Old Wisdoms: Gardening Tips from Ghosts

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Not all the best garden tips are new. Borrowing from the past has been known to provide some gems. Take biodynamic garden methods, for instance, these are from 1924. Three sisters planting we got from the gardening methods already in use by the native Amerindians when the first European settlers arrived in the 1600s. Even much of organic gardening knowledge was drawn from the past, and while we modern gardeners may have merged some modern science into the mix, the basics were given to us by ghosts… passed down through families, communities, or old books. Here’s some recently found tips and tricks from long ago.

Old Seed vs. New Seed

Fresh seed usually germinates more promptly than old seed, although there may be advantages in sowing old seeds. Many gardeners claim that fresh seed of cucurbits (melons, cucumbers, squashes, etc.) tends to produce more vine and leaf and less fruit than seed several years old.” — Vegetable Gardening, Ralph Watts (1912)

Definitely something to check out, because you have way more plant than fruit with these crops. If you can get more fruit and less plant, this might be an awesome limited space garden trick.

Here’s something else interesting he has to say about seeds…

Seed Shelf Life

The life of seeds depends upon (1) the kind of vegetables, (2) conditions under which they were grown, (3) thoroughness of curing, ad (4) storage conditions. In some years seeds lose their vitality more rapidly than in others.

Many modern gardeners have the idea that you have to buy new seed every year. This is only true if you’ve got poor seed storage. Before there were air-tight storage containers, keeping seed viable was difficult in dry climates – near impossible in humid regions. Watts gives this “conservative longevity rating” to an assortment of garden staples shown below. He also notes that some seed, like onion and parsley, have low vitality rates, and are best planted from fresh seed.

1912 List: Shelf Life of Vegetable Seeds

A harsh growing season can reduce the time of seeds being viable, as well as the germination rate. A dark, cool, dry place is best to keep germination rates good. High temperatures, sunlight, and moisture reduces a seed’s ability to stay ‘good’.

It’s Not Magic

Do not ask plants to perform miracles — they seldom oblige.” — Dunston Times (New Zealand, 1940)

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

In selecting the largest lima beans for seed, I obtained the most luxuriant vines, but fewer pods. If the season were longer these vines would ultimately be more profitable; but their vigor gives a growth too rampant for our latitude. If planted for a screen, however, the rankest growers are the best.” — Plain and Pleasant Talk, Henry Ward Beecher (New York – 1903)

Sometimes it’s the scrappy ones that perform best. Something that Northern gardeners might find rings true, or those who need intense production from a tiny plot.

Practical Use of Leaves

When a leaf drops, it contains a large per cent. of mineral matter. An autumnal or old leaf yields, upon analysis, a very much larger proportion of earthy matter than a vernal leaf, which, being yet young, has not received within its cells any considerable deposit. It will be found also, that the leaves contain a very much higher per cent. of mineral matter, than the wood of the trunk.” — another quote from Beecher’s Plain And Pleasant Talk.

He goes on to list a few types of trees and the nutrient content, which is where it gets really interesting because it leads into why I added this to today’s post.

  • Elm: 11%
  • Willow: 8%
  • Beech: 6.69%
  • Oak: 4.05%
  • Pine: 3.15%

Obviously, elm and willow leaves would be highly desirable in compost, but it’s this next part that makes incredible sense. First, consider that forests support set groups of plant types. They don’t mix in other things when left to their own devices – its us humans who crave variety. Yes, some of that has to do with the type of soil that’s been deposited there long ago, the climate, and the amount of average moisture, but here’s the real interesting part. The system maintains itself by creating exactly the type of nutrient balance it needs to continue.

Every gardener should know, that the best manure for any plant is the decomposed leaves and substance of its own species. This fact will suggest the proper course with reference to the leaves, tops, vines, haulm, and other vegetable refuse of the garden.

Very thought-provoking. What better way to provide perfect nutritional balance consistently forevermore? No, it wouldn’t be practical to separately compost every type of plant in your garden. Maybe some of them if you grouped the waste by families. Some further investigation is needed.

Organic Cutworm Control

Henry Beecher again:

when cut-worms are very numerous, when tomatoes and cabbages have been set out on a clean compartment, we have lost from a half to two-thirds of the plants. If the weeds are kept down just about the hill, and permitted to grow for a few weeks, between the rows, although it has a very slovenly look, it will save the cabbages, etc. When the plants grow tough in the stem the weeds may be lightly spaded in, and the surface levelled with a rake.

A no-spray solution to a temporary issue.

Grow Your Own Bean Poles

Plant a giant sunflower seed in each hill of beans.

The stalk is right where the beans need it to climb. No poles to buy, store for the winter, or put out and collect.

Drought Resistant Corn

The secret here is to start out with plenty of organic matter in the soil. It holds more moisture during dry spells, so spread the entire corn patch with manure and harrow it in. The next step would be to make hills and plant, but corn hills shed moisture really fast. In dry weather, it’s best to plant without hills to grow good corn in a drought.

Potato Insecticide

“Well boil” the leaves and stems of the potato plant, and once cooled, sprinkle it over affected plants. It’s said to kill caterpillars, gnats, black and green flies, and other vegetable garden enemies. The author says it’s perfectly safe for plants, and keeps pests from returning for a long time.

This might not be safe to apply to plants where it’s the leaves you eat! Potatoes are in the nightshade family, but for fruiting plants, it might be worth a try.

Those last three are not quotes, but summaries of things found in the massive tome, The Farm and Household Cyclopedia, published by F. M. Lupton in 1885.


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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.