Ministry of Controversy

About.com’s Lawn Care Advice

AboutLandscapingLawn

Amy's "Dear eHow: Please Go Away" last week got a bit of attention, including comments from some writers for About.com.  They took exception to it being lumped in with eHow and the other "content mills" and claimed that About.com's writers "are carefully vetted and truly domain experts."  And this reasonable suggestion was offered: "I'd encourage you to take a look at the content of an About.com page before you summarily dismiss us. We do have much to offer."

So okay, let's do just that – by examining the content of their articles and leaving aside the particulars of anyone's resume.  From what I can tell, the criticisms of About.com's gardening advice center on the writing of their "Landscaping Guide," David Beaulieu, whose advice I ranted about back in 2007.  My complaint then was that he frequently recommends the writing of "America's Master Gardener" Jerry Baker, known for his folk remedies that have been rebunked by all known science.  (I also mentioned then that his posted credentials referred only to business writing and work as a web developer, with no visible expertise in landscaping.  In the intervening years he seems to have gained some landscaping experience, as reflected by his current online resume.)

But please note that the name of my 2007 post was "About.com gets it Half Right" because I had (and have) high praise for their "Gardening Guide", Marie Iannotti.  And I later praised About.com for hiring Colleen Vanderlinden as their "Organic Gardening Guide."

But back to last week, when Amy's post was noticed and much discussed by a Facebook group of garden center folks.  One of them – Don Shor, owner of the Redwood Barn Nursery in California – wrote, "Here's an example of my problem with sites like About.com, whose authors staunchly defended the professionalism of that site," referring to the comments here.  He then posted a link to About's Tips for Fertilizing Lawns, so let's check it out.

IT'S PRO-BIG-BOX
One early quote is: "You'll find such products at local home improvement stores, such as Lowe's and Home Depot."

IT'S PRO-SCOTTS, NOT SO MUCH PRO-ENVIRONMENT
The core of the article begins thusly: "Scotts suggests a four-part schedule for fertilizing lawns" then proceeds to include all of Scotts' directives for lawn fertilization, probably verbatim from the Scotts marketing materials.  But he doesn't stop with just feeding. "Fertilizing lawns goes hand in hand with weed control," and "The herbicide component fights everything from ground ivy to purslane to white clover."  There's that famous demonization of clover that Scotts has been so successful at for the last half-century or so, the one that the Lawn Reform types are trying to combat with accurate information about the benefits of clover in lawns.

And one weird thing about the article is that it starts off by promoting slow-release fertilizers (before recommending all those steps), yet plugs products that aren't.  I'm referring to Scotts Turf Builder with Halts Crabgrass Preventer, which we have to presume is synthetic or presumably their website would have said so, right? Actually the Scotts website doesn't tell us what's IN the stuff at all, although the product's bag boasts that it "Feeds and greens for fast green-up after winter."  Fast, not slow. 

SAME AUTHOR
Notice it's also by David Beaulieu.   Probably not a coincidence.

IN THEIR DEFENSE
Despite these flaws in their landscaping advice, About.com is definitely a cut above the typical content mill, an example of which was offered by another garden center owner who circulated the link to a truly garbage content-mill article, "Green Yard Care Tips".  The very first sentence really galled the garden center owner who cited it:

One responsibility of being a homeowner is keeping a clean, well-manicured yard.

The author of that little diddy tells us this about herself in her "by-line", which in its entirety says:

Alisa Gilbert, regularly writes on the topics of bachelors degree.  She welcomes your comments at her email Id: alisagilbert599@gmail.com.

So yeah, much of the advice on About.com is far better than that, but there's lots on the subject of gardening to find fault with.  Still.  From a website owned by the New York Times, is it too much to expect advice that's environmentally responsible? 

Posted by on January 20, 2011 at 4:39 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
Comments are off for this post

30 Responses to “About.com’s Lawn Care Advice”

  1. gsdraiss says:

    I find about.com irritating. MAny topics are off base and you are right they are pro-bos store simply because they are too lazy to look up a real garden center. Fact is however the box sotres are reducing SKU couns of lawn and garden making about.com even less relevant.

    Even worse is this article from two California Master Gardeners and Master Design Consultants (OHH AHH OH!)on how to grow herbshttp://www.sgvtribune.com/living/ci_17101082
    You won’t believe the rubbish
    the TROLL

  2. gsdraiss says:

    “I’m referring to Scotts Turf Builder with Halts Crabgrass Preventer, which we have to presume is synthetic or presumably their website would have said so, right?”
    Their nitrogen is buffered several ways to release N both immediately, and long term. There is even a large amount of WIN water insoluable N. Though not organic the process simulates the organic process of slow release N. I am not defending them by any needs. If any company has ever turned it’s back on those who made them who they are (IGCs) it is Scotts. Now they come at us with “Whitney Farms” for IGCs…………

    The TROLL

  3. Tara Dillard says:

    How do IGC’s help Landscape Design?

    Promoting lawn, annuals, perennials, chemicals, fertilizers. High maintenance: weekly mowing, replacing annuals, spreading chemicals, spreading fertilizers, dead heading perennials, cutting back perennials, & etc.

    Designing historically based landscapes (Italy, France, England, Asia & etc) my clients need no annuals, perennials, chemicals or fertilizer to have a fabulous landscape.

    Focal points are on axis from the main rooms of their home. Flowering shrubs, trees, groundcovers are in bloom EVERYDAY of the year with succession planting.

    TARA TURF replaces lawn. Property value is increased, HVAC cost is reduced, zero watering.

    ENJOYMENT REPLACES MAINTENANCE & EXPENSE.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  4. Susan says:

    Well, I hate to be a cranky old fart, but I think some of the problem with these websites is that the contributors are mainly part of the young generation who has heard from the minute they exited the womb that they are stars. They are brilliant. Every utterance is treated with reverence. The one thing they’ve seldom, if ever, heard in their short lives is that they are full of bull or dumber than dirt, whichever is appropriate. Is it then any wonder that they consider themselves to be qualified experts on any given subject? They’ve never been told otherwise. After all, that might damage their self-esteem, and we couldn’t have that!

  5. A few weeks ago I was looking for information about the damage fertilizers reak on the environment in response to a note in my mailbox requesting I keep my entire 3 acre land plot fertilized and mowed. I live in a riparian area full of over-fertilized manicured lawns. Thanks for sharing some refreshing truth on this topic.

  6. trey says:

    So where does one find advice that can be trusted? That is THE issue when it comes to The Internet. You just know the answers are out there, but how do you wade through all the iffy advice? I suppose dissing all of eHow’s advice would be like Tara dissing IGC’s (Independent Garden Centers). IGC’s are like any other type of business, including landscape designers, some great some not so great.

    As the owner of a IGC it is discouraging to read the eHow advice that starts with “you’ll find such products at local home improvement stores such as Lowes or Home Depot.” Then to read Tara’s comment about IGC’s we begin to see why so many small locally owned garden centers are closing. We are either overlooked by some, or put down by others. We’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. Not all IGC’s are good businesses. Maybe Tara never got a good referral from her local IGC? Maybe all her referrals come from the local Box Store? Never the less we have a long way to go to make the IGC relevant in peoples lives.

    My idea is that the local “well run” IGC put’s out it’s own advice and garden news. If we can’t get any help from sites like eHow or Tara, then we might as well bypass them and do our own thing. Someone searching for info on lawn care will at least have the opportunity to read what the local IGC has to say about that. A well run IGC should be the go to source for all information on horticulture. Once people realize you are putting out trustworthy info for the local area then they will bypass the other sites and head straight for their trusted resource, the locally owned garden center.

  7. Kaviani says:

    Maybe so, Susan, but the advice they seem to spit out is essentially what my parents and grandparents took for granted as correct.

    In any case, lawns are a dubious luxury for homeowners no matter how you treat them. If you’re not enjoying them constantly, they’re a waste of resources.

  8. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find eco-friendly gardening advice on a *landscaping* site. The majority of them tend to be about how to have a perfect lawn, and, unfortunately (again) that’s still all that matters to most people. I don’t agree with most of what David says, but I’m in the minority — his is one of the top sites on the network.

    Semi-related, but something I’m genuinely curious about:

    Since we brought up Scotts, I thought I’d mention the irony of so many GWA members badmouthing the company (which is well-deserved!) but then touting their membership in an organization (Garden Writers of America) that gets a healthy amount of sponsorship from not only Scotts MiracleGro, but also Bayer Advanced and Osmocote. (See this page of sponsorship info from the 2010 symposium: http://www.gardenwriters.org/gwa.php?p=meetings/sponsors_10.html) One would think, if you believe so strongly in eco-friendly gardening, that you would eschew any involvement with an organization so fully in bed with these companies. Or is it asking too much for garden writers to give up the ability to call themselves “Member, Garden Writers of America?” How can you live in both worlds — against these terrible products, but proud of belonging to an organization that they are so entwined with?

    (For the record, I’m not a member. Obviously.)

  9. trey says:

    Colleens link above didn’t work. Here is the link to who sponsor’s the GWA (Garden Writers Association)http://www.gardenwriters.org/gwa.php?p=par/valued_sponsors.html Scott’s Miracle Gro is a Platinum Member which means they contribute 25,000 to 49,000 dollars. The next highest contributors are in the 1000 to 4000 dollar range. That does seem like the organization has one sponsor that has quite a bit of clout.

  10. Oops — thanks, Trey! Sorry about the bad link, guys.

  11. Tom Fischer says:

    Is “rebunked” what happens when you put the bunk back into something that’s been debunked? (Sorry, Susan–couldn’t resist.)

  12. My annoucement of the LRC’s blog on Jacksonville.com ellicited this response: “Stop the madness. there are plenty of people who are employed by lawncare. You libs. wont stop till you crash our economy and everyone is on food stamps and unemploment comph. What if you had a job and someone tried to put you out of work?” I responded with, “If people are in the business of polluting they should be stopped. There are plenty of new green jobs that are quite profitable.” Then he came back with “Stop calling people who take care of their lawns as poisoners. Beautiful lawns have been part of what it is to be an American pursuit of happiness.” Sigh!

    http://jacksonville.com/opinion/blog/400558/ginny-stibolt/2011-01-17/lawn-reform-coalition-blog-born

  13. Michelle D says:

    Back to the issue at hand, where does one find quality information on the web ? I tend to go use the website of the university(s) that I attended knowing that some of the same teachers are still teaching there and or the institutions that I have working relationships with or have been familiar with over the years.
    For the lay person looking for information I would suggest that they start with their local university or a horticultural institution/ botanical garden/ botanical society website. These institutions usually have all kinds of information and links that offer solid information.
    I also happen to like and respect my local independent garden centers IGC. The help that is employed at most all of them is very knowledgeable , and if they don’t know the answer they will find someone who does. Let’s face it folks, many of these fine knowledgeable people are working at garden nurseries because they love horticulture . It’s obviously not for the big bucks that they are making. They deserve a lot of respect. .. Consider the other option !

  14. anne says:

    Why should a website owned by the NYTimes care about giving out environmentally-sound gardening advice? Is that part of their mission? Nice if it is, but I wouldn’t hold them to it.

    If I have time to follow my curiosity about something, I’ll browse the internet for info, and take what I find with a grain of salt; if I have a serious gardening question, I will ask locally (neighbors or the garden center). It just makes sense to ask questions from people who are gardening under the same circumstances as you, climate-wise.

  15. Pam J. says:

    Reliable information on the web? Yes, very hard to find.
    My gripe about online information is the certainty with which people assert their beliefs. Example? Peat moss. Right here on Garden Rant there have been lots of debates on that topic, and all too often the debaters are 180 degrees apart. I tried for a few months to find the “truth” to the question “are humans harming anything by using peat moss?” I gave up. The answer is probably “it depends.” Depends on where and how it’s harvested…or mined, depending on your point of view. I try to remind myself that there are very few questions with simple answers.

    Here’s how the Federal Government’s National Institutes of Health attempts to produce reliable and up-to-date information for the public on thousands of diseases. A writer is assigned a topic, let’s say something really offbeat and confusing, like central pontine myelinolysis. The writer interviews scientists, acquires and studies as much peer-reviewed scientific literature as possible, then writes a draft. The draft is sent to at least two non-NIH scientists who have expertise in that area, with a request for their review. When all those changes are made, and conflicts resolved (the use of the word “may” factors heavily in conflict-resolution), the paper is reviewed by at least one NIH scientist, the institute’s head of communications, and the institute’s director (and sometimes deputy director). Only after all of that is the information published online. Then the goal is to have these online medical texts reviewed once a year for changes. Because science is always changing.

    You obviously need mega-bucks for this kind of information review. Bucks that aren’t usually found floating around the internet.

  16. Tom, you can find “rebunked” right before “refudiate’ in the new MW lexicon! ;-)

    Much of the vitriol above is unfortunately, generalizations. Not all IGC’s are bad as Trey states, and not all About.com’s bloggers are clueless, re: Colleen. And to state Why should a website owned by the NYTimes care about giving out environmentally-sound gardening advice? might be a good sound bite, but there are real humans behind the scenes, some honestly trying to make a difference.

    Michelle points us in a good direction to find good information by starting with our universities, but please look to who is sponsoring the research at those universities before taking their word on a subject. There has been some wonderful organic and enviro-friendly research dumped because of sponsors such as Monsanto.

    It takes time to find reliable information on the web. Try to seek out many sources, and get to know who the information is coming from. Only then can you make informed decisions.

  17. Jennifer says:

    Great post Susan – thanks!

  18. Great post, Susan. I’ve been frustrated by the ‘advice’ on these sites for years. It’s about time someone did a good rant on them.

  19. Aunt Ida says:

    Like I posted previously, these content mills are there for the advertising. It’s hard to find the article among the ads. About.com is no different.

  20. Liz says:

    I think we also need to ask–do people want to be environmentally concerned or do they want a nice lush green lawn? Scott’s will give them that nice green lawn. And even though we are getting better, the majority of people still aren’t environmentally concerned in their own garden.

  21. Tyler C says:

    Hackery abounds – thanks for exposing some egregious examples in the gardening world. People, get off your a**es and take a trip to an independent gardening center. And spend your money there, too.

  22. I choose all of the topics that go on my site. I first planted a garden when I was 8 years old. I studied horticulture in college, worked on a landscaping crew, at a nursery, and at a water conservation demo garden.
    Took the Master Gardening class. Going to work on my ISA certification. Contributed to a book about urban gardening. I also teach for the local community education system sometimes, and I am starting a community garden.

    While I can’t really go into it on my site, I am all for people taking out their lawns if they like or using alternative grasses, as well as other eco-friendly options.

    Also – LOVE how clover looks in lawns. I got some clover seed and helped a friend plant some in his lawn last year. My lawns will always have some clover in them, if I have a lawn at all. I favor a buffalograss/Blue grama mix, myself.

    When I do this community garden this summer, it’s going to be organic. We’ll be using practices like companion planting to attract those beneficial insects and ward off pests.

    I need to start writing about pests and diseases soon. I will be presenting both organic and inorganic methods in the name of comprehensiveness. Unless I’m doing a specific product review, I don’t focus on a specific brand name to use.

    Oh, and I love IGC’s. I created a whole clickable map for my site so people could recommend their favorite nurseries and you would know where to shop.

    Places like s certain big box store make me grumpy with the ways they (don’t) take care of their plants, or when wayward citrus trees show up here in Zone 5 without any notes that they should be indoor plants at least for the winter.

    I know this is all about me, but I just wanted to show I’m a real person who does actually garden, try to be eco-friendly and care about what I write for my site on About.

  23. eliz says:

    I’m with Michelle D on this one–the university, botanical garden, and extension sites are the most helpful—and the most interesting! Some of the writing on these sites is quite good. And the plant lists! Take for example http://www.theplantlist.org/. Now THERE is real information.

    As for lawns and chemicals, I honestly don’t care who promotes weed ‘n’ feed; I’m not listening. Eventually very few of us will be.

  24. Laura Munoz says:

    As a lay person, I rarely go to e-How or About.com for my gardening information probably because they are somewhat generic and mostly non-organic.

    We’re very lucky in Austin to have several terrific Independent Garden Centers that provide good information. One IGC owner even does a call-in organic gardening radio talk show on Sat. & Sun. I get much of my info. from this show. He also has how-to fliers he created himself and free gardening classes at his IGC.

    The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is also a great resource both on-line and in person, and even our city has some great stuff on-line for gardening/landscaping.

    However, if these sources don’t work for me, the people I work with are knowledgeable about plants, forestry, algae, and entomology since I work at a local university. I just go ask Dr. Q., “What would happen if I stopped mowing my Bermuda?” Or Dr. M., “Can I feed X wild plant to my rabbits?”

  25. Not all About.com sites are generic, big box oriented or misleading. Two wonderful sites there are the quilting and cat sites. Nobody could accuse them of being anything but professioanl, in depth and approachable with many talented and intelligent followers. I do garden but being in Australia I don’t find the gardening site entirely relvant to me.

  26. Sid Raisch says:

    On all those jobs people have in lawn care – we should remember that lots of people used to have jobs producing tobacco. Tobacco use was and still is in the case of snuff socially acceptable like having a weed free watered monoculture classic lawn has been. There is a shift in the social acceptance of the green, weed-free lawn and that will have a huge impact in what the future landscape of America looks like.

    The money trail of the chemical companies and their retail partners is wide and deep. The NYT probably gets a healthy portion of those dollars. When the TV stations no longer received tobacco ad money it wasn’t long until that industry took a dive. If citizens and science pushes back long and hard enough for legislation to change it will have this same effect. Yes, you can still buy tobacco products but you pay for the effects of using them personally (only legal product where approx. 30% of users DIE) as well as pay the taxes to offset the
    costs to the public.

  27. You would think The New York Times could pay for some fact checking or allow comment.

    I looked – typed in “growing tomatoes” but nothing listed on growing from seed (sad).

    Then added “from seed” and got this: “If you are starting tomatoes from seed, be sure to give the seedlings room to branch out. Close conditions inhibit their growth, so transplant them as soon as they get their first true leaves and move them into 4″ pots about 2 weeks after that.”

    That’s a HOW-to? Not impressed.

  28. Marie says:

    Susan said “Well, I hate to be a cranky old fart, but I think some of the problem with these websites is that the contributors are mainly part of the young generation who has heard from the minute they exited the womb that they are stars. ”

    I couldn’t agree more! I believe you hit the nail on the head! Does that make me a Cranky Old Fart?! If so, OK then! HA!

  29. Fred hoffman says:

    Scott, I think Trey might find it mildly amusing that you accuse him of being anti-IGC. I think you meant Tara. Trey owns an IGC.

  30. I am curious – what is the “young” generation? I do see that more in people younger than me, but they’re not writing garden sites at About.

    Am I too young at 33? I’ve not really had any of this “I’m a superstar, hear me roar!” in my life. I’d like to think I do lots of things well, but I can also name a lot of flaws I have. I don’t think I’m infallible.

    I don’t think that premise holds true for all of whatever genre of websites you mean.

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