Back in 2007, GardenRant hosted a Compost Tea Debate between the two knowledgeable Jeffs:

I recently asked both Jeffs if they had an update for us, and Jeff Gillman sent me this response.  Susan

Fifteen years of GardenRant, and 14 years since the Great Compost Tea debate. I wonder how many of you who are currently reading this article read that debate when it first came out. I remember it fondly. I have always enjoyed discussing science and at that time in my life I felt very passionately about delivering whatever science-based knowledge I had to whomever I could as forcefully as possible.

Life has changed a lot since then. I like to think that I’m no longer the 30-something tenured professor and self-righteous jerk that I once was. Not that bits of him don’t remain, but, to borrow a phrase from a Bob Dylan song (My Back Pages): “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

These days I run a botanical garden at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and I’m concerned about much different things. Getting people to appreciate the science behind compost tea, gypsum, or complete fertilizers is the least of my worries. I share the world of plants with people who have barely been introduced to it. Thank goodness I work in an amazing garden full of magical greenery like Venus flytraps (a North Carolina native!), cacao, tea, yaupon and sweet birch to help get them engaged.

The State of Science-Based Gardening Info

To me, the debate about compost tea was actually about something greater than compost tea itself. It was about the appropriate use of science to support a garden practice. Science didn’t support the use of compost tea and it bothered me to my soul that anyone could recommend it without clear and published data to support its use. The only difference between then and now is that now I really don’t care if someone wants to try this odd and still unproven concoction (as long as they’re careful, because it is clear that compost tea could be dangerous under the wrong conditions).

I’ve come to the realization that people do things for many reasons besides science. I am still a scientist and it is still my responsibility to relay the relevant science about compost tea or any other issue when asked, but unless there’s a safety issue, I’m not going to engage in a long, protracted, idealistic battle. I can provide data, but ultimately the choice isn’t mine to make and I’m not going to take it personally if someone decides to ignore the science, which isn’t to say that I won’t feel some frustration.

Credit: West Virginia Extension Service

Yes, I would like science to have a more prominent place in the home garden, but as far as I can tell, that isn’t the way things are going. There was a time when the Extension Service, an organization that I was proud to represent, was the place to go for information, but how would a gardener who is just starting out even find the Extension Service today? How would they get beyond the commercial companies and the well-meaning, but marginally qualified “experts” that are at the top of the charts in most Google searches or omnipresent in most Facebook or Reddit gardening groups? Social media is entertaining, easy to access, and people with few real credentials can easily create a veneer of expertise and quality.

At this point university-based information is barely competing for the attention of the modern gardener. You can tell me about one or another wonderful and active Master Gardener program, but I’m going to remain unmoved. Relative to the total number of gardeners out there, Master Gardener programs are small and reach few people. To me, it looks like the universities have given up. Facebook wins!

I do have hope, though. There are groups, like The Garden Professors, that deliver science-based information. Right now they’re being out-competed, but with some support (and if they were just a touch less judgmental when delivering information), they could reach more people.

What would be really inspiring is to see stores like Lowes and Home Depot working with universities to provide science-based information to their customers.

Or maybe something crazy will happen like social media platforms starting to actually label information that comes from experts as….well….information that comes from experts. To have any meaningful effect, the platforms would need to go to the trouble of confirming that these self-described experts are actually and demonstrably experts, of course. I know it’s too much to ask, but wouldn’t it be amazing?    

Thanks to Susan for inviting me back onto GardenRant. It has been a long time since I wrote a blog post and writing this has brought back some wonderful memories. If any of you are interested in the work that I do now,  please check out the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens on its website, on Facebook, or our podcast The Plants We Eat, which is available wherever you get your podcasts. Happy Gardening!