desk2Thanks to the internet, if you are a beginner gardener you can ask everything from “What is a seed?” to “What does soil do?” and rest easy in the knowledge that the only people aware of your ignorance are yourself and the CIA.

Perhaps you don’t know an annual from a perennial, a corm from a bulb, or the best wine to pair with seed starting at the kitchen table.  A few taps of the keyboard however, and your questions will be quickly and discretely answered through fifteen video tutorials, eight fact sheets, three forums and forty-eight saccharine musings upon the glory of spring.

I only wish that, like all power tools, the internet came with a user’s manual.  I may be extremely cynical (rhetorical), but it does seem as if there are a hundred billion gardening websites out there (including my own, unbelievably fabulous site); and the tradeoff one makes in having access to a flood of information is having access to a flood of mis-information.  Here’s just a few examples of the ways in which you may literally be led down the garden path.

1.   The copied misinformation: There are a lot of bloggers out there writing for free or thereabouts and regurgitating information without testing any of it.  That’s precisely why you salted your soil to kill weeds last week and now have about as much chance of growing anything there as the Carthaginians did after the Punic Wars. Cribbing is fine if they’re using www.usda.gov and citing their sources, but not so great if they’re just googling in the darkness like you.

2.   The oft-repeated myths: For instance: “Use a windowsill to start seedlings [and you’ll end up with leggy seedlings].” or “Blast aphids off flower heads with a strong jet of water [and destroy both the flower AND the aphids].”  Some advice is very well-known and well-repeated, but put into practice just leads to frustration.

3.   The Too-good-to-be-true Photos: How many lies are told every day with a camera?  Don’t kid yourself that it’s only happening in Los Angeles.  One of my favorites is the shot of plump farmyard chickens wandering through a beautiful vegetable garden.  Go ahead.  Put Henny Penny in your gorgeous creation for three unsupervised hours and see what happens. I’m a huge fan of Ms. P pecking at your plot – but about one month before you actually plant anything.

4.   The Salesman Vortex: There are nurseries out there who are not above stretching the truth a little to sell a plant.  If you want good information on a specific plant, it may not be wise to ask the person who is invested in selling it to you.

seeds on tableSo basically, you’re navigating a mine field – and you’ve got to know where to put your feet safely. You’re going to make mistakes of course, but here are some tips on getting started:

1.   Look for university or government based sites: Some horticultural studies take months, years, even decades to complete.  Take advantage of the data all that grant money paid for and peruse the .edu and .gov sites first.

2.   Find out where the author/blogger/freelancer writes: A Zone 10 Florida gardener may actually be able to say “start your seedlings in windowsills” and be right on the money – for other Zone 10 gardeners.  Location is critical when you’re applying gardening advice, so be sure to know their zone and your own.

3.   Check out peer-reviewed books at the library: Though it can happen, having several knowledgeable editors on his or her back makes it harder for an author to put mis-information into print.  This is not so on the world wide web.  If information is inaccurate, it may be challenged by a commenter trolling the internet, but faced with entering my name, creating a password, and deciphering the Captcha, all in order to correct the blogger and tell people not to plant poppy seeds in the spring, I and many others have usually lost interest and moved onto Youtube.

4.   Physically join a gardening club: I know this means eschewing the anonymity of your laptop, but don’t worry, they LOVE beginners. Mixing with others in your area who love to garden, garden professionally, or are also starting out is one of the best ways to share and collect information relevant to your climate and environment.

5.   Cross-check, cross-check, cross-check: This can be as simple as finding a good forum with lots of active, outspoken members, or finding several individual sites that you like and can contrast with one another.

Everyone has their own opinion (I have no doubt I’ll be hearing from the aphid/hose contingent after this column), but advice should always be based upon sweet experience. So make sure your sources actually have some, and meanwhile, go out and get some of your own.

– and it’s Zinfandel with seed starting. But it might be a good idea to carefully research that one yourself.