High-stakes gardening

It was back in 1965 when Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson did their now-famous experiment about the effect that teacher expectations have on student performance. They gave an intelligence test to a whole schoolful of elementary school students, and then told their teachers that 20% of them were marked for extraordinary intellectual growth and achievement in the coming year – “spurters,” they were called.

They named the 20%, which were, of course, chosen at random. At the end of the year, though, the spurters showed significantly more improvement than their peers. Their teachers’ expectation of better performance seemed to result in actual better performance. Rosenthal and Jacobson called this phenomenon “the Pygmalion effect,” and published their results in their 1968 book, Pygmalion in the Classroom.

Well, if it works for third-graders, I figure it’ll work for tomatoes.

Kevin decided that, rather than using tomato cages, which are difficult to get into rocky soil and insufficient to the support requirements of large tomato plants, this year he would build a trellis for our 24 plants. Our friend Ed has a big bamboo patch in his back yard, and he generously donated a landscape trailer full for the trellising effort.

One day last week I was out running errands, and Kevin was putting the finishing touches on a tomato trellis a good ten feet high. Ten feet!

“That’s a big trellis,” I said.

“Last year, our biggest plants were easily this tall,” said Kevin.

And it’s true. Last year, our biggest tomato plants were ten feet tall. I think that’s why we got a decent tomato crop despite getting the blight, which starts and the bottom of a plant and works its way up. It takes a while from blight to climb ten feet.

So, this year, we’re quite literally setting the bar high. I’m thinking that the tomatoes, seeing that bar, will understand what’s expected of them and strive for achievement. Pygmalion in the Garden.

You may think that’s far-fetched, but I don’t think it’s less reasonable than some other gardening theories out there. Take companion planting, for example. Can you seriously believe that your corn will grow better if it has a pet parsley? And then there’s this crazy biodynamic theory that says – I kid you not – you should determine when to plant, cultivate, and harvest by the phase of the moon.

You laugh (or at least I do), but Fiona at Cottage Smallholder, one of my favorite bloggers and a better gardener than I’ll ever be, has started using the system and swears by it. Go figure.

Gardening lends itself to crackpot theories because it’s profoundly mysterious. Every year, some things thrive and some things fail, and they’re never the same things, and it’s never for the same reasons. Humans are hard-wired to look for causality, but it’s hard to find in nature because there are simply too many variables.

I like problems with well-defined parameters and one correct solution. A quadratic equation, say, or a crossword puzzle. Problems that involve nature aren’t like that.

I like problems with well-defined parameters and one correct solution.

And it’s not just gardening. Look at fishing. Fish behavior is a function of water temperature, salinity, the presence of food, the tide, the weather, the fish’s birthplace, the sea bottom terrain, and, for all I know, the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But, even if you know all those things, you can’t predict fish behavior with certainty because there are other factors that we don’t even know enough to consider. And that’s even if fish don’t have free will, or enjoy sightseeing.

Gardening, though, is even worse. Trying to figure out how to make a plant thrive is hopelessly complicated because everything from tiny insects to global warming seems to affect what grows and what doesn’t.

Sometimes, you can isolate a problem. Last year, like everyone else in New England, we got the late blight on our tomatoes. The slugs found the collards. The chickens dead-headed the fennel. I get that. But why did nothing grow in a whole strip on the left side? Why was the garlic so puny? And the potatoes – they didn’t even sprout.

The eggplant and squash, though, did well. And the basil we planted in every available space delivered all summer. Why, why, why?

It’s so hard to get at the truth of gardening that I understand why we grasp at causal straws like the phase of the moon. I’m almost ready to start praying to the ancient pagan god of gardening, assuming there is one.


First, though, we’re trying soil amendments. We seemed to have a pattern of leggy plants with a sub-optimal foliage-to-fruit ratio, which, I’m given to understand, is a symptom of too much nitrogen. So we tilled in phosphate and greensand to beef up the P and the K of the N-P-K. We got three yards of compost from Watts Family Farm, which is said to have the most nutrient-rich compost on Cape Cod.

This year, the sugar snap peas I lovingly started from seed in the cold frame looked like jute twine with a couple of yellowish leaves glued on until they died altogether. The eggplant, usually insect-free, has depressingly lacy leaves. The fennel and beet seeds, which I planted directly in the garden, have produced anaemic little seedlings that hold little promise.

Is it the N? The P? The K? The Dow Jones Industrial Average? Damned if I know.

One bright spot, though, is the potatoes. Kevin planted two kinds – Kennebec that we ordered from a fancy-pants organic catalog, and fingerlings we bought from Costco and left too long in the bin. Both kinds seem to be thriving and the Kennebec, in particular, have sent up big thick stems that Kevin mounded soil and mulch around.

The leaves are, so far, almost free of insect damage. The flowers are just beginning to bloom. We don’t know what the crop looks like, of course, and it could be that we have all leaf and no tuber, but it’s reassuring just to see the nice big patch of healthy green.

Is it the weather? The sunlight? The compost? The companion garlic?

My theory is that it’s my husband, who’s full-blooded Irish. Centuries of subsistence farming have encoded an indigenous understanding of the variables of potato growing into the Irish genome, and so it’s quite reasonable for him to expect much of them.

So, what explains last year’s crop failure, you may ask.

Damned if I know.

But if you need help with the crossword puzzle, I’m your man.

17 people are having a conversation about “High-stakes gardening

  1. I’ve always said growing plants of any kind is a science and an art. And the biodynamic gardening takes it to fine art! The results, from what I have seen in other gardens, are beautiful.

    As for your soil, did you do a soil test? I’ve never done one, but I think this winter I’ll do one. Potatoes like the soil pretty acidic. Maybe it’s too acidic so for the other plants that are struggling. But do a test before throwing down some lime and remember, it takes 6 months for lime to move through the soil one inch. Good luck. Love the blog. Love the eat-at-least-one-thing-local thing too.

  2. I used to plant veggies / fruit with absolutely no expectations and was always amazed with my successes .. but I was working on a much smaller scale than you guys. I’ve only ever encountered biodynamics once in a vineyard in France – now I’m not sure I believed it all, but I sure did appreciate the wine – possibly some of the best I’ve ever tasted and we kept going back (in the days when it was only a 2-hour drive away!).

    I agree with Cynthia – soil testing is probably a good idea to sort out exactly what’s going on. That’s what my sister did with her cottage garden when she set it up and it’s paid dividends – either that or she’s blessed with green fingers!

  3. The other thing could be your trees. Too much shade and too much root competition. Maybe.

    Phases of the moon have to do with gravitational pull and what’s going on water-wise above and below ground. That’s why moon phases affect what you plant when. It also affects how well a fence post sets and other interesting things.

    Moon phases are like feng shui- it’s not something to believe in per se, just something you either choose to harness or not. I use feng shui to advantage, but haven’t done the moon phase thing yet. So far I’ve been lucky, garden-wise, but I’m guessing there will be a day when I’ll need to pay more attention to the Farmer’s Almanac that I buy every year, or rather, I receive every year as a stocking stuffer. (Where is that almanac anyway?)

  4. Thanks so much for the link Tamar!

    Our ancestors used the principles of biodynamic gardening for centuries until chemical fertilisers were introduced about 100 years ago. This wiped gardening by the moon straight off the map – too much bother.

    The problem that we all face now is that the fertilisers have bled the soil dry. Like cocaine heads (and I know a few) who have to quit and discover that they have no natural spark – it does come back in time (usually 1-2 years). Because the brain is being fed artificial highs all naturally produced sparkiness dries up.

    Soil is a different matter. If only t took 1-2 years to repair!

    Like you, I also invested in 3 yards of a mix of compost and manure this year as well as planting by the moon and everything (well the plants that haven’t been devoured by slugs) thrives and the results are far better than last year. Danny was astonished that I spent nearly £200 on the compost and manure. At the time I assured him that it was a one off. Today I realised that we probably need to repeat this next year – I’m already looking into buying manure from the local stables and ‘cooking’ it with our compost for the spring.

    I agree with the comments above. Test your soil, Tamar. And test different areas too – as some can differ wildly. I didn’t bother until this year but now I know which feed is appropriate for each plant and why so many have failed in the past.

    With all best wishes

    Dotty Eccentric

  5. Cynthia — We’ve had our soil tested, but only in two spots, and only for pH. We’re close to neutral, about 6.7, which is supposed to be fine. Over the winter, though, I’m going to get more detailed tests, so we have some idea what the nutrient content of the soil is, and how we might go about fixing it. Thanks for the kind words!

    Fiona — I suspect that people who take the time and trouble to follow biodynamic principles are giving their plants lots of attention and excellent care, so it’s not suprising that they get good results. I’m in favor of just about anything whose end result is good wine.

    Paula — It’s certainly true that the moon’s position affects the earth. The only question is whether — and how — that affects plants. It’s not reasonable to simply assume it does (isn’t any difference in the water table trumped by the watering I do?), and what little testing of the hypothesis I’ve seen has been equivocal. Some people get results that confirm it, others don’t.

    But I’m afraid bringing up feng shui to a hard-ass empiricist is a dangerous proposition! I’ve got to disagree with you on this one. The contention is that the environment affects “chi,” which is usually defined as “energy,” but has no scientific defintion — it sure isn’t calories — and can’t be measured. With moon-phase planting, there’s at least a glimmer of a possibility of a scientific explanation, but with feng shui, there’s none at all. Somebody just made it up, and my hard-ass empirical self is having none of it.

    But as for roots and shade, I think you’re on the money. As you generally are. I hope we can still be friends even if we disagree about feng shui.

    CS/Dotty Eccentric — I hope you don’t mind that I mentioned you in the context of expressing doubt about moon-phase planting! I love what you’re doing, and have gotten both good ideas and inspiration from reading you regularly.

    My problem isn’t that our soil has been over-fertilized, but just the opposite, which comes to almost the same thing. Almost nothing but rhododendrons have been cultivated on our land, and we started with what was essentially nutrient-free sand. We’ve been adding compost for three years now, but we still have a long way to go.

    Your point about testing different areas is well-taken. I planted a long row of beets and a parallel row of fennel across the front of the garden, and they’re excellent barometers of where the soil, for whatever reason, is good and where it’s not. I’ve got medium-size beets on one end, scrubby little leaves in the middle, and a few decent plants on the other end. It was very revealing.

  6. tom and jane says:

    I concur that testing is needed in multiple spots. As to the garden, we are almost exclusively Ruth Stoudt mulch gardeners. One big round bale each year left over from the local farmers in the spring (almost always self composting already) covers our 2000 square feet of gardens. Manure every so often if the tests show NPK has gone awry. We only put in on in the fall so it decomposes by spring and any “hot spots” with high nitrogen get to degrade. It all works out to just a couple of hours of weeding every two weeks until harvest. We have been all organic for two decades.

  7. The soil is so mysterious to me, it acts like a living organism and a thriving ecosystem. Feed your soil and the soil will feed you is what I’m always told. And like any culture, it takes time to evolve. It sounds like you’re doing all the right things.

    I think making good soil is like making good stock. According to the recipe it’s only a few ingredients, and time to simmer and blend properly. What you get at the end of it is somehow richer and more concentrated than the sum of the ingredients, just through the process of time and interaction.

    If you’re growing your tomatoes on canes, you can remove the lower leaves as the plant gets taller. These leaves are not photosynthesizing effectively and are an entry point for diseases like blight.

    As a soil improver, wood ash is an OK source of P in N-P-K, and I can’t think of a better excuse to get that pizza oven fired up!

  8. Tom and Jane — One of my problems as a gardener is that I find so many different styles appealing. I read about no-till gardeners, and I want to be one. I read about raised-bed gardens, and I want to try that. And now you throw the whole mulching thing into the mix. There are so many options that it’s hard to figure out my own path. Right now, though, I’m leaning toward mulching!

    Jen — I’m going to go pull the bottom leaves off my tomatoes right now. I don’t think we have blight yet, and it didn’t occur to me to take prophylactic measures.

    As for wood ash, I’ve been told to be wary of it because it’s alkaline, and can mess with the pH of your soil. I have a big bag of potash for P, greensand for K, and chicken poop compost for N. If I could only find the right mix …

  9. In the community garden here where I have a plot for the second year in a row, it’s the peas that are the mystery. Many plots didn’t get planted at all (the prairies faces unprecedented rain and flooding this year), and many that did had to stand by as what did spout died of root rot in the standing water.

    The peas, over the whole area – wet, average and high-ground dry – seem to follow no pattern at all. Mine are fine (I have a well drained spot), but right beside my plot, mere feet away there is nothing but yellowed wisps of plants on wire cages. The other half of my plot (I only have a half-plot, 15×25 feet) has a row of peas that are half yellow and half deep healthy green. Almost precisely in half, actually. And the same tale is told everywhere: dead and dying next to green and healthy with no rhyme or reason. At least not one I can figure out, there must be something!.

  10. Of course we can still be friends! I’m married to a hard-assed empiricist, and he and I are friends. I just think you guys are missing out on an interesting angle to life, but I don’t expect you to change. If Steve started believing in something, anything, I’d be very worried about him! I just appreciate that he puts up with my funny ideas….

  11. KB — Maybe we can take your mystery peas, put them with my mystery beets, and have ourselves a salad.

    Paula — So, your life is populated with hard-assed empiricists, is it? Say hi to Steve for me! And never expecting anyone to change is the only reasonable way to go through life.

  12. Great tips from you and Jen about the bottom leaves on tomato plants. I didn’t know what was going on down there!

  13. Snark time: don’t quadratic equations have two solutions? If not, well, I always did suck at math, and I’m sure there was something I was made to do that always had two solutions.

    As for pagan agricultural gods, I’ve always been partial to Demeter, even if she did screw her brother. Incest was all the rage for Greek deities back in the day.

    And as for the actual substance of your post, you’re absolutely right. There’s just no telling why some things turn out well in any given year and others don’t. Welcome to the club. Our potatoes don’t look so great this year with all the heat we’ve had.

  14. Kate — You don’t suck at math, at least when it comes to knowing how many solutions a quadratic equation has — it’s two, alright. (Remember that ‘+/-‘ in the numerator of the quadratic formula?) I took a mathematical liberty.

    What gets me about not knowing why some things do well and other things don’t is that the answers are, in theory, at least, knowable. We just don’t know enough. I hate when that happens.

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