Halton Master Gardener Cathy Kavassalis knows when she’s reading fake garden news! Here’s her sage advice (and helpful links) for sourcing reliable gardening information.
About Master Gardeners of Ontario (MGOI)
MGOI is a volunteer nonprofit organization with a mandate to provide gardening advice to the general public. Our members have studied horticulture and we continue to upgrade our skills each year. We can’t memorize all the answers and we have learned to search the Internet carefully to find or verify information.
Why is Fake Garden News out there?
Simple inquiries about a plant or plant problem can often bring up sites primarily seeking to sell products. Gardening content farms are common. Content farms are websites that contain lots of information collected from other sites by bots or content produced by writers with varying degrees of expertise. These sites are designed to show up early in Internet searches and generate ad revenue and sites like “thespruce” or “gardeningknowhow” are examples. The quality is highly variable and some are improving over time, but the information they suggest should always be verified with other sources. Many old myths are circulated by such sites.
How to find better garden advice
Let’s explore an example such as something is wrong with my raspberries. I type “raspberry diseases” into my search engine. In my browser, websites from content farms appear on the first page of links and I find this post from GardeningKnowHow. I see that the site has many advertisements and I’m being asked to accept cookies and sign up for updates. As I scroll to find the credentials of the author, I wonder about his/her training. There’s some general advice that may be correct, but there are no references cited and I can’t be certain. I always recommend approaching the content on this site and similar aggregation sites with caution.
Using the same example, “raspberry diseases” I see several other choices. I’m looking for sources such as a government agency (e.g. OMAFRA, USDA, CFIA, PMRA, EPA, etc.), a botanic garden or arboretum, a university, a cooperative extension service associated with a university, a horticultural or wildflower society, etc. Organizations and agencies that do not seek to sell you products are generally less biased and more trustworthy.
I like to start with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) so I type “raspberry diseases OMAFRA” into my search string. Now I’m looking only at information prepared by this reliable source. I find “Insects, Diseases and Disorders on Raspberry in Ontario” and a new series of Fruit Crop Protection Guides that have loads of information for home gardeners.
I also select sites from educational institutions by adding site:.edu to my search such as in this example “raspberry diseases site:.edu”. Now I see only information created by universities such as Michigan State, Minnesota, Washington State, Ohio State, Cornell, Massachusetts, etc… These Extension Services offer advice from professors of agriculture, botany, plant pathology, or entomology who review published science. These pages tend to be very reputable, however, if I’m in doubt, I look at a couple of different articles to see where they differ.
- look for recent articles that have been updated with the latest scientific knowledge and best practices.
- with US or international sources, double-check that the advice is appropriate for Ontario climate/weather conditions and plant hardiness zones. Does the disease or pest occur in Ontario? Is the pesticide advice legal in Ontario
My favourite and most useful websites include:
- Missouri Botanical Gardens Plant Finder is where I find growing information for >7,500 plants. This is my Go-To site for general care references.
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
- Illinois Wildflowers for plant identification and information by Dr. John Hilty
- Go botany
- USDA PLANTS database
- For taxonomy questions, I look for the accepted Latin name for most species, using The Plant List (TPL) and check other sources to understand controversies.
- For serious questions, I look for scientific literature at Google Scholar for advice on the right books and articles.
Summary of Key Tips:
- Reliable sources include government agencies OMAFRA, USDA, CFIA, PMRA, EPA, etc., a botanic garden or arboretum, a university, a cooperative extension service associated with a university (.edu), a horticultural or wildflower society.
- Add the word OMAFRA or site:.edu to your search string eg “raspberry diseases site:.edu”
- Use the most current content you can find and avoid materials that are outdated.
- Ensure the advice is appropriate for Ontario climate/weather conditions and plant hardiness zones. Does the disease or pest occur in Ontario? Is the pesticide advice appropriate or legal in Ontario?
The amount of gardening information available on the internet can be overwhelming and filtering out the garbage can be tricky.
I hope this guide will help you find more reliable advice. Master Gardeners are available across Ontario to assist you in wading through the science, myths, and fake garden news. Check out our Master Gardener Facebook Group and Come Grow With us!