We all want easy answers.
In our instant-gratification world, we have little patience for complicated solutions to problems that crop up in our homes and gardens. We prefer a simple, WD-40 kind of approach.
Tarnished silverware? Just wrap it in foil and boil it with some water and baking soda!
Ink stain on your clothes? Spritz on some hair spray!
Yellow jackets nesting in your wall? Spray the heck out of them with bug killer! What harm can it do, anyway?
Well, in some cases, a lot.
I’ve been covering the home and garden beat long enough to have encountered all manner of questionable and flat-out bad advice. Sometimes that advice seems innocuous. Sometimes it seems perfectly logical. Sometimes it’s disseminated so widely that people assume it must be OK.
But sometimes, it’s not.
The truth is, that foil method is harsh on silver and could remove the factory-applied patina that gives it dimension.
Hairs spray might take the ink out of your shirt, but it might also leave a worse stain. It all depends on the formulation of the particular hair spray and the makeup of the particular fabric.
And that yellow jacket approach? You may kill a few insects that way, but the majority will just be repelled and will spread out inside your wall.
My point is that home remedies and unscientific advice aren’t always the best approaches — no matter how reasonable, no matter how widely known. What works in one situation might not work in another. What seems like a simple solution might only be a Band-Aid, or worse, it might mask a more serious situation.
When I answer readers’ questions, I make an honest effort to find the best information out there. I go to the experts. I try to ensure the method has been tested and won’t cause unintended harm. If there might be unwanted consequences, I’ll warn you.
Those methods aren’t always quick and simple, I know. But I don’t want to give you shortcuts that might prove problematic. If you were to ruin the glaze on your great-grandmother’s china teacup because of some tea stain removal tip I passed along cavalierly, I couldn’t live with myself.
The importance of relying on knowledgeable sources was underscored in my training to become a master gardener volunteer. Master gardeners are charged with disseminating only research-based information, with good reason.
University research approaches an issue from a variety of angles. “It doesn’t just prove that something works,” said Danae Wolfe, an agriculture and natural resources educator with the Ohio State University Extension and the leader of Summit County’s master gardeners. It also determines whether there are unintended consequences and whether the good effects last, she said.
Let’s say you decide to kill your weeds by pouring gasoline on them. It’ll work, Wolfe said. But what potential fire hazard are you creating? What long-term damage are you doing to the soil? How many beneficial insects and other organisms did you kill? And will those weeds just come back, since you haven’t really addressed the issues that promoted their growth in the first place?
OK, that method just sounds fraught with peril. So let’s say you decide to kill your aphids with chewing tobacco mixed with a little water, like you read on the Internet. That sounds harmless, right?
But what you might not realize is that tobacco can carry plant diseases. And if your dog happens to eat some of the tobacco, you’re not going to be very happy cleaning up the unpleasant results.
Scientists consider all those kinds of issues. What’s more, they look closely into the reasons things happen — reasons you may not realize.
Here’s an example: Your uncle swears Juicy Fruit gum killed the moles that were pestering his property, so you try sticking some into a mole tunnel in your backyard. Voila! The moles disappear! Of course you think the gum worked. It’s a reasonable conclusion.
But scientists know from years of studying mole behavior that the creatures just move around a lot. They might stay in one spot for a week or two and then move on in search of new sources of insects to eat. That movement is prompted by climate, soil conditions and insect cycles, not methods like chewing gum or broken glass or sonic devices. And those methods won’t keep the moles from returning when your yard is once again filled with tasty bugs.
There’s another benefit to university research, Wolfe noted: It’s peer-reviewed. That means studies are vetted by other experts in the field. If there’s something questionable about the methodology or the results, the researchers’ peers will bring those problems to light.
And these aren’t lab-coated scientists working in some ivory tower, sheltered from the real world. Researchers in such areas as pest management and plant pathology are out working in the field, Wolfe said. They’re growing plants, scouting for insects and diseases, and testing a variety of cultural controls to figure out what works best.
You can avail yourself of their expertise. Fact sheets and other helpful literature on a variety of home and garden topics of interest to Ohioans are available at http://ohioline.osu.edu. Extension offices can provide information if you call or visit. Master gardeners staff seasonal hotlines in many counties to answer garden and lawn-case questions. (In Summit County, the hotline operates from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays, from March to October, at 330-928-4769, ext. 23.)
You might not get easy answers. But you’ll get information you can trust.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.