Expert advice -too often inappropriate

Now I don't want to ruffle too many feathers and I'm in danger of shooting myself in the foot but I do wonder whether we should actually take much notice of experts. I know I'm in an awkward spot here often being taken for an expert but in many ways I'm more of a Bob of all trades. You see I have spent my life querying expert advice and curiosity has led me to experimentally try and verify what I have been led to believe was so. And too often I have found the experts' advice to be, not so much wrong as, inappropriate.

To put it another way; when answering any question experts would tell us what they would do to get their desired outcome rather than tell us what we could do to get our desired outcome. To use analogy; if you asked Michael Schumacher to tell you his method for overtaking I'm sure he would give you excellent advice, after all he is arguably one of the best drivers ever. However would that advice be much use or even appropriate if you were not an aspiring racer but a granny needing to pass her test so she can drive to visit her grandchildren? I'm sure he must also be an excellent driver on the road but when asked such a question he would automatically respond about the track situation not the road.

And horticultural, like all other, experts do the same. So who do we ask to tell us how to grow, say leeks. Well probably a leek enthusiast and quite likely someone who enters shows and wins prizes. Nothing wrong there, but, and it's a big but, an enthusiast who shows will be employing a whole range of techniques very different. indeed completely alien to the amateur wishing to grow some leeks for the pot.

Now it's not that the expert does not know of the rank amateurs likely method and approach, but of course the expert is accustomed to such a different regime that his advice is loaded in that direction all the time -and with different aims in mind. The expert who shows cannot help but dwell on things that affect the appearance, the size and the uniformity before almost everything else. The flavour, the ease of culture, the economy of effort, are not forefront in the expert's mind.

Of course the other expert who may be asked for advice is the commercial grower. Once again their approach is radically different; yield per square yard is almost everything. Shelf life and appearance may also be important to them. And as their entire living depends on getting it right every time they are unlikely to deviate from the accepted routine methods. Some may even wish to offer better quality but again that will probably be commercial quality which is not necessarily the same to the backyard grower.

Now before I go into some prime examples let me repeat. It is not that expert's are negligent or wrong, far from it, their advice is often correct but simply inappropriate. It is too narrow and fixed with predetermined aims and not as flexible as the amateur situation requires. No professional expert would even attempt to grow certain crops in an unsuitable soil or garden if they could help it, we often must and do! However. listen to experts, but then judge whether their advice is appropriate to your situation and circumstances.

Parsnips are a good example - for years the advice, even on the seed packet was along the lines of "Parsnips can be sown from the middle of February in a warm sheltered border." No questioning whether or not you were wise to devote your warm sheltered border to a crop of parsnips, when come May you are desperate for that spot for your tomatoes. And although you can sow parsnips in February I really doubt they will ever germinate. Then we come to the sowing- "draw out a thirty foot drill, spread the seed uniformly, firm and later hoe out the surplus seedlings". Think about it -these are not baby carrots! When fully grown how big do you want your parsnips to be? Well then how much foliage will each carry, and thus how far apart must each be? Probably ten inches to a foot apart. So why sow seed at thirty a foot to leave just two? Surely station sowing of three seeds every ten inches makes more sense and later to thin these to singletons.

Then there was the local radio pundit who recommended an enquirer to spray their tomatoes with fungicide to prevent them getting blight -in a greenhouse, and at the end of September when they'd likely be dead in a month or so anyway. He probably belonged to the school that would use a couple of pounds worth of hazardous pesticide to keep flea beetles off a radish crop- worth all of fifty pence and which would probably never be eaten anyway.

But it's not for or against chemical usage advice I'm counselling about; I don't want to use them but each to their own lights. No what I'm concerned about is where any advice sounds OK until you analyse it and then as I keep repeating it can be revealed as not wrong but inappropriate. As with Melons - now all the experts and texts tell you to nip out the tip when four or so true leaves have formed to make four leaders spring from their axils. Then when four female flowers are formed to pollinate them all on the same day so none gets ahead and suppresses the others. Then you should get four good average sized melons from each plant. Dream on! In average amateur conditions most of us would be happy with one or two per plant, trying for four is actually rather optimistic. And in the process you may well end up losing all in a bad year, maybe one doing better and being eatable and three runners up that never do. Look the advice was for professional growers MARKETING melons; they want to produce the maximum cash value -which four medium melons will satisfy. However with our less than optimum culture you and I are probably better to let the first melon take all and grow into a whopper. We will probably be more pleased as it will be magnificent and there will be less waste as more flesh and fewer seeds and rind are produced with one large than four smaller ones.

Likewise we are always being 'sold' F1 varieties, some of which are indeed truly improved. But are they what we want? Modern F1 Brussels' sprouts, sweet corn and cauliflower varieties will each all mature the whole crop the same week. Marvellous for harvesting to sell by the lorry load but not necessarily what you want at home. Of course if you want to process and store the crop then harvesting it all in one go is handy. But if you want to eat some every so often over a month then many older non-F1 varieties were less uniform and cropped over a longer period.

The most twisted advice is given regarding asparagus -we are unequivocally told we should get the new all male varieties as they produce higher crops per acre not wasting their energy on seed production. Possibly true in a field situation especially after it is ploughed up as asparagus seedlings in the corn are not advisable. However for home use which do you prefer: 5lb of small to medium sized spears or 4lb of really big fat succulent ones.? As if the latter then you need all female plants not all male as females give fewer bigger spears. (AND the commercial growers are being lied to as well- it is not the cost of growing asparagus but the cost of picking it that is the greater, picking fewer bigger spears that get top prices must be more economic than harvesting a greater weight of smaller spears.)

Sweet corn also suffers from this over- dependence on expertly bad advice from the commercial market. New sweeter varieties are not very much sweeter than the old BUT they have been bred to stay sweeter for longer on the shelf. Crucial to the farmer and supermarket this barely touches the garden situation where we harvest and cook almost straightaway. Thus we are told, correctly, that if we grow more than one modern variety close to another we may lose some of the benefits of their breeding. Well for the last two years I have tried, I have grown small beds of up to twenty varieties all next to each other. They grew and cropped well. First they did not all cross as their flowering did not overlap and where they did cross the result was not disaster but just some cobs with less than 100% identical kernels. This did affect the appearance slightly but not the eating quality in any discernible way. Thus no problem at home but disaster to the commercial grower who can only sell a field full of identical perfect replicas.

Then look at peas- we are encouraged to try 'self supporting' ones that stand up in a field situation unaided. -but these fall over if in a small block or a garden row. And worse we are told to sow them in a wide flat drill. Why? So they came up under the wigwam of pea sticks -when the majority of us now grow them on netting. Thus we need sow in a slit trench not a wide flat drill where they emerge a foot away from their support.

Some of the worst advice comes for tomatoes -go to almost any show and you will see the usual winner is one called Gold Star; if you don't know it don't worry as it may look good but is almost as tasteless as supermarket fare. Kitchen gardeners grow more for taste so should grow such as Gardener's Delight or Marmande not a variety 'good for showing'. (This applies to almost everything!) Then the experts talk such rot about growing in bags instead of the border soil as they claim the soil will be so full of pests and diseases you won't be able to grow tomatoes in it after five to ten years. Not so, I have found my soil still good after fifteen years. But maybe that's because the plants are only in there from April till October then the soil gets a rest for the next six months. UNLIKE the commercial grower who fills his greenhouse for eleven and a half months of the year to make a profit. And if the soil did degrade well then it would only need changing every five years -which is less work in total than carrying all the necessary bags in and out each and every year!

Perhaps the most inappropriate advice comes where commercial machinery is employed. Thus we are sold green manures such as Hungarian Grazing Rye, Tares, Vetches and Clovers. Pernicious weeds that are the devil to incorporate in the garden where you don't have the help of a 40hp tractor and plough. Likewise the experts recommend planting potatoes more shallowly than gives the best yields -just because they have to lift theirs by machine not hand so it is important to them to have the crop up near the surface.

And with potatoes the experts don't mention that removing the flowers diverts energy otherwise wasted on seed pods to more crop and increases the yield by about 5-10%. The experts are not going to deflower a field by hand but you or I can easily manage a row or two with little effort for an increased return.

But the daftest piece of advice from the experts, including some who ought to know better, is bending the necks down on onions. Originally this was done for aesthetic reasons; it was important the gardens always looked neat in the 'good old days'. Then it was justified as 'helping the crop ripen'. When in fact it has been shown since the 1960's that bending the necks down causes tissue damage and makes the crop more likely to rot! Far better is to slip a fork underneath and loosen the roots instead.

So, the experts are not wrong, just their advice is too often inappropriate as it is not for us but for 'grow for show' or for commerce. It pays to listen carefully, take note, and then make your own mind up.