Ask the Right Questions

Ask the right questions

I get a lot of questions about gardening, landscapes, turf management, etc.  Many of them are excellent questions that often lead to articles that I publish on our website and blog.  Generally, the questions are framed in the right way. Occasionally, the question comes something like, “How can I get rid of …”, or “How do stop my tomatoes from…?”  You can fill in the blanks in those questions. 

I almost always rephrase the question.  All too often, the question is directed at a symptom rather than finding the root of the problem.  For example, I was recently asked the question, “How do I get rid of weeds in my lawn?”  This is a legitimate question that I hear a lot.  However, the better question would be, “Why do I get weeds in my lawn?”  This question goes more to the source of the problem.  The weeds appearing in the lawn are usually a symptom of deeper issues.

Ask the Right Questions – The Key to Right Answers

ask the right questions

Asking the right question often proves true in many aspects.  I received a question about damping-off.  The questioner wanted to know how to control damping-off.  The better question would be, “Why does damping-off affect my seedlings?” 

Asking questions that seek to find the root cause of a problem rather than a simple solution to a symptom can lead to making better decisions overall. 

As you go about your gardening and landscaping tasks, whey you encounter one of those situations that give you pause to start asking questions, stop and think about the questions you are asking.  Is the question directed to finding the cause of the problem?  Will the question, if answered, actually solve the problem or simply mask it or treat a symptom? 

An easy framework for gardeners is to come at a problem with the goal of drilling down through a problem to get to a core solution.  The framework involves asking the correct questions in a logical order.  There are hundreds, if not thousands of websites that address this very issue.  There are college courses that focus strictly on this method of problem-solving.  Here is a set of steps and hints to help you make better decisions in the garden by asking better questions.

Ask the Right Why.

Ask the right questions

Frame a question that leads you toward the source of the problem and not to the symptom of the problem.  As an example, I have a problem with spurge in my turf grass in an area of my backyard.  I could ask the question, “How do I control spurge in turfgrass.”  A quick google search yields hundreds of possible answers.  However, very few of these answers really deal with the problem.  The better question would be, “Why does the spurge grow only in this spot in my lawn?”

That question then leads us to more questions.

Follow the logical path.

Since the spurge only occurs in one area of the lawn, the next logical question is, “What is different about this portion of the lawn?”

If all the other variables are the same, there has to be some link to the area.  This area gets the same fertilizer, the same water and the same treatment (mowing, etc.).  There has to be something different.  This question leads me to the conclusion that this portion of my lawn gets significantly less sunlight than the other portions.  Three large trees shade it through the morning and mid-day, and the house shades it in the afternoon and evening.  The grass, while healthy, is not quite as thick as the other turf in the yard. 

Do Due Diligence.

When your questions lead you to a conclusion, do a bit of due diligence.  As more good questions.  I this case, something like, “Does spurge do well in shade conditions?”   A little investigation reveals that several varieties of spurge thrive in moist, shady locations.  The area where I have the problems certainly fills that bill, which leads to the next question.

Getting to the root of the problem

Understanding the problem by asking the right questions eventually gets us to the point of asking the right question to get to the solution.  In the case of my spurge problem, we have come to the conclusion that the location in question is shaded for most of the day, tends to stay moist, and that these conditions are well suited to spurge.  The next question would probably be best framed as, “What is causing these conditions to exist?”

In this case, the combination of three huge trees and the house creates an area where little sunlight reaches the turf.  Obviously, I can’t move the house, and I am probably not going to remove the trees.  So, the next question should be, “What can I do to remediate these conditions.”

The Solutions in Questions

Ask the right questions

Again, we return to our questions.  What conditions need to be remediated?   For me, the lack of sunlight, the moisture in the ground, and the lack of thick turf to compete with the spurge.  Bingo!  Now I can ask more specific questions. 

Which of these three is the real key to the problem?  Sunlight would be the obvious answer for several reasons.  Spurge likes shade and moisture.  However, there are other places in the turf that have these almost identical problems and don’t have a spurge infestation.  Comparing those two areas, I ask myself, “What is different between these two.”  The biggest difference to my eye is the thickness of the turf.  In the areas where there is no spurge, even in the low light areas, the turf is much thicker. 

Now more questions.

Why is the turf thicker?

I do a little digging, literally.  I check the condition of the soil in both areas.  I probe, I take soil samples, and I look at the differences.  In the areas where the turf is thicker, the soil is substantially more healthy.  There are more worms, and there is less compaction.  Now I can ask more questions.

Why is the soil where the spurge is a problem less healthy?

This question is now getting into the real problem.  The area with the spurge problem not only gets a bit less light; it is next to a brick-paved walkway.  The brick pavers tend to cause a bit more water to accumulate in the area of the turf where the spurge likes to grow. This area of the lawn also gets a bit more foot traffic, even with the brick walkway.  The extra foot traffic keeps the soil a bit more tightly compacted, which leads to less water infiltration and fewer soil organisms. 

Even More Questions

How to I address these issues?

For me, it was obvious.  The grass was not thick enough to compete with the spurge.  The moist, shady conditions favored the spurge.  First, I removed by hand as much of the spurge as I could manage. I looked at the trees and decided that I could raise the lower portion of the canopy just a bit to allow more morning sun into the area.  More sunlight would encourage the turf, hopefully enough to crowd out most of the spurge. 

I adjusted my watering plan to put less water into this area and to control the small amount of runoff from the brick pathway to keep the ground a bit less moist.  The ideas was not to stress my turf for lack of water, but I want to give the ground a chance to dry out between watering.  I decided to top-dress this portion of the turf with composted cotton burrs after I had spread some worm castings and dry molasses.  Top-dressing and the addition of the castings and molasses should encourage the soil biome and help give the turf a boost.

Avoid the Obvious

The conventional questions, “How do I get rid of the spurge in my lawn?” would probably have led me to the application of a broadleaf herbicide, which certainly would have killed the visible weeds.  It would not have led to a long term solution that addressed the real causes of the problem.

A few well-crafted questions, asked in a logical sequence, can lead to the discovery of the real problem, the path to the correct solutions, and a much more satisfactory and long term result.

Developing questioning skills is not only important for gardening and landscape management; it is essential in life as well.  All too often, the simple answer to the wrong question will provide a quick remedy but not a true solution.

For more information about organic gardening, turf maintenance or organic lifestyles, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.

These articles may be of interest if you have questions about organic systems for turf management, gardening or pest management.

The Organic System

Organic Integrated Pest Management

Organic Lifestyles – Articles

If you have specific questions contact us using the comment form on our website or post your question to our Facebook page. You can search for us on Facebook using @westtexasorganicgardening.