Maintaining my five-acre GardenFarm™ and keeping up with documenting the garden’s progress through the growing season is far from a one-person job. This week, Tobi McDaniel, the GardenFarm manager, joins me on the podcast for the first time to offer a peek behind the curtain and share what her days here are like.
If you’ve watched the videos I make for YouTube and social media, you may have seen a cameo by Tobi. More often than not, Tobi is the one behind the camera. I’ve got to say that Tobi can capture photos like nobody I’ve ever seen. She’s also the flower-growing extraordinaire here and brings a lot more to the table.
One of the main reasons I hired Tobi was because of her gardening background, and I also knew, from seeing her Instagram account, @burbandbloom, what a great photographer she is. In fact, in my mind, I hired Tobi before I even met her.
How Tobi Spends Her Days on the GardenFarm
In the cooler months, Tobi liked to start her day in the greenhouse, which was delivered to the GardenFarm at the end of last year.
“I used to go out into the greenhouse first thing in the morning because I just wanted to check on all the seedlings and hang out in my nice little office out there,” she says, “But now it’s like a sauna and I have no desire to be in there — because it’s too hot.”
If Sophie, my dog, is around, Tobi gives her a treat — still trying to win Sophie over through bribery after two years. Tobi is a big believer in bribing all the animals on the GardenFarm, which has varying degrees of success.
Then Tobi puts on her hat and heads out to the garden with her snips, going aisle by aisle, bed by bed, giving everything a once over. Lately, she’s been deadheading spent flowers first followed by picking fresh flowers to fill a vase.
Next usually comes harvesting. On days that I am filming in the garden, she leaves the ripe vegetables on their stems so they’ll be there for the cameras. Otherwise, she picks the veggies and takes photos herself — thinking of every possible way to photograph a tomato, eggplant or whatever it may be.
“Eggplant are really hard to take a picture of,” she says. “They’re not my favorite thing to take a picture of.”
Tobi also looks for bugs in the garden as well as diseases.
“Whatever I see, I take a picture of it, and I document it so that we can use it for later,” she says.
Having Tobi’s photos on hand is incredibly helpful when preparing the show notes and other content to educate others about gardening. Showing the insects that visit the GardenFarm, including the pests, as well as the plant diseases helps gardeners recognize and respond to issues facing their own gardens.
“It’s all part of gardening anyway,” Tobi says. “No garden is perfect, and all those things exist. But I think when you can have a picture of it and educate people as to what they’re looking at in their own garden, or at least to have an idea, it just helps.”
She notes that she uses her iPhone camera for all of her photos.
“I’m not out there with some big ol’ mac daddy camera,” she says. “It’s an iPhone. They take great pictures.”
When Tobi notices a plant is wilting, she investigates the surrounding factors that are contributing to that and documents what she sees, so my followers and Online Gardening Academy™ students can benefit from what she has learned.
She recently captured this amazing photo of a skipper moth in the process of laying eggs on a leaf. She started out by noticing little yellow caterpillars — about the size of a grain of sand and too small for apps on her phone to identify them. They were eating plants but not causing enough damage to be a concern. She then took a photo of the skipper laying eggs and with some research pieced together that the yellow caterpillars were skipper larvae.
Tobi’s Advice for Taking Better Garden Photos
When Tobi studied photography using a film camera, the ratio of photos taken to photos submitted was one per film roll. That’s one good photo out of 48 taken. And when an assignment required her to submit four or five photos, there was a ton of shooting involved.
Tobi continues to take way more photos than she ever hopes to show anyone. Shooting outdoors and sometimes at odd angles, there are times when she can’t see on her screen because it’s just too bright or she is putting the camera into tight spaces. Then she narrows down everything to the best shots — if there are any good ones to choose from.
“Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t,” she says. “So you just try.”
Tobi also gets very close to the subjects she is photographing, pushing the limits of how close an iPhone lens can go while still being able to focus.
She also suggests shooting from many angles, including angles that don’t make sense. You’ll be surprised at what images you can capture when you play around with the angles.
If the subject is on the ground, holding the camera upside down so the lens is as close to the ground as possible can achieve a better angle, Tobi says.
Tobi taps fast on a shutter button, shooting a bunch of frames quickly in case the insect she is trying to photograph decides to fly away.
“Bugs don’t sit around,” she says, especially mid-day when it’s hot and they are moving and shaking. Unless they are laying eggs or visiting a flower that has a lot of goods for them, they will move on quickly.
Tobi doesn’t use filters, she says, because she enjoys the genuineness of a real picture. The only editing she may do is to brighten an image.
To make it easier to hold her iPhone while photographing, Tobi has a PopSocket, a phone attachment for better grip. It pops out and fits in between two fingers, and then presses flat again so the phone can fit right back in your pocket. Be aware that if you use wireless charging, you need a wireless-charging compatible PopSocket.
A PopSocket makes it easier to hold a camera still, which is especially important when shooting video. Another bit of advice Tobi offers is to hold your breath to reduce shakiness while recording.
“The smaller the subject matter, the harder it is,” she says. “Because every little motion is just magnified in your screen and you think, God, people are going to get seasick looking at this.”
The best time to shoot is at the end of the day — known as “golden hour” — when the light won’t be harsh and can even provide a glow.
Newer-generation iPhones have a “portrait mode” that creates a depth-of-field effect that blurs the background, drawing the viewer to the subject of the image without any distractions. However, it may also blur the edges of the subject in a way that is detrimental to the image you want to achieve, so try taking the same image with portrait mode on and off, and review the photos after the fact on a big computer screen to decide which version you prefer.
The Flower Enhancement to the GardenFarm
This January we added beds for native perennials and cut flowers around the interior of the garden’s perimeter. We planted the beds densely, and now when we go out there, the whole garden behaves differently than it had before. There is so much insect activity happening, which is a pleasure to observe.
We got a preview of the difference flowers can make last year when a bed was ready to be turned over for another crop and Tobi suggested sunflowers and zinnias. My director of photography, Carl, really liked it because it was a great backdrop.
This has been an amazing year for flowers, and the biodiversity and wildlife activity difference is night and day. And we’re continuing to improve upon it.
Tobi’s Lightning Round
Tobi also had some questions for me about my typical day and a few other topics. Here are my responses.
I wake up at 5 a.m., bright and early, unlike Tobi, who is admittedly not a morning person. I like it because it’s so quiet — it’s a magical time. I make my coffee, I go out to my porch, I sit there, and it is deathly quiet because the crickets are still sleeping and the birds aren’t awake yet either.
My cat cuddles up and we hang out while I drink my coffee and embrace the moment of quiet before my day begins and all hell breaks loose. I have learned to relish that time for what it is.
After an hour of chill time, I open my laptop and begin answering emails, mainly the messages from my Online Gardening Academy students first. It takes a good two hours or more to stay engaged with the community.
Then I’m researching for the next podcast, creating videos in the garden and doing more tasks that keep me busy. Of course, I’m also tending the garden throughout the day. No two days are the same, so it’s hard for me to sum up my routine.
I try to end my work day at 6 p.m. and then get my daily exercise in. But in August I take my annual sabbatical, which means I get the exercise out of the way early in the day rather than poring over emails.
Tobi also wants to know what job I’d like to do if not for joe gardener. She took related jobs, like horticulture professor, off the table, which would have been my first answer. Park ranger is one of my fantasy jobs because I just love the outdoors and can’t imagine a career that would keep me cooped up inside.
I just finished reading “Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, And Dying In The National Parks,” which has been a huge eye-opener about all the things that being a park ranger entails, including the not-so-glamorous parts.
Another top pick would be animal rescue, like saving elephants or working for the Humane Society.
Tobi also asked me to identify the perfect garden zone, and the truth is I’d pick the zone I live in right now, 7b, in Georgia. It never gets too hot, it never gets too cold and it has a long growing season.
Asking to identify a guest who I would love to interview and haven’t met yet, I must pause to note that I don’t take for granted the work that I do and how fortunate I am to speak with my heroes. The vast majority of my heroes are gardeners — but also much more than gardeners.
The father of organic gardening in the United States is J. I. Rodale (1898 – 1971) and I was fortunate enough to interview his granddaughter Maria Rodale, who carries on his work, for an episode of “Growing a Greener World.” I even included her in my “Green Gardener’s Guide” book dedication because of how much I respect her, her family and the work they have done.
For the 200th episode of “The joegardener Show” podcast, my Director of Marketing & Communications, Amy Prentice, suggested I ask Monty Don, the host of “Gardeners’ World” on the BBC, to be the special guest. He’s such a rockstar, and I felt it would be a tall ask, but he agreed. He stopped his work at his new farm and drove back home 35 miles to record the interview with me on what was a Sunday evening for him.
I’ve also really enjoyed talking with Charles Dowding, who pioneered modern no-dig gardening, and I have interviewed so many others — too many to name — who became great friends.
I go into interviews not with prepared questions but with an outline of topics that I want to learn more about and that I know the listener is going to want to know more about. The follow-up questions come naturally based on what the interviewee has to say.
A gardening trend I would like to see more people doing is paying more attention to ecologically minded gardens — taking more responsibility for what we’re planting and not planting. We need to remove the restrictions that homeowners associations are putting on gardeners who wish to plant more natives and refrain from using chemicals.
Tobi’s toughest question to answer was, if I could only grow three vegetables in my garden, what would they be?
The first on the list is an easy one, tomatoes, and without any hesitation, broccoli. Forced to stick to just three, peas also make the list. If I can add a fourth and fifth, my choices are kale, potatoes, edamame, spinach and lettuce … OK, that’s way more than five. It’s that hard for me to choose.
Crops I could give up growing are cucurbits. Many have prickly vines and are disease-prone, two traits that can make them a pain to have in the garden.
My favorite garden chores are pruning, seed starting, propagation and weeding. Believe it or not, my least favorite chore is harvesting. I really enjoy growing vegetables more than picking vegetables.
The creature in the garden that scares me is the Joro spider, an invasive spider that is fairly new to the United States and related to the orb weaver. It’s too early to know if the Joro spider will be problematic ecologically.
What’s left for me to do in the gardening world? My goal in everything I do is to make more people gardeners who will leave the earth better than they found it.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Tobi going behind the scenes of the GardenFarm, you can scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title to do so now.
What advice do you have to take better photos in the garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables: no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“The Green Gardener’s Guide” by Joe Lamp’l
“Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, And Dying In The National Parks” by Andrea Lankford
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.