Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Google: How to Thwart This Garden Devil

     I see a pattern developing. Trey Pitsenberger, owner of the Golden Gecko Nursery in Garden Valley, produces a blog entry on a garden topic from the retail-wholesale perspective. That inspires me to chime in on the same topic, only from a consumer standpoint. Today's (sort of) tag team rant: Google is the garden devil. Or any search engine on the Internet, for that matter. Trey opined in his blog of April 29 that it is tough dealing with certain stubborn customers who come into the store, searching for a particular plant or product, garden answer or garden technique that they have researched on the Internet and dammit, "I won't listen to what you have to say about it, cuz I read it on the Internet so it must be true."

In the example he cited, a customer wanted a particular fertilizer to feed his plum tree. The customer's Internet scouring led him to believe that the absolute best fertilizer for that tree was a 10-10-10 (10% each of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium).
Trey writes, "We don’t have fertilizer with these numbers, and I don’t know anyone in the area that does. According to this man’s research, our 16-16-16 fertilizer wouldn’t work nor would our organic 5-6-4. It has to be what the websites he visited said he needed. Yes, I tried to explain that 16-16-16 would be the same as 10-10-10, except you would apply less per instructions. He said that he had spent hours searching for the correct answer and the “real” person (me) was not about to sway his psychic investment in the virtual experts."

Sure enough, if one used the search engine Google for the phrase, "plum tree fertilizer", the first few entries look like this:

Note that the first two entries come from ehow.com, a firm that advertises itself as, "How to Do Just About Anything". The answer (and sure enough, the recommendation is 10-10-10), is provided by someone who is only identified as "an e-how contributing writer". No mention of the writer's qualifications, or where he/she is from. 
Another recommendation on that Google search also advised 10-10-10, the link from associatedcontent.com, which bills itself as "The People's Media Company". At least in that piece of advice, the author is identified: an arts, entertainment and garden writer from Georgia.

A step up in the search for the Google truth on this question is provided by the two remaining links, one from North Dakota University, the other from Rhode Island University.
The ag extension agent from North Dakota says fruit trees need no additional fertilizer, unless they are being grown in pure sand. (an aside: more and more backyard fruit tree growers are heeding this advice, maintaining only several inches of an organic mulch beneath the entire canopy of the tree as its sole source of nutrients). But in another post, the agent recommends spreading manure beneath the plum tree.

The Rhode Island Horticulture Landscape Program says this about plum tree fertilization: "Plum trees should be fertilized annually for best growth and development. Suggested fertilizer practice consists of an early spring application of 1/20 pound of actual nitrogen (8 ounces of 10-10-10) fertilizer per year for each year of tree age." Oops! There's that pesky 10-10-10 again. It seems, though, that the author chose 10-10-10 for the mathematical simplicity of explaining 1/20th (5%) of a pound of actual nitrogen. But as I do the math in my head, that total doesn't seem right.  But let's dig a little deeper into that plum advice: it didn't come from Rhode Island. Attribution is given to Ohio State University extension, dated 2000.

Trey's advice, as well as mine, is the same: do your basic research to garden questions on the Internet, and then ask a local expert, such as the employees of your nearest independently owned nursery. Why?


Which brings us to today's rant: 
"Taming the Garden Devil that is Google", or how to search for the right garden answers online.

No matter which search engine you choose, here are some parameters when searching for garden info:

1. Be specific in your search query. 

For instance, if you did an online search of the word, "Aphids", you might see what I'm seeing right now: a Wikipedia entry, an entry from a site entitled getridofthings.com, and the University of California Integrated Pest Management info on aphid control.
 (hint: choose the UC entry. they're unbiased, informative and backed by research, not opinion. And they're local!)
if you narrowed your search query to "Aphids on Roses", you would get more exact information, but from a wider variety of sources. Of the first five that popped up on my search, only one was University-based (Oregon State). The others were commercial sites with something to sell, as well as one of the most dangerous sites for gardeners to heed: I-Village's forums.gardenweb.com, where anyone can chime in with their opinion. Yes, you might get some good answers. Some though, might be backed only by personal experience with something grandma told them. Or, since their answers are not reviewed for accuracy, they might (gulp!) make a mistake, especially when offering advice on amounts of fertilizers, pesticides or whatever to use in the garden. And you never know the real source of the information: is it someone trying to sell something that you may not need? (And frankly, that could be happening at your local nursery, as well).
So what's a gardener to do?

2. When searching online for garden answers, include your local university in the search query.

Enter the search term, "Aphids on roses UC". That'll bring up University of California-supplied answers in the first four queries. Some other examples of other universities to include in your search, depending on your location, include Oregon State University (OSU), Washington State University (WSU), Texas A&M (TAMU), Purdue and Cornell. Choose the university or college in your locale with the strongest horticulture program.

I'm not saying that colleges are pristine beacons of the truth. After all, some large, petrochemical company may have donated a sizable amount to help pay for that research. But, many University horticulture sites offer not only unbiased, well-researched information; they also make their pest control recommendations starting with the least toxic alternatives. Mechanical, physical and cultural controls are usually mentioned before pesticides. And that's where you should begin, too.

3. Make sure the online information is up to date. 
While researching garden information online, I've come across some rather dated university research, some going back to the 1960's.
 If given the option of choosing two different, seemingly reasonable, university-backed pieces of Internet advice on the same topic...choose the most recent one.

4. Make sure the information is aimed at the home gardener, not the farmer. 
A lot of Internet searches for pest and disease controls may take you to University-produced pages aimed at commercial agriculture. In many cases, the product recommendations will not be available for the backyard grower; nor are they usually necessary.

5. Finally, for California gardeners, bookmark this website:

This is the Integrated Pest Management site for the University of California at Davis, an excellent resource that can answer most any question about plant problems that you might be facing in your yard.


  1. Great advice Fred! I love Google just as much as the next person. The idea of using search words that include specifics like what state your in, city your in, type of soil, etc. is helpful.

    The use of search engines will only increase as time marches on. Be more local in your search engine inquires for better results. I just Googled "plum tree advice Sacramento" and on the first page was The Farmer Fred Rant!

  2. It is a blessing to have you and Trey (and Don and UCDavis) available online for local advice and guidance. Often your blogs answer my questions before I think to ask them.

    But I have to remark that I got a huge laugh from your comment on Trey's original post. Were you implying I shouldn't believe what you say on the radio? :-D

  3. Great suggestions, Fred.

    To give Google its due, we spent many years prior to the internet dealing with advice by Master Gardeners (published annually in our local paper) giving exact amounts of ammonium sulfate to apply to different fruit tree species. I'm not thrilled to sell ammonium sulfate to novice gardeners.

    I'd rather sell 10-10-10, even if you and I know that ratio is not particularly meaningful, simply because the product is more likely to be gypsum-coated or otherwise granulated, and thus less likely to fry the plants.

    The best advice is: "buy a product labeled for the plant, and read and follow the label instructions. Ask locally what particular nutrient issues there may be in your area."

    At least now gardeners get multiple sources of information. A stubborn customer is a challenge regardless of the source of their information, and as they say -- a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

  4. I have ongoing arguments with my wife over things she's read on the internet.
    She still insists on unplugging the electric can opener because she read that "appliances" use energy even when not in use.
    Fortunately she lets me do the gardening. Ha!