Why Can’t You Trust Gardening Information on the Internet – Using a Ghost Writer

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Robert Pavlis

Why can’t you trust gardening information on the Internet? As part of my effort to bust gardening myths, I also try to understand how the myths are created in the first place.

I decided to run a test to illustrate why gardening information on the internet can’t be trusted. I hired someone to write an article on how to flower indoor plants more. How accurate will the information be? Will it be suitable for posting on one of my blogs?

Why Are So Many Gardening Websites Wrong?
Why Can’t You Trust Gardening Information on the Internet?

How Did It All Start?

A few weeks ago I got an email from someone praising my article: The Magical Power of Banana Peels in The Garden – Or Not!

He said my article was so good, he would like me to add a link to his article and that with both linked together we would both benefit. My Garden Myths blog gets a lot of visitors and I have two weekly requests from people to write articles for me, or to have me link to their site. They are trying to capture my readers and/or promote their products.

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I had a closer look and read the article on his blog. It was complete nonsense. His article was all about the great merits of banana tea fertilizer which I had completely debunked in my article. Clearly he didn’t read my post!

He did mention one other interesting fact. His article was written by a third party writer – a ghost writer who “writes all of his posts”.

That may seem odd to you but many of the popular gardening blogs are NOT written by the owner of the blog. Their only goal is to create a lot of content so they can plaster it with advertisement. If the reader clicks on any of the ads, the blog owner gets a commission. That is the purpose of these blogs. It has nothing to do with presenting good, factual gardening advice. The industry calls them “click-bait” and they exist in every genre and interest group. These types of sites are the dark side of the internet and the cause of much misinformation.

The general public does not understand this last point. Many bloggers do not care about presenting good, valid information. They are in the business of creating cheap content with ads.

Let me be clear, there are many good blogs out there, written by very knowledgeable gardeners. They usually contain fewer ads and the owners of the blog are the key writers but it can be difficult distinguishing a good one from click-bait. I also now use ads because the cost of running this site has skyrocketed. Ads alone do not indicate a poor quality site.

Where do you get cheap content? That’s easy.

Hire a Garden Writer

I write all of my own blog posts and do my own research. I have never hired a ghost writer, but in the name of science I wanted to see how easy it was to get some cheap content.

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I went to Fiverr.com, a site where you can hire inexpensive labor for all kinds of projects. Why are they inexpensive? Because most of the work is done in countries with much lower wages. The quality of the work varies a lot, from poor to excellent.

I checked out a couple of garden writers and picked the best one – she had a university degree in horticulture. I hired her to write a “factual, well researched” 500 word article for my blog, entitled “How to Make Houseplants Bloom More?” I was assured that the article was authentic and well researched. Cost was $23 Canadian ($16 US).

The article is fairly good, and I could easily post it on my blog. Most readers would find it educational and enjoyable and I am quite sure I would get very few complaints about the content, mostly because inexperienced gardeners would read it.

I won’t be posting it as a separate post because it contains errors and it leaves out important details. However, most click-bait blogs would have no trouble using it and publishing it under their own name.

Hire a Different Garden Writer

I also tried one other thing. I posted a job offer on Fiverr for a different garden article. I gave quite specific requirements including experience in gardening, ability to research using scientific journals and a track record of published garden articles. I also asked to see sample published work. In 24 hours I had over 50 applicants all offering to write inexpensive articles and assuring me they had knowledge of the subject.

When I looked at their profiles almost none had any experience writing gardening material. I looked at a couple of articles they supplied and they were full of misinformation.

I am quite sure that if these writers had gotten the gig, they would have gone online to read a few of the top Google search results and copied whatever they read. With no knowledge of the subject, the article would have had little substance and lots of myths.

It is no wonder that so much of the information online is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not blaming the writers. The problem is with people running blogs who either know nothing about gardening, or don’t care about their readers.

How to Make Houseplants Bloom More?

I have included the complete article from my selected author at the end of this post. It is actually better than I expected, but it still contains some mistakes and some important omissions. Here are some of the key mistakes.

Houseplants are Hardy

Most houseplants are tropical – you can hardly call them hardy.

When Houseplants Don’t Bloom, That’s When You Know Something is Wrong

Many houseplants are large tropical plants that never flower when grown indoors. It is normal for them not to bloom. Other plants can bloom but rarely do when grown as houseplants.

Poinsettia Need Long Periods of Darkness to Trigger Flowering

Not true. They need 14 hours of total darkness each night and bright light during the day (10 hours).

Ensure That Your Houseplant Gets at Least 2 Hours of Sunlight

This can be interpreted in different ways. Is this direct sunlight or just light from outside? It is very vague.

A lot of houseplants can be grown quite well and flowered without any sunlight, provided they get enough artificial light. They don’t need 2 hours of sunlight. If you are relying on sunlight alone, 2 hours is not nearly enough to flower most blooming plants.

I wondered where the number of 2 hours came from – it just seems so odd. I googled “How to Get Indoor Plants to Bloom More” and sure enough, the top post suggested 2 hours. It was not a reliable site and full of myths. It even recommended using banana peels to feed the plants. I then did the search again but this time added “site:.edu” at the end of the search. This brings up only educational sites – mostly government and university sites. No one recommended 2 hours of light.

Nutrient-poor Soil Should be Replaced

Most houseplants are soilless mix that provides very few nutrients. This soilless media does not get exhausted, nor does it get old. Plants in pots need to be fertilized regularly but the soil can be used for many years.

Fertilizer is Most Effective When You Know the Deficiency

Not exactly. Fertilizer is only effective if the fertilizer supplies the nutrients missing in the media. Simply knowing the deficiency is of little value. It is a minor point, but a key reason why most gardeners should not bother with a soil test – they don’t follow the recommendations anyway.

Besides, who gets their houseplant soil tested?

A Balanced Fertilizer is Best

So many gardening sources say this, but it’s not true. Plants use nutrients in an NPK ratio of about 3-1-2, so that is the best fertilizer to use. Also, nitrogen and potassium leach out the quickest, so they should be added in higher amounts than the P.

A balanced fertilizer will grow and flower plants, but the extra P and K just gets flushed down the drain, increasing the pollution of rivers and lakes, not to mention the extra cost.

Fertilizer Frequency

How often should you fertilize and how much should be used? These are important missing points, especially if a plant is not blooming as expected. In general they need more fertilizer when actively growing and if they are grown well, they have the potential to flower well.

Test pH With a pH Kit

I really don’t see the point of this since there is no information about what to do with the data once you get it. Besides garden center pH test kits are not very good. If pH needs to be adjusted it should be done before planting in the new media and by using the right kind of fertilizer.

Watering Schedule

“Your watering schedule in winters will have a lower frequency than that in summers.” This may or may not be true. Evaporation depends very much on the surrounding humidity and the amount of water used by the plant. Homes in winter are dry and have a higher evaporation rate, although plants tend to grow slower due to less light, reducing their needs for water.

To be on the safe side, it is a good idea to follow a well-defined watering schedule without overwatering or under watering it.” That is bad advice. The last thing you should do is water on a schedule especially if the needs in winter and summer are different.

YouTube video

Use your fingertips to feel the topsoil. If it feels dry to the touch, then watering is due!” This is the correct advice, but contradicts the advice of using a schedule.

Common Problem With a Lot of Gardening Advice

You might think my critique above is a bit harsh, but it’s not. Give a new gardener incorrect bits of information and they will struggle for years before they sort things out. In the mean time they get on social media and pass along the wrong information to many others.

There is one other important point and I find this to be a big problem with many online sites. The information is very superficial and lacks many of the required details. If you look at the section about fertilizing and assume you are a new gardener, do you really know how to fertilize your plants? Should the fertilizer be changed at different times of the year? How much should be used? How does it affect blooming, which after all is the main point of the article?

I find a lot of online information gives enough detail to make the reader feel they haven’t totally wasted their time, but it doesn’t provide enough detail to really educate the reader. One of the main reasons for this is that the articles are being written by people with a limited understanding of the subject matter. They can’t explain the details because they don’t understand the main concepts.

So how do you make houseplants flower more? I’ve written and published a separate blog with all the details; How to Get Indoor Plants to Bloom More.

How to Make Houseplants Bloom More?

The following is the article from my ghost writer:

Houseplants are known to be low-maintenance and hardy, but they may occasionally not bloom enough, take longer than anticipated, or refuse to flower at all. That’s when you know something is wrong!

Here is what you can do to make your houseplant bloom more:

Light

Some houseplants such as poinsettia enjoy staying in the dark and require being plunged in long periods of darkness to trigger flowering. However, most houseplants require low to moderate levels of sunlight to flower well on time unlike the poinsettia plant. If your houseplant is not flowering enough, then the most probable reason is lack of sunlight. Most plants need at least 6 – 8 hours of either direct or partial sunlight, but houseplants can survive with much little.

However, do ensure that your houseplant gets at least 2 hours of sunlight (more is better) if you notice delays in blooming or sparse flowering.

Soil and nutrients

Sometimes lack of adequate nutrition can hold your houseplant from flowering as enthusiastically as you expect it to. If your houseplant bloomed earlier in the year and refuses to flower again, then it has probably exhausted all the nutrients available in the soil. When this situation occurs, it is time to replenish your plant’s growing medium. The most effective solution to this problem is to repot your plant in fresh and nutrient-rich soil. Loosen the roots of your plant (while wearing gloves) to extract your houseplant and carefully place it in the new soil. If you notice that the roots are beginning to crawl upwards, then your plant needs more space. It may be time for a bigger pot!

Sunlight and watering are essential!

It is worth noting that an alternative is to introduce fertilizer to your plant’s growing medium. Using a fertilizer yields the most effective results when you know which nutrient deficiency you are targeting. To stay on the safe side, it is a good idea to use a fertilizer that has equal parts of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Please make your way to the local gardening store and get a soil pH testing kit to ensure that your plant’s growing medium is neither too acidic nor too alkaline for its liking. However, it takes some time for fertilizer effects to kick in. For this reason, potting your plant into fresh soil is usually the preferable option.

Water

Each plant will have its unique water requirements. You need to do some research about your houseplant species and the climatic zone you live and also consider the current season. For example, your watering schedule in winters will have a lower frequency than that in summers because of high evaporation rates. Most hardy houseplants will bloom with very little water, but some are more demanding when it comes to moisture. To be on the safe side, it is a good idea to follow a well-defined watering schedule without overwatering or under watering it. Use your fingertips to feel the topsoil. If it feels dry to the touch, then watering is due!

(Make sure that your houseplant’s growing container has small holes at the bottom to allow excess water to seep through).

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

19 thoughts on “Why Can’t You Trust Gardening Information on the Internet – Using a Ghost Writer”

  1. First, choose plants that easily bloom indoors, e.g. geraniums (Pelargonium.) Second, know whether the plant needs a long or short night to bloom, or is indifferent to length of night. Thirs, give them light (sunny windowsill or fluorescent very near to plant.

    Reply
  2. This is extremely enlightenig. Everytime you search for advice on the web, the only thing that pops-up on google is commercially related, bad written stuff. I am afraid it does not limit to gardening, anyhow. It reflects what we are using the web for in the ’20s. But… It sucks. Please apologies for the grammar, native italian speaker, from Italy.

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    • Very interesting! I wonder if the author lives in a tropical climate- thus “houseplants are hardy”. I enjoyed their writing style. I wish I’d read their article before the list of corrections, because I wonder what my impression would have been. I think the bit about the poinsetta might be a giveaway. Authors who do not know their subjects well tend to give unnecessary time to anomalies.

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  3. Yes, it’s a pity that very few websites or books or newspapers cite any references for their claims. Not sure how we ever arrived to here – a place where we’re supposed to be gullible enough to believe anything from some random blogger.

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  4. What are some signs that a semi ignorant newby (like me) can use to identify these bogus blogs? Some, such as those who direct you to click through a slideshow or list are obvious, but I’m sure others are not.

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  5. Great article Robert.
    I was wondering if similar principles apply to Youtube garden videos?
    Also how reliable are university extension horticulture websites and state agriculture department websites? Wikipedia?

    It’s a challenge finding reliable gardening info.

    Thanks,
    David

    Reply
    • Youtube gardening videos have become quite a mess with many people creating videos just to get views – after all that is how they make money.

      The problem with hort extension is that you are never sure how old they are or who wrote them. I am sure many are written by students, copying info from other hort extension sites. But short of research papers they are the best we have.

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  6. I think it’s pretty unreasonable to ask someone to write a “well researched” article that is only 500 words. Seems like a stitch-up – could ANYONE write a detailed article on ANY subject that’s a mere 500 words??? One of the comments on this article alone is almost 350 words! I wonder what kind of article you would have received had you provided a realistic word count (and possibly a realistic time frame)?

    Reply
    • 1) “well researched” has nothing to do with word count. If it had been factually correct, but not complete – it would be a different story. Other than the title, I had no other specifications. The writer could have focused on one aspect of the topic if word count was a limitation. She could have also asked for a larger project if she felt it was a requirement. Every time I write an article for a magazine, I am given a word count and the job is to produce something within that limitation.
      2) I did not set the time frame – the writer did.

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  7. I am new to gardening having recently moved from a small unit in the city to a house with a decent size garden and I have read so many conflicting articles on gardening, composting and worm farms. I was surprised that even mainstream sites seem to post articles containing misinformation which I only discovered after reading numerous articles. I’m so glad I found your site. I only wonder what other misinformation I’ve read online without questioning it!

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  8. Countless people earn lots of money writing assignments for university students on just about any subject under the sun. Dashing off a 500 word blog post about gardening is a doddle.

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  9. By printing such a long post that quotes the ghost writer’s material in full without VERY CLEARLY distinguishing it from your own, you increase the risk of people less knowledgeable than you being confused, for the simple reason that the vast majority of people scan these kind of blogs at best. A bit of attention to better layout style and formatting might help. Your articles are full of good stuff but sometimes seem a bit like a Rick Mercer rant.

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  10. This is one of your best yet! The commissioned article is a great example of the half-right, half-wrong, almost wholly useless stuff that is drowning the internet. I was not surprised to see the glib promises, ignorant misuse of terms, foolish and unworkable recommendations (pH test your potted plants!!), and especially the many, giant omissions.

    In both the flaws and the writing style, it reminds me of a lot of college student essays I’ve seen as a teacher – which also, too often, cut-and-paste unverified info from slapdash websites, exactly as this writer did! Thanks for this great expose. I’m not just passing it along to gardening friends, but also to some teachers who could use it as a great short example of how to spot (and avoid) inaccurate writing.

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  11. Boy, was this interesting–and amusing! The “Ghost-Written” article generalized too much for me. The plants we grow for flowers inside have vastly different requirements to bloom. My citrus are all total sunlight junkies. They bloom and fruit indoors–but only in my south-facing bedroom window (and even then I find I have best results if I augment with a grow-light on cloudy days). My peace lily blooms best when I treat it like an African violet–an hour or two of early morning sun. My tropical hibiscus is happily hanging out with the citrus, usually pouts a bit during the winter but will bloom sporadically. All of these go outside for summer.

    And my orchids are in a class all by themselves–the phals quite happy mixed in with the peace lily and African violets, the catts, dendrobiums, and oncidiums hanging out in a direct east window, right next to the glass because they seem to bloom better when they have a drop in night temperature (she didn’t even mention temperature requirements that some plants need in her article).

    I have rebloomed poinsettias before but it’s a pain in the neck to do. Even a streetlight outside a window can “mess up” the 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness and I don’t have a big enough closet to put it in so I grow it on as a houseplant–it’s about five feet tall now and makes a nice green accent–but it, too, is jostling for space amid my forest of citrus.

    There aren’t that many other houseplants that bloom–I don’t consider florist mums, kalanchoes, begonias or geraniums houseplants–they are next impossible to happily grow in the average household environment. And we don’t generally grow philodendrons, Chinese evergreens, dracaenas or ficus for blooms anyway. Succulents, on the other hand, most hang out in the south windows with the citrus except for the zygos–which hang out with the African violets until they go out for the summer.

    Thank you for your articles–always educational–sometimes contradicting what I learned in horticulture classes–but that’s what I love about gardening–it’s a bit “fluid”.

    Reply

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