Home & Garden

Experiment or Trial and Error—A way to think about gardening

You don’t need to be a scientist to experiment in your garden. We learn by experimenting as well as by trial and error.

While an experiment suggests a designed controlled approach, trial and error implies an unmanaged process.

At university research centers and experiment stations horticulturalists carry out carefully designed field trials. For example, researchers plant selected seeds and cultivars to compare their growth, yield, heat tolerance, cold hardiness and such. Weather, soil, pests, diseases and plant stock are other areas scientists may focus on in their trials. They record observations and results.

They find that certain plants may do well in a site one year and not the next, or even some years and not others. The results of trials can be skewed by a hurricane, drought, ice storm or other unexpected weather extreme or event.

All this sounds like the variety of forces that affect our home gardens, doesn’t it?

As scientists work to develop the best plants and information that will ultimately aid home gardeners we can find answers to questions with our own trial and error gardening that is specific to our backyard patches of earth.

Basic gardening principles underlie gardening success—the right plant in the right place, for example. Full sun, 6 – 8 hours per day, is available morning through midday or midday through late afternoon. The sun’s intensity changes with the time of day. Some otherwise sun loving plants fade under high heat combined with intense sun. It’s an easy test to find the best exposure for a plant to thrive. Using two like cultivars grow one in morning-midday sun and the other in midday-afternoon sun (same soil, water and fertilizer) to determine a difference.

To establish a garden we must learn what plants will do well in the new environment. Part of the process is trial and error, even for experienced gardeners. Sometimes overused plants turn out to be the most reliable—that’s likely why they are commonplace. When you try a lesser known plant it is often worthwhile to grow it for a season (in the ground or in a pot) before you commit to it. Trials like this save money over time and ultimately help grow a flourishing garden.

Design rules tell us to plant like ornamental annuals and perennials in a drift or groups of three, five, seven, nine or eleven of kind. It doesn’t much matter when you’re buying inexpensive annuals. However, when buying expensive perennials you might want to test just one or three plants of a selected variety to monitor during their their first growing season. Beware committing too quickly to a number of expensive perennials. A trial season or year takes some patience, but it can be worth the wait, especially if the plant does not perform as hoped.

Based on hang tag information if a new cultivar that should grow well in a specific spot fails to thrive, move it to a different location that you judge suitable. If it does badly or dies so be it. You won’t waste your money on that plant again.

Charts detailing companion plant combinations in vegetable gardens are readily available. Generations of home gardeners’ trials and errors and observations are the basis for the plant parings. Plants do react to one another chemically, physically and biologically. Science has done research that affirms a number of relationships, both beneficial and detrimental. However, many other pairings are still without scientific basis. Satisfy your curiosity about combinations by dividing your crop and growing one part with and one without a designated companion plant. You can do this directly in a garden or in pots.

To make the most of garden trials make a few notes. Did we experience a drought, hurricane, excessive heat and humidity or another weather extreme? How did the plants handle the stress? Compare results from year to year.

Back yard trials don’t need to be rigorous like a scientific experiment to provide an interesting learning experience. You’ll likely find that your gardening endeavors will pique your curiosity and lead you to design new trials.

Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at dmgha3@aol.com.