Science Behind Five Weird Gardening Tips

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Chateau_de_Bouges_Flower_Garden_1.jpgPhoto by SiefkinDR via Wikimedia Commons

As we turn the corner into summer, I see more and more people outside in their gardens. Nurseries are swarming with gardeners looking to brighten their beds with annuals. The more ambitious souls are toiling in their vegetable patches.

I, for one, struggle to keep an indoor cactus alive, so I am hesitant to grow anything requiring more complex maintenance. But I still like learning about how others conjure their botanical masterpieces. And who knows-- maybe a little science is just what I need to go outside and get my hands dirty.

1) Don't touch

Some plants, like gardenias, are very

sensitive to touch. A slight poke or even splashed water can bruise the

petals of this wimpy plant. But research has shown that gardenias might not the only plants that are touchy.

A team of ecologists who

were collecting measurements became concerned when half of the plants

they were studying started to die. After some thought,

they realized that by touching the plants to collect their data they

could be causing the problem themselves.

Intrigued, the

researchers designed a new experiment where they systematically stroked

different varieties of weeds in order to simulate the handling of plants

during data collection. For one variety, the stroked plants seemed to

be more susceptible to insect attacks compared to the control plants.

With another variety, however, the handled plants were more resistant to

bugs than the control. Therefore it's possible that poking and prodding plants

cause them to release chemicals that either attract or repel pests.

2) Try some blood

It's probably not a good idea to sprinkle your garden with human blood, but animal blood is OK. In fact, it is encouraged. You can even buy animal blood in a powder form called bloodmeal. It seems the makers of this appetizing product simply collect blood from slaughterhouses, remove the impurities, dry it using a spraying technique, and package it up.

Some gardeners use bloodmeal to keep the pests away. Believe it or not, the stuff doesn't smell very good, so the deer and rabbits will leave your plants alone.

Blood also has a lot of protein in it, making it a good fertilizer. Soil bacteria break down the protein into ammonia, which plants absorb through their roots to use as a source of nitrogen.

3) Use your resources

Another body fluid can also be used as fertilizer. Yep, peeing on your garden can actually be beneficial. This time, the nitrogen is provided in the form of urea, which soil bacteria also convert to ammonia so it can be taken up by plants.

One study found that treating tomato plants with a mixture containing human urine quadrupled the plants' fruit production. The unique fertilizer even made the tomatoes taste different from tomatoes grown with traditional fertilizer, but apparently the tasters didn't prefer either variety over the other.

4) Freshen cut flowers with pennies

People have tried using a

lot of substances to keep cut flowers looking happy--aspirin, vodka,

and bleach to name a few. These three work by killing bacteria or fungus

that may invade the newly-severed stems.

Another suggestion is

to put a penny in the vase. I was skeptical of this idea until I learned

that copper also works as bactericide and fungicide. In fact, copper is

one of the oldest fungicides in the book, and it is still used today

(often by organic farmers).

Copper targets essential enzymes the fungus needs. In fact, copper disrupts

not just one enzyme but many, making it a multi-site fungicide. This

property distinguishes it from a lot of modern synthetic fungicides,

which only act on one specific enzyme. What's more, copper's multi-site

abilities make it a lot more difficult for a fungus to become resistant

to it.    

5) Prune wisely

To me, chrysanthemums are fascinating because different varieties can produce very different flowers. Some mums are a brushy mess of small florets; others consist of a large, solitary flower. This variety in flower size and number is due in part to how the mums are pruned as they grow.

In order to make a bushy, many-flowered plant, you pinch off the mums' top buds so that the side branches get a chance to grow their own flowers. To get a large, single flower you prune or, as it's called in this case, "disbud" the side branches so that the mum's efforts are all concentrated toward one flower. 

But how does a plant know how to respond to pruning? Research shows that the main (usually top) bud of the plant normally releases plant hormones to inhibit growth at the side buds. The top bud's strategy is to squelch any competition for the plant's resources. But when the top bud is chopped off, the side buds are free to grow.


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