For this week’s episode, I invited my Director of Online Media back to join me for another Q&A session. We haven’t done a Q&A episode in awhile. Erin is my co-host when I have one, and when I want to have a conversation with somebody from my team. Our talks are always fun, and it gives Erin an opportunity to ask me some of the most popular questions that have come in from our community of listeners and viewers over the past few months, around what’s going on these days at the GardenFarm™. So, let’s get started!
Joe: Erin, it’s been a while, I think. Do you even remember the last time we did one of these? Was it last fall? Do you remember?
Erin: Yeah, it’s been awhile.
Joe: I’m always so busy talking to other people about what they’re doing as I interview my guests, and I don’t really take any of that time to kind of tell you what I’ve been up to. especially right now, since Covid19 came about. We haven’t talked about that at all. Maybe it’s time to just kind of address what I’ve been doing.
Erin: It’s just a different world we’re living in right now. So, what does that look like at the GardenFarm?
Joe: Yeah, In fact, I had all these high aspirations of getting so many things done, because when I’m in filming production for Growing a Greener World® (which is probably half my life) – when you add up all the time involved – I’m on the road most of that time from somewhere around April into September. We’re past April now, and we’re nearly past May. So I thought, this could be a blessing in disguise. Even though we had our entire lineup already kind of mapped out – where we were going to go, who we were going to see – I was so excited about it.
Then, the quarantine set in; and it’s like, well, there goes that. We’re not going anywhere, but now what do we do? Do we put the show on the shelf for a year, or do we just kind of figure out how to do that all from here? The more I thought about that – a lot of people have asked for more shows from the GardenFarm, because they want to just kind of see what I’m up to and how I do what I do. I thought, let’s just make that the entire series – or at least most of the episodes of the entire series. So, that’s how we started mapping it out. With that, I started coming up with all of these grand ideas of big plans that I wanted to do for the episodes. I mean, not just little how-to things, but big things.
Then, life gets in the way, and I realized that that television show isn’t the only thing I do around here. I mean, I’ve got the podcast and the Online Gardening Academy and all the rest of the stuff.
So I realized pretty quickly that those grand ideas weren’t going to really come to fruition either, but we’re going to make the best of it – make lemonade out of lemons. So, that’s what we’re doing. But, Erin, I just want to kind of toss it back to you and have you just kind of lead this discussion and throw out some questions or whatever you have in mind. I kind of told you what I wanted to do today, so I’ve entrusted that you will come up with some things to guide the conversation. So with that, I’m turning it over to you.
Erin: Yeah, I’ve got some questions for you that I thought some of our podcast listeners would like to hear about and just knowing things that you’re working on and spending your time with. Let’s just dive right in.
Here we are coming up on the end of May, which is hard to believe. In some ways the past few months have seemed to just drag on by. In other ways, the time is just flying. But I know that, you mentioned to me just in talking, that you’ve had more time at home than you’ve had for quite a while. So, the garden is fully planted, as we’re getting ready to move into June in the not too distant future.
What are your big To-do’s this time of year usually, and how has it differed a little bit, considering how this year really IS different? You’re not really harvesting anything too much yet. So, how are you spending your time in the garden these days? Let’s just start there and share that with your podcast listeners. Bring them into your world right now.
Joe: Okay well, I’m doing things that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Kind of the chores, the maintenance, the To-do’s that I never seem to get to. Maybe because I don’t want to, but I need to – like irrigation. Repair things that require a shovel and getting really dirty and wet and messy all at the same time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that or that I even mind it, but I tend to avoid those things for as long as possible. I’ve done some of those maintenance things that make the garden more efficient.
So, I’ve moved some irrigation bibs around, so I can get to the hoses faster and not trip over them. I’ve rebuilt my compost bin. That was a big one.
Composting is really a lot simpler than I think people, sometimes, think about. For years, my composting system was really piles of built-up organic matter that would amass to about 3’x3’x3’ and maybe more. That’s what I was doing in between, because my pallet compost bin – that I’d had for years, just untreated hardwood – eventually rotted away. I mean, that’s just going to happen when you have wet soil up against it for seven years.
So, I took it down last year, knowing that I would come back around and rebuild it with a new one – which I finally did. In the meantime, I’m not going to stop composting. So, composting was happening. It was beautiful, but I was anxious to get it back into those three bays that I do with my system. So lo and behold, I finally got that done, and it feels so good.
When I transferred them from the piles into the bays, it filled them up. That’s how much I had assembled – just between the time that last one went away and the new one started.
So anyway, getting some things done really has felt good. Right now, like you said, there’s nothing to harvest. I really celebrate this time of year, because this is that time when you have a false sense of security. All your plants look really good, and there’s no pests. There’s no disease coming in, and you’re like, I am awesome. I really know what I’m doing, and I do. But – let me just be clear –
Erin: Well, let’s be honest. It’s not none. It’s maybe just a little, but let’s be honest with everybody. It’s not zero pests or zero disease. It’s just very minimal.
Joe: Minimal. Right! But this is one of the things I love about gardening. It really is the great neutralizer, and it puts everybody on the same plane. So no matter how much you know or how long you’ve been gardening – with Mother Nature – when she’s ready to bring those challenges into your gardening life, it’s going to happen. So, I’m bracing for that.
Really, that’s what I’ve been doing. To truly get to your question, what I’m doing really is this is that time where I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I can be doing to be preemptive on what’s about to happen with the pests and the diseases. What are those things that I can do – best practice-wise or culturally for my plants, the mulch around them, and the irrigation and everything – to minimize or fortify the plants when those things happen.
Examples of that would be the mulch and the irrigation. The mulch is a big thing for me. You’ve heard me talk about this a lot and, and I make sure that all my plants have mulch around them, so that whatever diseases are in the soil are going to stay there and not necessarily splash up onto the foliage. Plus, it helps retain the moisture, and it keeps the weeds down and all those other things we’ve talked about. I use shredded leaves for that. I’ve really enjoyed going to my big stash of shredded leaves and adding those into all of my beds and even in my grow bags.
The drip irrigation I talk about all the time, because I do it all the time. But sometimes between seasons, you have to kind of disassemble it or take it down or move it out; because you’re putting new things in which require ahead of the next incoming group of plants. You have to reinstall it and set the timers. It’s just time-consuming. It’s not the most fun part of gardening, but you have to do it.
Erin: And it’s so worthwhile.
Joe: Well, and that’s my point. By making sure that the water is going right where it needs to and nowhere else – and it’s timed to come on at the right time of day and for enough times during the week but not too much. All of those things make a big difference, as it relates to how healthy your plants are and how strong they are and resilient to those challenges that come about. So, I have had more time than usual to deal with those things, and I’m feeling really good about it. So, those are the things I’ve really been focusing on right now, before things get more challenging,
Erin: Getting a little bit more of a jump on it than you try to normally. Okay – I know you’re trying a few things that you haven’t done before. Considering you’ve been gardening for quite awhile and you like to experiment and try new things – share with everyone those two new ways of growing that you’re trying this year.
Joe: Well, and what I’m growing this year, I’m trying tomatoes for the first time.
Erin: Right? That’s a brand new experience for Joe Lamp’l! Ha! Not so much.
Joe: Not so much. 45 plants I think. I have some in my raised beds, and I do practice crop rotation. So, I don’t plant tomatoes in the same beds every year. I try to do a four-year rotation within the beds. I have 16 beds. So, Erin, what’s, uh, what’s 16 divided by four.
Erin: Okay podcast listeners. So, Joe and I have a running joke about my mathematical skills. So, now you’re just getting a little bit of a taste of how vindictive Joe can be at times.
Joe: So, anyway, what’s that answer?
Erin: I believe that would be four, Joe.
Joe: There we go. Excellent. Yes. So, I am doing 45 plants, but I practice crop rotation. So out of the 16 beds, I try to do a four-year cycle – which means I only really get to plant in four beds each season. That means, if I’m going to do 45 plants, I need a lot of other places in which to grow them. So this year, I’ve finally gotten around to straw bale gardening. I’ve known about it for years, but we interviewed Joel Karsten this year, kind of the father of straw bale gardening with his books. That was a great interview just several weeks back.
Those plants are against the back fence line. I’m now using a single livestock panel trellis, a flat trellis to support them as they grow. It’s not new to me. It’s just different for me than what people are used to seeing with my ultimate tomato cages in the raised beds.
When you’re working against a flat back, and there’s nothing to support it on the front side – I’ve been trimming away all the front growth on those plants coming out of the straw bales. They’re just going to be trellised back to maybe three or four main branches from each plant. That’s going to be it, but that’s going to still produce a ton of tomatoes back there. It’s really nice.
As I talked about being proactive on what I can do to minimize pests and diseases, one of the things that I always struggle with is trying to allow enough light and air circulation into the plants – especially with tomatoes and cucumbers. So that they’re not as susceptible to diseases. The more light and the more air circulation you can get into there, the stronger they’re going to be.
With my tomato cages, that’s always a challenge, because I don’t get in there often enough and thin them out. I hate taking away future branches that are going to be tomatoes. Right? You’ve got to thin it out if you really want to do that. So this year, I’ve been a lot more proactive with that.
But back to the flat panel staking option – by only having three or four main leads, you are really preventing any chance of overcrowding or shading out; because you’re just sort of espaliering your tomato branches up against a flat panel. That’s really what you’re doing with this, and it looks nice too.
Erin: For those who are new to the podcast, Joe, describe a little bit what that livestock panel is – for people who aren’t familiar with that.
Joe: Yeah, it’s a grid pattern of galvanized metal, roughly 6” square. They’re long panels. They’re 16’ long, and they’re just under 5’ high – or maybe between 4-5’ high. I use them for all kinds of things in the garden. I know people hear me talk about it all the time – because I do. They’ve been my tomato cages and trellises for cucumbers and planting grids and you name it – I use it.
This time they’re just totally mounted up against T-posts against the back, but that’s the livestock panel in a nutshell. I get them at Tractor Supply. You know – you get them at a farm supply store, basically.
Erin: And it’s heavy-duty, so it can really stand up to the weight of the tomato plants.
Joe: Yeah – so heavy duty. The ones that I’ve been using are seven or eight years old, and they don’t show the first signs of wear.
Erin: Now, I know you usually use livestock panels for your cucumbers, but you’re doing something different there, as well.
Joe: I am. The plants get so crowded, and then, the diseases coming on. Well for me, that’s cucumbers. I plant them at the proper spacing, but cucumbers just get so lush and dense. They’re a vine, and they start crisscrossing. Next thing you know, it’s so thick – you have such a thick wall of cucumbers – there’s just no chance for very good air circulation. I get a great crop, but here I am in Atlanta, Georgia – home of heat and humidity. That’s something that tomato plants don’t necessarily love. They’re very susceptible to them.
So, I get the diseases, and as an organic gardener, I’m not out there spraying fungicides ‘willy nilly.’ I expect it. I do the best I can with it, but eventually, they get the best of the plants and out they come. This year, I’m doing something with trellising that’s different, and I’m just using string trellises. This is something that farmers use all the time when they’re just growing down a long row. They train those plants, and it’s oftentimes with cucumbers or tomatoes to a single lead. They’ll just drop a string down from an overhead line, and they’ll anchor it down at the base of the plant. Then as the vine grows up, they’re twining the string around the vine to provide it some support. That’s a simple description of how it works. There’s a little more to it than that but not much.
I’ve got a lot of farmer friends that do that around here, and I’ve always said that I’m going to try that at some point. So, what am I doing differently this year that I never really had a chance to get around to in the past? Well, this is that. I’m trying this for the first time in a long time, and I really think it’s going to make a big difference. There’s no way that these plants can crowd each other out, because they’re not even in touch with each other. They’re all on their own strand, and there’s plenty of light and air circulation between them.
Erin: The trellis itself is nice looking too. It’s a nice clean look.
Joe: It’s just three 2”x2”s. We did this for the television show. We started off our conversation about what are we going to do this year, and we’re filming a lot more in the garden of me doing what I do. Our first episode that will air on the first Saturday in September, and we’ll also have it on our YouTube channel at GGWTV. It’s called ‘A Day in the Life at the GardenFarm.’
It’s, essentially, kind of a typical day for me. Things that I would do every day, or in this case, a couple of new projects that I wanted to do. We incorporated them into the production of the show, and one of them was installing this cucumber trellis. They’re 8’ high and 12’ across, and it looks kind of nice. So, we’ll see how that goes.
By the way, because I probably will never remember to talk about this again – nor will I probably have a chance. As far as filming that show, just a little behind the scenes on what happens. This is one of the reasons why you don’t see many gardening shows anymore.
When you are dealing with the elements of Mother Nature’s schedule for the weather. You have your whole crew planned to be onsite on a certain day, because you have to get the show done. When you call it ‘A Day in the Life’ – it really is a day in the life no matter what. So, the entire week this past week, when we filmed the show, was forecast for bad weather. Literally, I had to call the crew the morning of the shoot, which was this past Wednesday, and call them at 4:00 in the morning to make the call as to whether or not we were going to shoot.
The forecast for rain was somewhere between 40% and up to 80% for most of the day, but we had little options for that. So, I brought everybody in.
We started filming, and for half the day, we were inside the office looking outside – waiting, waiting for those windows of opportunity to go back and try to film the segments. We got it all done, thankfully. We even got a break in the clouds for some sunny moments. For the most part, it was very wet and cloudy and dreary, which you hate from a production value standpoint. You want the pops of color, and you only get that in the sun.
But it is what it is, and that’s a day in the life. If we were doing a cooking show – where you could film 24/7 inside, never have to look outside and worry what the weather would be like – well, that’s why there’s so many cooking shows relative to garden shows. But we did it, and I’m looking forward to having everybody see it. It was a fun show, and it is packed with information. Let me tell you
Erin: For those of you who aren’t already aware of this, Joe tends to be a perfectionist. So, he thinks about all those little details that I’m sure that – as a viewer – you’re just going to enjoy watching the experience and probably won’t give nearly as much thought to the fact that it’s not sunshine-y and perfectly beautiful as Joe was worried about. It’s the content, and I know that the crew got some great content and some really good learning opportunities. Plus, just to enjoy the atmosphere of the GardenFarm. So, I know I’m looking forward to seeing that finished episode, and I’m sure – as viewers – everybody’s going to really love that one anyway.
Joe: Yeah, and it was fun. If you’ve listened to the podcast that I did way back. It was called ‘A Day in the Life at the GardenFarm’ as a podcast. That’s where the idea for this show, that television episode came about – was a podcast episode of my starting my day. Literally from walking outside from my house to the sounds of the birds and walking down to the barn and letting the chickens out and all of that. Well, we actually have a podcast – a lot of people’s favorite episode, including mine. Erin, I think for you too right?
Erin: Definitely for me, as well. Yeah, just the experience.
Joe: Yeah, and that was a sunny day by the way. Go figure. Oh, well.
Erin: Right – you could hear how sunny and beautiful it was.
Joe: So, we did a television version of it, and that’s what you’re going to see. It really does start early in the morning from inside the house – doing the planning before I even go outside – and then a final ending scene back out in the garden at night, after everybody’s gone home. And it’s just me and the iPhone.
Erin: And a glass of wine or maybe a beer.
Joe: A glass of wine. Thank you.
Erin: Of course. You’ve got to have that glass of wine at the end of the day.
Joe: So, I don’t even know where I was with that before. I was talking about the string trellising, and how I got into this, I don’t even know. Oh – it was the project that I did that was unique in the show that I needed to get to anyway. You were asking me what I was doing with my cucumbers. Boy, that was a roundabout way.
Erin: This is how many of our conversations go, but it’s always fun. I know something else that you’re doing this year, a little bit more so because you have extra time – more than you normally do, is when you are taking off those suckers, you’re starting them as new plants. More than ever before, because I think you have a plan in place that you have something in mind to do with many of those, right?
Joe: Yes. So back to my tomato growing, I do tend to leave more branching than I should inside the cage, because it’s so hard to pull away that sucker that’s got the formation of future tomatoes on it. So, I tend to leave them in – to my detriment. That makes it more challenging later. So this year, I’m being more diligent with proportionately removing the suckers that will allow more light and air circulation in.
When I take that sucker off – that shoot of a tomato branch that forms between the main branch and the side branch. The sucker comes out at a 45-degree angle. It’s inevitable. You see them all the time, and there’s the great debate about whether to sucker or not. We’re not going to get into that at this moment., but I kind of am in the middle. I take some, and I leave some.
Erin: We should clarify for listeners that this is specifically pertinent with indeterminate tomatoes. You would pull off some of those suckers, correct? For determinate tomatoes, you would want to leave those, typically, in place.
Joe: I do.
Erin: So, that you get the full fruit, but with an indeterminate, it can benefit you to manage the sucker growth, right?
Joe: Yeah, and now, you opened up another can of worms. I just have to be respectful to the folks that are not quite clear on the difference of the determinate and the indeterminate.
An indeterminate tomato is the classic tomato that keeps on growing until frost kills it back. Along the way, it continues to produce fruit the entire time once it sets fruit. Versus a determinate that tends to put on all its fruit. It grows to a certain point, and it tends to put on all its fruit about the same time. So, you have roughly about a two-week harvest time, for the most part, and then, the plant’s kind of done, for the most part.
I grow very few determinate plants, by the way. They are really good. That fruit is really good for canning. There’s a lot of great canning tomatoes that are characteristic of determinate tomatoes.
Erin: A Roma would be a good example.
Joe: And I am growing Roma this year, but I liked the heirloom, organic ones that just have all the great stories and the great flavor. So, we were talking about suckers. When I de-sucker, it’s roughly about 6” long – as far as the branch and the foliage. It’s just a beautiful, little plant; and tomatoes are so wanting to root – if you just give them the right conditions.
You could put it in a glass of water, or what I do. I put it into a pot with moist soil and set it under my potting bench in the shade and make sure it gets watered every day. Literally in the course of a week, it’s self-sufficient. It’s already formed enough roots, so that I could start giving it sun and not baby it (which I don’t anyway).
The plan is always, in about four weeks, those are going to become their own, planted, new tomato plants. For me, it’s two things. It’s my backup plan. It’s my insurance policy, and it’s going to be my succession crops. So, it depends on how you do your math. That’s kind of three things, but backup and insurance, to me, are the same.
Erin: When you say backup plan, Joe – I mean – if you were to lose a plant to disease or to wind damage or something like that? Tell everybody what you mean by ‘backup plan’.
Joe: Yeah, it’s for whatever could happen. It’s unusual that I would actually lose a plant, but I might get fusarium wilt or something in the soil that just takes a plant out really quickly. You never know, and those diseases. Once they find their way into the soil, they tend to stay there. So if I put another tomato plant back in that same spot the next season (which I try to avoid doing), and I do have this problem in some of my soil. You can’t help it. I could lose it.
I don’t want to lose my favorite variety. So, I have a backup plant that I would replant somewhere else of that variety. When that happens – let’s just say it’s June – you’re probably not going to be able to go to the garden center and find healthy, young, beautiful tomato seedlings. The nurseries and garden centers kind of have that season for that, right? They’ve moved beyond the summer seedlings at that point. Now, they’re selling other stuff, and the vegetables are gone until Fall maybe.
That’s why I always want to have those backup plants. Plus, they look really nice, and I just have a real addiction to making more plants. I like looking at them in my potting bench.
Erin: Well, it’s just nice to be surrounded by that lush green life everywhere you turn.
Joe: Right. By the way – if you do this and I recommend that you do – let me get to the succession part of this. So, back to Georgia with the heat and the humidity and tomatoes’ aversion to that. They do start to not look so good after they put out that first flush of tomatoes and all of that challenge is coming in. I tend to sort of throw in the towel sometimes – depends on the year.
Sometimes, I’m just over it, because it’s more work than it’s worth. I’ve had a gazillion tomatoes by then, so I’m okay to clean that up and start over – which is why this succession crop of tomatoes are laying in wait ready to go. That’s my reinforcements.
You know what? I talk a big talk. I’ve done this in the past, but I really haven’t gotten around to replanting a second succession. Mark my words. This year, I’m doing it. It’s part of the plan. Well, I’ve just gone public with it. Yeah – between the grow bags and the straw bales and everything – I have a lot more places to do it that aren’t in the way of other things I want to grow. That way, I’ll get tomatoes and new fresh plants that have grown outside the disease cycle and the pest cycle – potentially right out until our frost around Halloween time. So, I can be eating some really awesome tomatoes late into the season.
Erin: You’re planning on adding that new succession then, Joe. What are you thinking specifically? Just to give everybody an idea of timing. Are you thinking that you’re going to insert that succession – pull out the old plants and put in the new ones in, say, late July?
Joe: Sometime in late July or early August. Yes. Oh, and if you take those suckers and you pot them up (and I really recommend that you do, because it’s so easy and it gives you that other plant) – don’t forget to tag it right away. One sucker looks like another sucker. looks like another sucker when they’re in the pots. So, I tag it with a variety, of course, and I also put a date on it. That helps me know how long it’s been in that container – without having to take the plant out of the container to check the roots or to just know how long it’s been there.
I just try to give it four weeks, and then, I know it’s going to be fine on its own. Having the date there helps. So, a little tip.
Erin: That’s smart. A smart Joe Lamp’l tip.
Joe: I’ve got a million of them.
Erin: Yes, you do. You always do. Speaking of smart Joe Lamp’l tips, I know you’re doing something different with your beets and your eggplants this year.
Joe: I’m eating them for a change.
Joe: It’s a big thing for me to eat eggplant, but you have that real affection toward eggplant.
Erin: Eggplant is one of my favorites.
Joe: So, I love growing it. I grow it every year, but I give it away. I tend to not eat it, but this year I’m trying new things with it. But that’s not the new thing I’m trying with eggplant and beets. I’m using different pest control techniques, and my method of choice right off the bat (and this, again, is proactive and preemptive) is to use a barrier.
A lot of times that has just been floating row cover (commonly referred to as reemay) hooped over the top. But that fabric really can hold in the heat. It’s nice, because it does let the light and the air and the water in. A physical barrier is really your best bet – especially with eggplant and flea beetles that will find their way to eggplant no matter what (unless they can’t get to it). So, that’s what the barrier is.
But, last year, maybe the year before, I was complaining that the top foliage on those plants, in the hot time of year with the covers over them, were getting a little bit of sun scald or wilty or damage from the trapped heat at the top. My friend, Susan Mulvihill – a great gardener out in Spokane, Washington – uses tulle. I know others do too, but she was the one that said: “Hey, you can do the same thing with tulle.” Obviously, it’s bridal veil, so it’s much lighter.
You can see right through. It’s sheer, and it’s definitely not as strong. If there’s a downside – and it’s not a big one – is that it’s kind of fragile. I love it so much, and it’s so inexpensive. You buy a big roll. Then, you just use it as you need it and be careful with it. It’s going to last the entire season and maybe two. It’s not bulletproof, but it is very pest-proof.
So, I’ve got my beets covered up, because beets tend to attract some caterpillars and other little nuisance past that will eat away at the foliage. And, of course, the flea beetles on the eggplant. Whatever pests for whatever plant, but those are the two where I’m really focused on the tulle. I’ve left it on from the time that I’ve planted, and the beets are almost ready to harvest. The eggplant is outgrowing the space of the covering.
So, I’ll take that off pretty soon, but there’s no reason to remove it, if you don’t have to. It’s still cool enough in there, and it’s just a great barrier. So, is that what you were asking me?
Erin: That’s where I was going. It’s particularly a good barrier against flying pests, more so than other pests, right?
Joe: Yeah. Yeah, it is. The primary thing that I’m watching for or trying to prevent is the flying insects that lay their eggs on the foliage that become the caterpillars on the beets and my other greens that I’m growing. I do have a few flea beetles that have circumvented or breached the barrier somehow or were already there in the soil. It’s not bad. It’s very, very minimal.
Erin: And a little damage – there’s nothing wrong with a little damage It’s just keeping it to a minimum, so that the plants can compete against it.
Joe: You can have a high percentage of damage – 40%, approaching 50% – and that plant still has enough surface to photosynthesize what it needs to do what it needs to do. Of course, the more foliage the better. So you want to minimize that, but don’t freak out. You know, we get pictures all the time, and people ask me: “What’s wrong with my plant? What do I do now?”
Erin: So often, yeah! Plants aren’t perfect. Well, perfect in Instagram photos or catalog photos, but more often than not, there’s going to be a little bit of pest damage. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing.
Joe: In fact, I always encourage people to raise their threshold of tolerance for pests, because the knee jerk reaction when they see a little something is to hit it with something that’s going to kill it. I guess that’s a podcast for another day.
Somebody was asking me today – why don’t I use neem oil on the problem that I had with my flea beetles? And I said the physical barrier for me is always my go-to first line of defense, because it will keep the bad guys out. I don’t need any beneficials to be in there. If I used neem – which is still an organic deterrent or it can be a pesticide as well – it’s non-selective. So for me, I don’t want to use anything that doesn’t know the difference between a beneficial and a pest, if I can avoid it.
I don’t often even go to neem or insecticidal soap, if I can avoid it. So, raising your threshold of tolerance – knowing that your plants are a lot more resilient than you think. They can deal with some damage and still be okay. It’s a really important lesson. I think you get there by allowing that damage to happen.
Be proactive. If you want to remove the pest by hand – if you see it – go for it. But I think you discover how resilient these plants can be if you exercise a little patience and willpower and avoid overreacting. I would just encourage everybody to try that. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Erin: So Joe, you talked about how you love to use (and you’ve talked about this in many podcasts, because you are kind of obsessed not just with tomatoes – you’re also obsessed with) your shredded leaf mulch, but you use a different mulch for different purposes, right? I know that’s not something you use in your garden pathways.
We get comments pretty often with the photos that we post, both in the podcast and in social media posts. We get a lot of comments about how weed-free your pathways are in your garden beds. So, what do you use there? Do you use a weed block? I know that’s something that, historically, has always been promoted as being the way. Landscape fabric, right? That’s sort of the traditional way a lot of gardeners still rely on for blocking weeds. What do you use?
Joe: Let me just speak to that for a second. No offense to the people that use it and like it. I just don’t like it. I don’t use it, because it clogs. It gets in the way over time. Then when you want to do something different in that area, it’s just entrenched, because there’s other roots that have woven into it. It’s impossible to rip out, and all these other things.
It actually hinders drainage; because once those tiny, woven sections clog with soil and sediment, water doesn’t infiltrate through. So for that and a few other reasons, I don’t use it. So no. I don’t have anything that I put down underneath the mulch.
The type of mulch that I use is just natural, non-dyed, non-color treated hardwood mulch. It’s inexpensive. I get it in bulk by the scoop into the back of my pickup truck – two yards. Two of those scoops is what I need to provide about 2” of mulch in all my pathways.
You know, it’s funny you mentioned we get questions all the time. I got one today before this podcast. Somebody sent a picture, and they wanted to know. They said, “Your pathways always look so weed-free. How do you do that?” First of all, let me just clarify that I still get weeds. I just don’t get many of them, because when you have a 2” layer of mulch on any surface or over any surface, it really does a lot to block the light that most weeds need to germinate.
So it is minimal, but you’re going to get birds and wind that are going to bring seeds in. You’re going to have weeds. I spend, I think, once every couple of months just going through, and it literally takes me less than 30 minutes with my scuffle hoe or what’s called a winged weeder/diamond weeder. I love using it. It severs the weeds at the surface from the roots, and they die.
Other than that, it’s just the mulch. The mulch is heavy enough, so it doesn’t really wash away. So to answer your question, down there I want something heavier that kind of locks in place. That’s why hardwood mulch over, let’s say, pine chips or pine nuggets – pine nuggets are lighter. They tend to float more. They don’t lock together as much in the hardwood. Rough shred is exactly what has worked for me, and that’s what I would recommend people do if they want to try something like that. That’s what I recommend.
Erin: The pine would work, right? It’s just not quite as ideal.
Joe: Well, it is softer. So when you’re walking on it all the time, it’s going to break down faster. Replace it all the time. The hardwood probably lasts a couple years before I have to change it out again. So, that’s a good investment. I think I spent about $70 for two years worth of protection.
Erin: That’s not bad. Plus all the time that it saves you weeding. I mean, you can’t really put a price on that.
Joe: Right, right.
Erin: Well, I think this is a really good opportunity to remind people why you don’t use the dyed mulch. A lot of people love the dyed mulch.
Joe: First of all, as far as the chemical used to make the die, that’s not such a bad thing. It’s a water-based product that’s got a vegetable component to it. So, it’s not really risky. What I’m opposed to is potentially what it’s hiding. Now, this is not universally true – that just because it’s dyed means that it’s some sort of used pallets or unknown source of wood. That may be something that they’re trying to disguise.
The truth is one of the early reasons why mulch was dyed was because providers found a use for this wood that otherwise didn’t have a use. They said, “Well, gosh, if we ground it up and make it look like mulch, and then colored it so you couldn’t tell it was an old piece of decking. Hey, that could work.” So really, that was sort of the origin of it, and it’s just taken off. Now people like to colorize their landscape beds, and you see it all the time. That’s what the box stores push, and it’s just everywhere. You can’t get away from it, but for me, no thank you. I like it to be natural.
Erin: Now, you mentioned the livestock panels that you use for trellising. You use them for your tomato cages, but then, you use them for another purpose. One you’re using them for right now. So if people are taking a look at some of the pictures that you’re posting, you’ve got them laying in the beds, right Joe? Why don’t you tell everybody. We touched on that in a podcast as well, but for new listeners, let’s just touch on that again.
Joe: You know, I’m oftentimes doing video tours from the garden, and I’ll pan over a bed. There’ll be livestock panels just laying in the bed or laying up over plants growing through it. A lot of people will ask what those are there for. There are two reasons for that.
One is because I have a flock of chickens that free ranges throughout the day. They tend to stay out of the garden, but because my fence line has a top rail that they can fly up to and land on, they can easily just decide to move forward from there and hop into the garden beds. From time to time they do – especially when I’m in between seasons, and they see those open beds that don’t have plants in them.
They’re going to go scratching through there and find all the worms and all the bugs in there. That’s okay with me. It’s those other times that I don’t want them in there – especially after I’ve just planted out new seedbeds or new seedlings. I don’t want them scratching around the area. So, that metal grid pattern either laying on the soil surface or just above it, suspended by blocks or something, is really good. They never impact anything that I’ve planted that’s underneath it.
The other thing is barn cats. Barn cats that we have here find their way into the garden too. They see those big raised beds, and they’re very attracted. The next thing you know, they’re in there scratching and digging too. That’s a no-no. So, the panels are great for that. When I have exposed soil, I usually have a panel in place.
It’s a template, too, for planting. You know me and my straight lines, right? Kind of linear spacing. So, it’s a nice planting template for the entire bed. You just cut it to size and drop it in. Sometimes, I’ll just leave it there for the whole season. It’s galvanized, and it’s fine. The plants don’t even know it’s there. Other times, I suspend it above the beds with some blocks or something like that. They’re just so dang handy.
I’ve got to say, I find new reasons for them every year. I’m seeing a lot of people using them between their beds for a way to grow up climbing plants, like pole beans or something like that or cucamelons. They’re so easy to work with. I’m seeing a lot of pictures this year of people adopting that for their overhead trellising system. Then the beans drop through the opening, and you get to stand in the shade and just pick and pick and pick. I mean, how good is that?
Erin: Yeah – or the cucamelons. I know when you visited our friend Meg Cowden last year for Growing a Greener World, she had cucamelons growing down hers.
Joe: Niki Jabbour had the beans doing the same thing. A lot of people are doing that.
Erin: All right everyone, you should know that, every year, Joe says he’s going to grow fewer tomatoes than he grew the year before. He always commits to it but winds up growing more.
Joe: I don’t know. That’s a heavy word. Commit? I just can’t get enough. I think it was comment, I always comment about growing fewer.
Erin: Okay. He always comments he’s going to grow fewer than the year before. So, what do you do with all of those tomatoes? That produces a lot of fruit. We’ve seen some pictures with your arms full of tomato fruit. What do you do with all that tomato fruit?
Joe: I eat as many tomatoes as I can for those first three or four days, and I’m in heaven, right? Lunch, dinner, breakfast. Then I’m like, okay, these are really good, but you start to get a little bit over it pretty quickly – when you have that many that you’re eating so quickly. So, I love to give plants and harvest away. Probably the lion’s share of what we harvest gets given away or to a food pantry. This time we’re going to try something new – maybe sell the produce that we grow from the plants that we started from seed at the February timeframe.
My daughter, Amy, and I have this little business called GardenFarm Grown. So for three years, we have been starting plants from seed. This was my idea to get my daughter interested in gardening. She wasn’t getting bitten by the bug, and I was trying to think, “Oh, how do I do it?” One day I said, “Amy, what if we started plants from seed, and we grew them out. Then we sold them at the Farmer’s Market. We could make some money.” All of a sudden her eyes lit up. That was three years ago, and she took to it. Second-year, it went better, and this was our third year.
We had 1,500 to 2,000 seeds started, which became seedlings which kind of overtook the grow room – as they always do. Then Covid hit, and it’s, like, now what? Normally, we would be going to the Farmer’s Market, and I’d signed up for a couple big master gardener plant sales. We were going to be sitting there for an entire Friday and Saturday – a place that people come just to buy vegetable seedlings. We were going to sell out. I had great, grand plans of being done with it in two days. Then, all of that got canceled.
We had all of these plants, and nowhere to go. We decided we’ll just post it on Facebook and our local social media NextDoor channel. That was the best thing we ever did, because we were able to stay here. Do you know, in over the course of about three weeks in April, we sold out of everything by people coming to the GardenFarm?
Through social distancing, we did cart-side pickup. We created an online order form. We had 25 varieties of heirloom organic tomatoes and, then, 15 or so peppers. Everybody was getting into gardening that had never done it before. The demand was there, and we couldn’t keep up. So anyway, all that to say is I think we’re going to carry that forward into the harvest season. Now, we have a nice little customer list, and people have asked. Assuming they’ll need more than what they’re going to be growing from the plants they bought from us, we’ll have those to sell. Then, we’ll just put that into Amy’s college and car fund. That’s the plan anyway.
Erin: Very nice. So, what’s your biggest gardening challenge right now? Would you say you’ve been able to spend more time than probably a number of years past in the garden this season than for quite a while? What, in spite of that, is your current biggest gardening challenge?
Joe: I have two, I think. One is unrelated to gardening at all as far as what can happen. It’s just that, with all the new people gardening, some of the things you need for the garden are sold out – like the grow bags that I needed a month before I got them. I couldn’t get them, because they were all gone. After that initial wave has passed, I think the things that I need to get my drip irrigation installed and finished – the little parts that I have – I’m out of that.
Normally, you could go to the box store and just be out of there in five minutes and have everything you need. It’s just a standard item that’s carried. The shelves are empty. It’s like toilet paper and paper towels these days. All of that stuff is gone. So, I’m frustrated with that. In the same respect, I’m excited that, obviously, more people are in need of it because they’re doing more.
We’ve talked to a lot of seed companies lately too. I know a lot of people are aware of this, but it’s exciting to know that the seed companies have basically sold out of everything because the demand has been so high.
The other challenge that I don’t have yet is to see what happens with the tomato plants. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like every year I just get overwhelmed with disease. I don’t, but as an organic gardener, I do tend to be a little more tolerant with the threshold. The damage does come in, because of the environmental conditions we have here.
I grow a lot of tomatoes, and a lot of it just overwinters here – whether you like it or not. It’s just there by definition – inherently in this environment because of the host plants that I keep growing year after year. This year, as I continue to try doing new things as we’ve already talked about today, I’m hopeful that some of these subtle changes could make a big difference. I’ll definitely be keeping people posted every year.
Erin: Every year there will be a challenge – or two or three.
Joe: Yeah. Well, embrace it too. You’ve heard me talk about this too, but if we didn’t have challenges in the garden, it would be a little boring. I love the challenges. I like being kept on my toes, and I like to see what I can do to fix it or make it better or solve the problem. That only makes us better, smarter gardeners. Then, we can apply that new-found information to new things that come up and use it to help us in the future too.
Okay. Can I turn the tables on you for a minute?
Erin: Ok. Sure.
Joe: Alright. You’ve been asking me all these questions. I’m going to ask you just a couple. That is, our environments are very different. Obviously, everybody’s seen pictures of my garden, but even I have barely seen pictures of your garden. You have a balcony garden, and you’re very secretive. I don’t like this about your little scheme this year. You are going all-in with your balcony garden, and you’re only letting me see little things along the way – teasing me. We have some competitions going on with who’s going to have the first eggplant. So anyway, all that to say – tell us what you’re growing on your balcony. How big is it, and how crazy have you gone, Erin?
Erin: All right. So, everyone, here’s just a little bit more insight into Joe Lamp’l. He’s got a little bit of a devious side, because this is actually his way to learn what it is that I’m doing on my balcony. The reason that I’ve been secretive is early on – I think it might’ve been in April – I mentioned that I was going to do some balcony gardening more so than ever this year. He just made a casual comment about how, well, I wasn’t going to be able to grow that much because it’s not a big space. Certainly, the standard gardening tradition would tell you that would be the case, but I took that up as a challenge. It brought out my stubborn side and my competitive nature.
So I’ve got five tomato plants right now. Three are indeterminate, two are determinate. I’ve got seven full-size eggplants. I’ve got a pepper. I have Alpine strawberries. I have some Salanova lettuce, and I have a pomegranate. Yeah. So, I’m pretty excited. It’s all in about a 12’ linear space that gets sun only about a foot in.
So, I had to get very creative to make this happen. I’m determined that I’m going to be able to get everything to produce, and then, show Joe once it’s all said and done. Yeah. We’re neck and neck on our eggplant. We’ve both got flowers on our eggplant.
Joe: Okay. I mean, listen, I’m rooting for you. I want to see you beat me, and I’m hoping that you do. I really want you to be successful. Speaking of that pomegranate that you mentioned. That’s about the only thing of your garden I’ve seen. You’re very proud of your pomegranate, and you’ve been excited. It’s gorgeous.
Erin: I got it as a young tree about four years ago. It’s produced flowers the past few years, but this is the first year I’ve gotten it to produce. So, I’m very excited to watch my first actual pomegranate fruit develop. It’s pretty fun to watch it come into form. I’ve never seen it in person before so very excited.
I’m pretty sure we are going to be neck and neck on that first eggplant, but I think that’s a little bit due to the fact that I’m growing a Shikou Japanese variety that I don’t think you’re growing. I think it might be a little bit faster fruiting.
Joe: That’s Japanese for “ripens quickly”.
Erin: That’s what I thought. It’s been a while since I sharpened my Japanese language skills, but thanks for the reminder, Joe.
Joe: So that one doesn’t count. We’re throwing that one out.
Erin: No, no. That one absolutely counts.
Joe: Well, okay. Speaking of a challenge and tomatoes, and you’ve got indeterminates which grow until there’s no tomorrow. How are you doing that?
Erin: I know. So, I had to get creative. All right, Joe. Now, you’re going to learn what you’ve been dying to know. Alright. I am basically doing my own espalier in order to accommodate a lot more growth. If I was just setting them in a container and letting them grow up, I’d only get about eight feet of growth. So instead, what I’m doing is – I have strung jute twine in a pattern across the opening of my balcony above the railing.
All of the sun that comes in is going to, basically, strike all the tomato plants as they’re growing up. I attach them along this espalier shape on twine that’s essentially hanging in midair. I’m going to be letting the leader grow, and then, I’m going to let two suckers grow in two different directions. As those develop, I’ll start to let other tomato suckers grow vertically. I’ve got a triangle shape of jute twine, and I’m basically letting them cross over each other. I’ve had to get pretty creative with how to maximize how the sun is going to strike my tomato foliage to get them to fruit. So far, it’s working.
Joe: This is very sophisticated. I have a follow-up question. Are you doing this on company time? This sounds very labor-intensive.
Erin: Isn’t it garden training? I’m sure it is. The end result will be, because of the jute. Rather than have 6-8’ of growth, I’m going to have between 14-24’ of growth – not counting the little vertical suckers that I’ll be able to let grow really late in the season.
Joe: When it comes to harvesting, what do you do? Cast your fishing line out to the fruit, and try to reel it in?
Erin: Right. Thank goodness for a step stool. I’ll be curious to see how much – I’m on a second-story balcony – to see how much of my fruit goes crashing to the ground.
Joe: Or even worse, you. We might be doing this next interview from your hospital bed.
Erin: It’s going to be a fun challenge. So far, they’re doing very well. So yeah, I’m excited to see how they mature.
Joe: Very excited for you, and I can’t wait to get the updates. You’re going to have to post pictures of that, at some point, that everybody can see. That’s a lot of stuff. I’m excited for you, but time will tell. We’ll see how that all works out. I’m definitely in your camp, and I’m rooting for you.
Erin: Thank you.
Joe: You’re welcome. Thank you for hosting this. Nicely done, Erin. Thank you so much for leading us through those questions and allowing me a little more insight than you’ve been willing to share on your gardening experience right now. This was my secret plan to get you to talk. It was just to put you on the spot, publicly, so that you had to tell the world.
Erin: It’s been fun doing this again. Thanks for having me on.
Joe: We’ll do more of this as warranted, and let us know how you like this. If you want more of this, less of this. We will definitely listen to your feedback.
What are you trying new this year? I hope you’ll share your comments below. Be sure to listen in to this fun conversation by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Links & Resources
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