter crops and don’t “sheet down” or rest the soil! Honestly, neither of these practices are needed! More on that later.

Annual Rotations Versus Successional Cropping

As can be seen above farming most often means one crop a year on each plot or field. And gardens and allotments have the potential to grow multiple crops a year. There’s a big difference.

Annual rotations can be defined as

the practice of growing a series of different types of crops in the same area across a sequence of growing seasons.


Successional Cropping is defined as the continuous cultivation of crops throughout a season (single year) by successive plantings or by the use of varieties. The crops can be the same species or variety each time or a succession of different ones over the year.

Whereas in farming we grow one crop a year in any given area, with successional cropping we grow many. For example, a typical successional rotation when I was a market gardener, can be seen seen in my typical greenhouse cropping plan.

We’d plant lettuce in late December or first week of January, harvest around April 1st, plant toms which would start cropping in early- midJuly, rip the toms out in September and replace them with lettuce to cut before Christmas. Hence a three crop successional cropping plan.

We did this every year so clearly though we had a rotation through the year, we grew the same crops at the same time of year every year. That means we didn’t have an annual rotation, because in an annual rotation we need different crops each season.

Monoculture Versus Polyculture

We often read about how modern farming practises monoculture, where vast acreages of land are devoted to one crop. In fact that definition seems to suit the word monoculture very well .. mono or one crop being cultivated.

I frequently see people condemn this modern monoculture trend. It makes little sense to me to do so.


Because even as far back as the 1700s, when we saw the most advanced thinking being in favour of the Norfolk Four Course rotation, that was one crop across whole fields. The best word to describe that is monoculture.

And where I grew three different crops in succession, each was a monoculture.

Monoculture is one of those emotive words that many people condemn without really understanding.

Nature sometimes practises monoculture. Example include the American prairies, African savannahs, eelgrass beds in oceans. Of course none of them are pure stands of a single species, a few other things try to creep in. It’s similar in wheat or potato monocultures, there are always a few weeds that try to creep in. But essentially these are pure stands of a single species. Monoculture is not uncommon in nature and isn’t necessarily bad.

Polyculture is the raising at the same time and place of more than one species of plant or animal. A perfect example is the mixed flower bed. Most natural woodlands and hedgerows are of a similar nature. Polyculture means they are cultivated with poly types of plants. ie many, more than one, a multiplicity.

In my garden I practice biointensive growing methods. Each area of land is often far from being a monoculture and is a polyculture of mixed plants in a small area. Often that area can be as small as a small container.

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