jamie_z7bhz8

Gardening Myths

Jamie
last month
last modified: last month

I listen to theses podcasts with Joe Lamp'l and Linda Chalker-Scott from time to time just to remind myself of the things that work and those that don't really work at all. I guess it can be a bit controversial to dispute some claims made in forums like gardenweb.com but that's ok. I admit that I've left most all Facebook gardening groups because of the endless (pointless) arguments about things like Epsom Salts or wood chip mulch- and the ever popular debate about using pressure-treated lumber in raised beds.

I do appreciate her comments about things that have trickled into home gardening practices from massive (monoculture) commercial agricultural operations. If you have not listened to these and have an interested in science-based information, check them out.

https://joegardener.com/podcast/034-gardening-myths-busted-pt-1-with-linda-chalker-scott/

https://joegardener.com/podcast/035-gardening-myths-busted-pt-2-with-linda-chalker-scott/

https://joegardener.com/podcast/036-gardening-myths-busted-pt-3-with-linda-chalker-scott/

There is also a summary of the discussion on each of the podcasts if you'd rather read than listen.

Comments (53)

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    " she only discussed mulch in the context of adding to a garden bed and does not mention mulch as a path material; "

    That's because it is only a mulch when used in that garden bed covering context. When used as a paving material it ceases to become a mulch and what specific material you use is of no concern to the garden itself.

    Mulch has a rather specific definition that goes beyond the actual material itself :-)

    btw, EAB is a problem across the country, not just in your neck of the woods. If the wood is chipped properly (dimensionally), that will restrict the spread. Most professional tree guys use chippers that spit out properly sized chips that do not support EAB.

  • woodyoak zone 5 southern Ont., Canada

    Mulch on the paths is definitely more than a paving material! It is also to help suppress weeds and improve the soil. In many areas the paths blend seamlessly with the garden beds so the effect on soil is important too. In the beds themselves, dead plant material - from the perennials as well as fallen tree and shrub leaves, and the soil coverage from the living plants in the growing season provide all the mulch that the beds need.

    I would like to see some research on EAB survival in chipper trucks. I have my doubts that all the larvae and beetles get killed in the chipping process and that larvae do not survive in the truck chip box. Woodpecker numbers seem to be rising here and I suspect, long term, that woodpeckers will become the factor that is key to biological control of EAB - i.e that plentiful EAB larvae support higher woodpecker populations and that higher woodpecker populations help cap EAB numbers. Over time the two should reach some sort of dynamic balance.

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  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    I don't want to argue the point but LCS's comments re: mulch are not intended to be interpreted as particularly relevant to pathways. That is not and never has been the primary usage of this material in whatever form applied.

    And the EAB research is out there. You just have to look for it. It is the dimension of the chips themselves that is the limiting factor for EAB survival.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    It's interesting how these garden myths get created and propounded. Many are just belief systems that would have inexpensive and commonly available materials (epson salt! vinegar! eggshells! household ammonia! aspirin!) touted for unexpected benefit. Neato trick! A lot of it is just wanting to believe, which has deep religious connotations. But these tricks can be put to the test, and those tests simply often don't bear out the myth. Not to criticize organic gardening, but the myths involving EVIL CHEMICALS are kind of astonishing. You can look up the MSDS of artificial constituents, and know for sure whether they are safe to use. Some are, and some aren't. You can't look up the MSDS of garden soil, but I'll have you know that some bacteria commonly resident in plain ol' garden soil isn't that nice.

  • cooper8828

    I follow the Facebook page which is great, because you get real questions from real people. I'm pretty sure I've listened to those podcasts in the past and they were informative.

  • Jamie

    I’ve always been curious about the origins of a lot of these practices also. One that has always confused me is “The Three Sisters”. Sure, Native Americans grew corn, squash and beans. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to grow them in the same patch. Their harvest dates are different and you’d have to walk though a bunch if squash vines to get to the corn/beans. I have seen a few drawings from Spanish texts that showed these crops growing in separate fields. I have not looked into it in any detail though.

    the other one that has always bothered me is the myth that you need to add gravel to the bottom of a pot to improve drainage. It never made any sense to me And I was happy when I saw Jeff Gillman‘s demonstration Of why it doesn’t work. If anything, I figured if you wanted to improve drainage in a pot you should mix the gravel (small stones) in with the potting mix (as I’ve seen Monty Don do) - or just use a better mix altogether.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    The "Three Sisters" is one of those happy combinations like companion planting, where friendly crops are grown together. You know, with their arms around each other. Everybody smiling! Companion planting can have some value if one companion serves as bait for insects that would feed on the other, and maybe one plant provides shade for another - that's called intercropping. But, other than that, it's pretty useless, and a credible myth. Linda has a nice writeup on that. There are some pretty hilarious assertions about plant companions. That being said, some plants certainly are enemies of others, where allelopathy fights competitors.

  • lgteacher

    With social media, myths spread even faster. The gravel in the bottom of a pot myth has been around for years and persists on Facebook.


  • Jamie

    Igteacher- more like decades! Haha!

  • edenchild

    The Epsom salt myth is also alive and doing well. I have people in my garden club still buying into it and will not be told otherwise.

    GardenGal, thanks for the link to Linda’s website. This will be my fireside reading for the next few days as I wait for the current rains to pass. I have to admit that after binge watching several years worth of Gardeners World recently, I did buy mycorrhizae fungi. Monty Don couldn’t be wrong, could he?

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    As a magnesium supplement, epsom salts actually work pretty well. Of course, most soils don't need extra magnesium. The joke is where epsom salts are considered some kind of magic fertilizer that every plant needs. But maybe all plants need to have their roots soaked in epsom salts to relieve them of callouses and soothe pain.

  • laceyvail 6A, WV

    Re Three Sisters planting. All the plants involved were harvested in fall when fully mature; i.e. no traipsing through the plot for green beans or summer squash or "sweet" corn.

  • CA Kate z9

    Re: Epsom Salts: Maybe it's my adobe soil, but Epsom Salts really does make a difference in the color of bloom and strength to the entire plant. I've been lazy the last few years and it shows. I'll be going back to using Epsom salts along with the fertilizer this Spring.

  • erasmus_gw

    It's interesting reading. Experts do change their opinions sometimes. Scientists will tell us that a certain food is unhealthy and then reverse their opinions at a later date. Some scientists say it is a myth that changes in weather make arthritis pain worse. Many arthritis sufferers will say otherwise. My dermatologist father-in-law said it's a myth that shaving makes hairs grow coarser. I think many would argue with that. There is controversy about a lot of things that are much studied such as cholesterol.

    A gardener can do something for years in their garden and get very good results. If an expert comes along and says what they've been doing doesn't work I can see how the gardener might beg to disagree. But it's true that other factors may come in to play and their success may not actually be due to the thing they think it is. Still, I think experts should not clobber people over the head with how they know best. Gardeners get acquainted with what works best in their garden and it is not surprising they trust their own experience. That said, I guess most contemporary science has a lot worth considering but not necessarily embracing whole hog.

    I like Linda's advise to put nothing in a planting hole but roots, water, and soil. This is what I usually do and it pleases me that it is less expensive.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    What the experts do that casual gardeners generally don't do is controlled experiments, where a substance or methodology is used AND not used under the same conditions, and results are carefully compared. Pretty hard to argue with results that come out of that kind of comparison. In that case, clobbering is justifiable. Without a controlled experiment, what you think may be producing some desired effect may not, in fact, be what is producing it at all.

  • lgtung

    I cringe every time someone asks about blossom end rot. Add tums to the hole! It's mostly caused by uneven watering, but since people refuse to get a soil test, they just want an easy answer.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    Well, given the stomach churning that blossom end rot produces, I can think of better uses for those Tums.

  • LaLennoxa

    One of my thoughts on these discussions is what does it hurt if someone gets a little joy in believing that throwing some eggshells into their garden works wonders. Not hurting me one bit. So, all the power to them. And when all is said and done, we are all dealing with these small micro-climates and garden situations that are unique to us, so in the end, you just need to know what works for you, whether it be "real" or some figment of your imagination. If it gives you some extra comfort to keep gardening, I say good for you...

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    So subscribing to myths is good for you yourself? More power to you. Then in all truth we should advertise eggshell sprinkling as being good for the gardener instead of being good for the plants. Works for me.

  • edenchild

    I think the issue is more that, for most of us, as enthusiastic but amateur gardeners we want to do the best job possible with our plants and our soil. It is frustrating to think you are doing the right thing and then find out that you have wasted time, effort and money on something that doesn’t work (or doesn’t work well).

  • Jamie

    It is frustrating, but in the end it is better to know that something does or doesn’t work. If some gardening practices make the gardener happy, and they’re not doing any harm, then there’s nothing wrong with continuing them. But, at the same time, they should not get upset if they try to promote those practices and someone else points out that there is no scientific evidence that they actually work.

    Many people overthink things. They want complicated solutions to problems to things that they don’t fully understand, when in reality a simple solution is often the best.

    I’ll admit that at times, I’ve believed that gardening is more complicated than it actually is. In the end, plants are more resilient and adaptable than we actually realize.

    Composting is a good example of overthinking. I have seen so many articles that give instructions for precise amounts of “greens” and “browns”- ignoring the fact that most home gardeners will never have the precise amounts of either one on hand at exactly the same time. If you just make a pile of what ever you do have, in whatever proportions you have, it will eventually decompose. It might take longer if all you have is “browns” but it will still happen. It’s probably not a good idea to make a pile of all “greens” though hahaha that would go anaerobic and be a bit stinky if you don’t turn it often.

    Fertilizer use is probably the best example. A simple soil test will tell you most everything you need to know but so many people won’t get one. Too many of our home gardening practices come from large-scale agricultural practices and they really are two completely different situations. Charles Dowding doesn’t use anything except compost in his garden. Ruth Stout promoted the idea of “gardening without work” and planting into a layer of “mulch” more than 50 years ago. Many, many gardeners have shown that simple practices do work in a large number of cases, but most people ignore those facts and insist on expensive, elaborate practices. You can go back even further in time to the market gardeners of Paris that used only composted horse manure (of course, with horses being the main mode of transportation at the time, there was an ample supply)

  • rouge21_gw (CDN Z6)

    A local gardener (Ontario Canada), Robert Pavlis has written 2 books on "Gardening Myths". Here is a link to his:

    Top 10 Gardening Myths of 2019:

    https://www.gardenmyths.com/top-10-gardening-myths-2019/

    Jamie thanked rouge21_gw (CDN Z6)
  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    Yes, Pavlis is very good. He is a Master Gardener, and has degrees in chemistry and biochemistry. In addition to his blog, which is at https://www.gardenmyths.com, he also does nice podcasts. He's got a nice list of "Don't Buy These Products", which reminds one to think twice before plunking down money.

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    There is one myth we can bust right here!! And that is the notion that a 'Master Gardener' is somehow imbued with greater gardening skills or is an impeachable source of horticultural knowledge and that anyone with that title should be revered.

    The MG program was not developed with that intent in mind. The program was created to assist county extension agents by providing enthusiastic hobby gardeners with some modest training and access to extension service resources so that they could respond to gardening questions from other hobby/home gardeners and leave the extension agents to deal with larger scale and often economically significant agricultural issues.

    Although the program is pretty uniform in its intent, it is not necessarily uniform in its application. The basic horticultural training provided ranges from a mere 40 hours to 100 hours, depending on location and extension service involved. Some require passing an exam on completion of the training....others do not. All require a period of volunteer work before MG certification, usually a specified number of hours. And to remain certified, there is an ongoing educational requirement.

    So some MG programs are great and very thorough....others not so much. And some MG grads are just better than others, retaining the knowledge they acquired through the training and applying it successfully through their own gardening activity or through the volunteer work required by the program. Others are much less capable and a few just tout the title as something that all should be in awe of :-)

    Part of the issue its the title itself. Master gardeners are not really 'masters' of anything. Compared to the training and education a degreed horticulturist receives, the MG training barely - barely - scratches the surface!

    Don't get me wrong - it is a great program and hugely helpful to the general gardening public. But it is not some exalted position - anyone can apply for, go through the program and if satisfying the volunteer requirements, receive certification. Don't give that "master gardener" title more respect than it deserves.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    A Master Gardener is skilled in communicating to the public about gardening. Pavlis does a very good job of that. Many astute and trained individuals do not. Myth propagation is largely a matter of poor communication. Also, gardening myths are revealed by people with basic science training and respect for the scientific method. Don't need to be a degreed horticulturalist to understand why eggshells don't do what many say they do.

  • John D Zn6a PIT Pa

    In my opinion the greatest gardening myth is no dig gardening. The worst part of this scheme is planting your perennials in soil with very little to no organic material.

  • LaLennoxa

    Hey, if sprinkling eggshells peppered by epsom salts gets you of, then I say peace, love and hair grease. Better than bullets.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    Never tried bullets. For soil aeration, maybe? Dynamite could be good for that as well!

  • LaLennoxa

    Absolutely! I might finally be able to get the grass I've always dreamed of!! Can't wait to spread on the internet...

  • theforgottenone1013 (SE MI zone 5b/6a)

    laceyvail- If you were to read the book "Agriculture Of The Hidatsa Indians" aka "Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden" you will find that Native Americans did indeed eat corn, beans, and squash fresh as well as fully mature. The difference between how they grew these crops and how we try to accomplish the same is spacing. Their crops were spaced several feet apart whereas nowadays people try to plant everything on top of each other and create a clustered mess in doing so.

    Rodney

  • mxk3

    "...the notion that a 'Master Gardener' is somehow imbued with greater gardening skills or is an impeachable source of horticultural knowledge and that anyone with that title should be revered."


    ^^ Oh yea...the old MG on a pedestal thing. It gets on my nerves when the response to a question I ask is "ask so-and-so she is a master gardener", and so-an-so's garden is a ratty-*ss jungle.

  • teuth

    > Charles Dowding doesn’t use anything except compost in his garden

    > the greatest gardening myth is no dig gardening

    Are Dowding's videos fake?

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    teuth, someone doesn't understand that it's the amending and /or double digging that is the myth, not the other way around :-)

    No, the videos are not fakes.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    In my view, no-till is hardly a myth. People do it, and it works for them. But the myth part is that it is allegedly for everyone. If your soil is poor, no-till is a mistake. In fact, your soil has to be quite good to allow it. There is great fear about breaking the fungal strands in the soil though, to be honest, when you break a fungal strand, you just then have two of them. You aren't killing them. I guess if you don't like digging, and are willing to endure non-optimal root penetration, no-till is something you might want to try.

    I have a small bed that I don't till, because I've got some self-seeding annuals in it that I try to keep alive over winter, and it's clear that they don't do as well the second year, when the soil hasn't been tilled. So I've never been very enthused about it.

  • bellflower

    I confess to not really knowing anything about Charles Dowding but have not dug my allotment for 16 years. I do have beds which are never compacted, plus I never have any bare soil (I tend to leave weeds all winter and pull them on a damp spring day when they give up their grip in friable soil very easily) . Adding a heap of compost, leaving weed detritus on the soil (my hoe is my main tool) and generally being a bit of an idler doesn't appear to have compromised my crop yield much. I disturb the soil as little as possible and keep the weed seeds (which are always inevitable and ever-present on a public plot) as deep and dormant as possible, so even the potatoes get planted with a bulb planter - none of this digging trenches and heaping up. I started out with sandy, easily workable but basically rubbish soil. It is still pretty free-draining and dry and I have a method which isn't too strenuous but produces fruit, vegetables and flowers with not a monumental effort and no real cost. The enormo- compost mountains are fairly essential and not really easy or appropriate in a small urban garden...and as with just about all complex systems, there are many variables, including methodologies.

  • ophoenix

    One more vote for Linda and Robert Pavlis! Soil amendments in the bottoms of the holes for plants is one myth that may never die - way too many utubes and bad directions from nurseries. Same for rocks at the bottoms of pots. I actually cheer out loud when reading Linda's books. Robert not only does interesting controlled experiments, he publishes how he does them and the results. Keep it simple - when I used to take newbies into my CA garden and divide plants on the spot - they would ask over and over how to plant them. I learned that the best explanation was 'the brown part - the roots - go into the soil - the green parts go up in the air!' I would meet these gardeners all over town and they would all be so excited to tell me that their plants survived and growing just fine.

  • noki33

    People always want easy answers and shortcuts with gardening, same as with food and vitamins. There is no one "magic bullet" for perfect human health, no one perfect thing to do to massively improve your garden. Easy sells, people always want an easy answer. Most of the items sold through retail are vastly overrated, but people want easy.

    As for no tilling, I think you should do minimal digging if the soil is good, but around houses and their yards the top soil has been scraped off, the soil compacted, and the lawn has been doused with fertilizers. The soil needs to be improved short term because it sucks.

  • Jay 6a Chicago

    I was wondering if those grafted solanum species plants they sell really grow well? You know, where you a tomato with some eggplant branches and has potatoes for roots. Also, can I murder my squatter invasive buckthorns and mulberries by hammering copper nails into their trunks. Can you build up enough matter in a giant mountain compost pile to create a black hole?

  • FrozeBudd_z3/4

    When digging and moving trees, one MUST mark upon them the direction in which they face and again orientate them to this, otherwise they will die! Have heard this many times and have always known it to be a bunch of crock! Actually, I usually do the opposite and set the north face to the south to encourage branching to be thickened up by the sun. Speaking of crock, only once did I ever use such at the bottom of a pot to "promote drainage", it seemed impractical and instead had hampered drainage and reduced the volume of soil available to the plant.

    As for soil spading, if fertility is low, I deeply dig the entire site and amend with peat moss, compost or manure. This is what I did for my vegetable garden and it soon went from silty light and lean to rich and black. Never again have I spaded the patch and compost is now conserved and tilled only into the planting rows and holes. For new perennial beds, I deeply spade and break up any hardpan and have been known to remove copious amounts of hard heavy clay and rock, this then being used for fill. I wheelbarrow in good soil from another site within my yard and the job is done. I never just punch a hole though the hardpan and toss perennials or shrubs in, the entire bed gets a very good once over! On the other hand, I have locations with a good depth of beauitful loose soil, these sites are simply flipped over and planted up, sooo easy in comparison!

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    I think that another myth is that soil amendation with compost is a one-time job. That is, I have bad soil, I dig in a pile of compost, and now it's good soil. Never have to do that again!! What many people don't seem to realize is that as compost slowly degrades, it volatilizes. As in POOF! - it blows away as CO2. We all know that as we watch compost piles slowly disappear. It also disappears after it is dug into a bed. So bad soil that is well amended with compost and turns into good soil eventually turns right back into being bad soil after a few years.

    That's one problem I have with no-till. You can layer compost on top, but down under, the compost is slowly disappearing and the soil structure seems like it has to be slowly degrading.

  • gardengal48 (PNW Z8/9)

    If you study soils and soil physics, it is not quite as simple as described :-) Compost will persist for years.....not in the same form or volume/quantity but for it to completely volatilize into CO2 is not correct. Eventually it will decompose into humus and remain static under that condition indefinitely.

    Improving any soil with organic matter is never a once and done thing. The benefits the OM brings to a soil decreases over time as the OM degrades and decomposes. But just mulching with the OM - rather than specifically digging it in - will continue to enrich the soil and improve structure, as the activity of the soil organisms, rainwater and irrigation and even the plant roots and casual light cultivation will work the OM down into the soil profile.

  • woodyoak zone 5 southern Ont., Canada

    When we bought this property back in 1999, the soil was heavy clay (I swear we could have made pots with it!) I had recently become disabled so heavy digging - or even adding compost or most other such soil amendments was not a very viable option. Yet I wanted a garden.... Around that time MYKE brand mycorrhizal fungus supplement became available so I used the appropriate type of that whenever I planted anything, planted densely (no bare ground!) and then left as much dead plant material (e.g. fallen tree leaves and pine needles, prior year’s leafy perennial foliage) on the ground to ‘compost in place’. I haven’t used MYKE in years now - it got harder to find, and I figured my previous years of use of it should have boosted the population levels of mycorrhizal fungus in the soil, making the supplement less necessary. Most of the soil here is now pretty decent! Digging rarely encounters nasty red clay any more. I still leave as much organic matter (leaves etc.) as possible on the soil and plant very densely. It works for me.... My advice is to read widely about all things garden, and experiment with what makes sense to you. Then continue to do the things that work well for you in your garden. I think one of the biggest ‘myths’ is that you need to be born with a ‘green thumb’. You just need to have the interest and persistence to figure out what works for you.

  • daninthedirt (USDA 8a, HZ10, Cent TX, Sunset z30)

    That's a fair point about humus. But only a fraction of organic matter turns into humus. Also, there is humus, and there is humus. Humus that is protected in fine soil aggregates (for example, in clay) can last for a long time. That's called stable humus. Vegetative lignins have a lot of C-C bonds, and those are hard to break apart. But humus that is not so protected will indeed volatilize in a decade or so, either by fungal or bacterial processes. The bottom line is that compost piles DO get substantially smaller as they degrade. In my summer heat, my kitchen waste compost pile actually shrinks throughout the summer, even as we dig new stuff into it continuously.

  • FrozeBudd_z3/4

    Daninthedirt, I also certainly have noticed what occurs to amendments seems to depend on one's soil type. Where my soil has a high degree of silt, added peat moss can persist relatively unchanged for a surprisingly long time. Though, where peat and manure have been added together, there's been a much faster break down with the earthworms really having gotten into it. When previously gardening on clay soil, it did NOT matter how much peat was incorporated, within years it was converted to black heavy sticky stuff and being nearly impossible to drive a spade through when dry! And, when I finally did, big hard clods came up completely riddled with slimy earthworm trails. One time, my sister had stood there laughing and saying "What happened to that nice soft soil of yours?"

  • linaria_gw

    especially with gardeners there is quite a bunch of esoteric-moon-organic-fine fabric-telepathy folks who for some reason prefer to stick to their myths because "they are the real informed ones".


    when I dared to mention that coffee grounds are overrated to lower the pH of a soil, quoting Scott, I got the unevitable "yea yea, and in the next moment they tell you that ... (fill in absurd BS), and then jumping to the " oh, and how many times has science been wrong, changed its course" and so on,


    the irony being that thus science / good practice moves forward.


    another quite harmless on is: when repotting pot plants choos the next pot just a bit (like a finger wide gap) wider, or (what will happen again, it would die...?)


    my dad (80 y) who trained as a gardener in a glass house/ pot plant production ages ago said, it was in order to keep the plant growth in check because space in the glass house was preciouse


    so, next time you repot, knock yourself out and buy a yuuuge pot if you want a big plant ;-)

  • Jamie

    Robert Pavlis is on the newest Joe Gardener Podcast: https://joegardener.com/podcast/houseplant-myths-facts-behind-caring-for-indoor-plants/ He addresses houseplant myths - and covers two of my "favorites": the ever-popular tray of gravel with water to increase humidity and the myth that houseplants will purify the air in your house. There's a summary of the episode on that link as well.

  • ophoenix

    Jamie, Great link! I really enjoyed the website and will add to my list. thanks


    Jamie thanked ophoenix
  • noki33

    Actually the re-potting with the next size up idea probably has some value, especially for those who sell plants. Not only is space an issue, and using only as much soil as needed, but houseplants probably look better. In a much bigger pot the plant can get spread out or get floppy, less vertical. Also many inside succulents do better with less soil. Big pots with lots of soil take longer to dry out, which can hurt inside grown plants. Of course, not every type of plant is the same, and one simple rule doesn't apply to every plant.

  • Mary Fisher

    I’ve been doing no-till gardening for years because of moving to houses where there was no topsoil or just clay, and it works great, but basically you are just making your own topsoil and it requires a LOT of compost and amendments, which need to be replenished at least yearly. Annuals don’t need deep soil, and I do dig deeper for perennials.

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