The Dirt / Beware of online gardening advice

How to find expert advice and get the right answers


Sometimes, Google is not the answer. This is especially true with questions that are hyperlocal by definition. Would you call someone in Florida to find out when you should plant seeds? Probably not. That’s part of the reason using such general sites as and or sites run by nationally based retailers (, can lead to disappointing results. These sites provide broad—and often knowledgeable—guidelines, which are fine as far as they go, but not really specific enough for most of us, especially beginners. 


If you can, ask the gardening experts at your local independent gardening center or nursery. Many of these have been doing business here for decades and they have  plenty of experience with Western New York conditions; they’ll err on the side of caution, which is the right thing to do. If a local expert is not available, then maybe it’s time to go online. Just do it wisely.


Don’t: Ask questions on Facebook. You’ll get ten different and contradictory answers. 


Do: Look for reliable gardening websites. The Cornell Cooperative Extension website has a “troubleshooting” link that leads to a big grab bag of useful information, including a plant manager, that helps diagnose problems; a weed identification tool; a ton of information on pests; and a section on horticultural myths. This is all science-based information, based on peer-reviewed studies. This is where you’ll learn the proper way to stake a tree, why not to put coffee grounds around your plants, why watering on a hot day is just fine, and many other (sometimes surprising) science-based bits of info.


If you are interested in some reliable gardening advice on Facebook, check out The Garden Professors, who have a Facebook page and a website ( Unfortunately, a lot of their Facebook time is spent debunking persistent theories about using mothballs as pest control or Epsom salts as a soil amendment.


Don’t: Rely on a general site, like Gardening Know How, for example, that offers no information on where its writers garden and is written in generic, colorless prose.


Do: Look for site-specific blogs written by knowledgeable, entertaining gardeners. There are two great New York State-based blogs I recommend. Zone 5b gardener Margaret Roach writes Away to Garden ( in a part of New York where, as she writes, “frost can persist well into May and return in October.” Sound familiar? Roach was a longtime editor for Martha Stewart Living and runs a well-written, frequently updated website that’s loaded with relevant information, including a monthly chore list, a separate section with plant information, and much more. Kathy Purdy’s Cold Climate Gardening ( is written under chillier conditions than we experience here, but that’s the side gardeners should err on. Purdy’s Central New York blog is also engagingly written and full of how-to and plant facts. A recent post, “Ten Things to Do While You’re Waiting for the Snow to Melt,” included a tip I’d never considered. Purdy keeps track of where the snow clears first, so that she can place early-blooming bulbs like crocuses or scilla in otherwise bare patches. 


Don’t: Do random YouTube searches for instructional gardening videos and pick the first result.


Do: Visit Good Gardening Videos (,  a nonprofit site that presents thematically organized videos free of advertorials or untested home remedies. Many come from university extension services; all have been screened for their scientific accuracy, watchability, and usefulness. 


In an age where facts can be alternative and scientific research is being doubted and defunded, it is more important than ever to treat gardening as a science-based pursuit and judge online gardening advice with that criterion in mind.            


Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree and blogs at


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