As we approach Thanksgiving, a time for taking stock of all the things we are grateful for, it feels like a good time to reflect on our gardening successes this year. I’ll admit I’m guilty of talking about how challenging this summer was in the garden for many of us while failing to highlight the achievements. This week, I am rectifying that at the suggestion of podcast listener Tom Discordia, who encouraged me to do an episode on everything that went right this year. And I agree. So with that, in this episode, we’re showcasing some of your gardening successes in 2020.
Tom notes that Massachusetts had a hot, dry summer that required a lot of supplemental watering. Though his tomatoes were hit hard by fungal diseases, pest pressure on his garden was very low. Tom is also celebrating that he grew more cucumbers than he’s ever grown before and had a bountiful harvest of edamame.
Through social media channels, including the joegardener Facebook group, and the joe gardener Online Gardening Academy™ Essential Gardening Fundamentals and Master Seed Starting groups, I asked for others to share their 2020 gardening successes, as Tom did.
While I couldn’t include every response in this episode, I picked a variety that hits on all the themes. I’ve sorted those responses into categories to share a few from each.
Mulch, Soil and Compost
Longtime listeners of “The joe gardener Show” podcast know I talk about mulch all the time. It’s one of my favorite topics, along with compost. Both organic mulch and compost improve our soil, and great gardens start with great soil.
Anita Kox wrote, “Mulch!!!!! We used mulch more effectively this year and cut way back on weed competition in our [vegetable] garden.”
Anita credits her record harvests this year to mulch and to starting her own seeds, using what she learned in my Master Seed Starting course (which reopens for enrollment in January!)
Emily Harrison says that mulch changed her life this year. “I will forever mulch my pathways and gardens. I have never tried the wood chip mulch before, but we had a huge windstorm and many trees had fallen down,” she writes. “We ordered a ChipDrop and that has been a huge success in suppressing weeds and adding the best organic matter to our gardens.”
I can attest to that because I use arborist’s wood chips myself to keep my garden pathways weed-free. I use about a 2-inch layer of hardwood mulch, either purchased or from a free ChipDrop. I still get some weeds, but far less than I would with no mulch. About once a month, I go through with my scuffle hoe or winged weeder and I slice away those weeds at the surface. It’s a breeze, thanks to my wood mulch.
Deborah Imholte agrees that deep mulching was a gamechanger.
Camila Wright ZolfaghariI reports she spread a dump truck of wood chips 8 inches deep in March on places she wants to plant in the future. “I also figured out the organic soil I bought by the scoop was very low in nitrogen thanks to finally using a soil test and finally got things growing,” she adds.
David Mast says 2020 was a “near perfect year” in the garden. A definite win was growing hot peppers in grow bags rather than directly in the ground. He started them on his asphalt driveway to help heat up the soil before his southeastern Wisconsin temperatures warmed up consistently, at which point he moved the grow bags into his garden.
Many gardeners find grow bags to be useful because they have total control over the soil environment.
Rounding out this trio is compost. Realizing all the benefits of compost is an “ah-ha!” moment for new gardeners. As Ines Rocha puts it, “Compost!!!”
Jude Hawk says, “I made enough compost for the entire garden!” That is noteworthy, and Jude deserves a high-five for that one. It’s hard to make a lot of compost. Though a little bit goes a long way, there never seems to be enough.
Trying Something New
Many of you experimented in the garden this year, which is something I always encourage, because experimenting is how we learn. Maybe you tried new things because you had a little extra time this year, or maybe you decided to just go for it.
Ryon McCamish was brand new to gardening in 2020 and harvested 150 pounds of food. He had been keeping track of the quantity and weight of everything from the garden but gave up counting after 136 pounds, when he couldn’t handle anymore near the end of the season.
Monique Kelien Dozer also planted her first garden this year, coming to gardening with “zero knowledge,” she says. After putting a few seeds and plants in the ground and watering sporadically, she grew enough zucchini to feed her family and five other families. That’s despite her soil’s low pH of 4.6!
Monique also had success with okra, and now she says she’s got the gardening bug and has listened to countless podcasts and read several books on the subject. She’s built a new garden area with raised beds full of topsoil and compost and has planted several fall crops that she is looking forward to enjoying. Monique also has seeds at the ready for next spring.
Patti Koerner Habbyshaw planted shelling beans for the first time and learned that she should plant beans earlier in her zone, 6a. Still, she had a good harvest of heirloom Anasazi beans and a fair amount of cannellini beans. She planted 20 Anasazi beans from a 2-pound bag at a farmers market and yielded nearly 8 cups of dried beans. “I never thought of planting seeds from a bag of dried beans, but they grew and grew well!” she says.
Oak Cooper has a few years of conventional backyard gardening experience under his belt, and this year tried his hand at something new to him, Dutch bucket hydroponics. I had to look up what Dutch bucket hydroponics is, and found that it is a system for greenhouse or indoor growing that involves a series of buckets with special drаіn fіttіngs to mаіntаіn a rеѕеrvе оf nutrіеnts. You can quickly familiarize yourself by searching “Dutch bucket” on YouTube, where there are many videos explaining how they work.
Oak built his Dutch bucket setup from scratch and says it was an “overwhelming success,” yielding tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and cucumbers.
Dave Faoro grew ginger for the first time and says, “It turned out awesome! Absolutely a success which I hope to repeat in future years.” Ginger is an easy-to-grow root crop, though one that you rarely hear about. I commend Dave for giving it a try.
Mixing it up in the garden keeps it interesting. When I hosted “Fresh from the Garden” on DIY Network years ago, the reason we were able to create 52 unique episodes is because each featured a different crop. Prior to filming that show, I never grew sunchokes, ginger or watercress, and I was happy to expand my horizons.
If you want to give something new a shot, I recommended turning to “Veggie Garden Remix,” a book by my friend Niki Jabbour that opened my mind to crops that broke up my routine.
Linda Carreon Gluckman tried straw bale gardening and found success with tomatoes, squash and pumpkins. “The bales provided additional growing area outside of my raised beds and added some visual interest to my garden,” she says. “I live in North San Diego County and am still harvesting tomatoes!”
Linda also put two straw bales in her 89-year-old mother’s garden. Her mother was going to pass on gardening in 2020 because she is not as flexible as she once was, but the bales were the perfect height for her mother to tend to and enabled her to enjoy gardening again.
Bernadette Langbein experimented this year by using non-chemical controls for plant diseases. “We resisted the urge to break out chemicals,” she says. “We tossed a plant that was problematic and it most likely saved our other cukes by doing it quickly. We cut back tomato leaves showing distress. In other words, we stayed on top of problems as they developed.”
When we resort to chemicals as our knee-jerk reaction, it provides a false sense of security and makes us lazier gardeners. We don’t take the time to think of what we can do naturally to solve the problem and create a healthier environment in our garden. There may be some upfront benefits to chemicals — chemical pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides, for example — but there is also a ripple effect and consequences someplace else.
Many seed starting success stories came from members of my Master Seed Starting course discussion group. Seed starting allows you to get a head start on the growing season and to grow plants that are not readily available in your area.
Jeff Hays says his seed starts were incredible: “It’s amazing how good things can go when you understand the soil needs, lighting needs, water and nutrient needs, as well as how to harden off.”
Colette Maple has tried several times before to grow vegetables from seed but says the course brought her to the next level. She now plans to expand the area where she starts seeds indoors.
Tracy Moncrief Douthit similarly says Master Seed Starting took her to the next level: “I was WAY more successful.”
Jane Brewer adds, “I loved having the ability to grow varieties that weren’t available locally, as well as controlling their growing environment. I’ve gone from vegetable plants to flowers. The biggest challenge was stopping when I ran out of space, as it can be rather addicting!”
Shelley Stuewe started tomato seeds and planted 40 tomato plants outdoors. When the summer got hotter than usual, she covered the plants with a pop-up tent on hot days. This worked until high wind came and tore up the tent. Though the tomatoes took longer to ripen, she still got a good crop. She also says she let some bolted lettuce go to seed. She saved some seed, and other seed that she left behind self-seeded and started a new crop.
Vegetable Growing Wins
Dustin Hansen, a passionate gardener and great student in Master Seed Starting who I had the pleasure to meet earlier this year, had a very successful first ever planting of garlic. Dustin started with five heads of hardneck garlic from the farmers market and yielded 50 plants. Of those 50 bulbs of garlic, he saved enough to plant 150 cloves that will be ready to harvest next year. “I could not be more excited about this,” Dustin says. “The first step in self sustaining from the garden.”
Jeff Hays (who I also mentioned above) reports he grew more broccoli with larger and healthier heads than he has ever had in the past. “I also had my best sweet potato harvest, especially from my fabric grow bags, which killed it!” he adds.
Potatoes are a great crop for grow bags because, when it comes time to harvest, you don’t need to stick a garden fork in your garden to get the potatoes out (accidentally spearing one or two in the process). Instead, you simply empty out the entire grow bag.
Tim Eady says: “It was a banner year for eggplant for me. At one point, there were thirteen fruits on one plant!”
Eggplant can provide great results once you get past the difficult flea beetle stage early on. Then the only thing you have left to do is keep the plants supported so the stem doesn’t break under the weight of the fruit. Even if you don’t care for the flavor of eggplant, it is a beautiful plant to grow in your garden that is hardly right up until frost.
A few of you shared that you had great butternut squash and pumpkins. Rachel Hoff grew orange, white and green pumpkins of various shapes and sizes. Catherine Jacobs grew butternut squash and spaghetti squash for the first time, and Noreen Anderson grew honeynut squash from seed and yielded 22 squash in an 8-foot-by-4-foot bed with bamboo tripods as supports.
Noreen also had great success with parsley plants she bought and now continues to grow them indoors under grow lights in her garage. There are many plants that you can dig up before frost and bring indoors. Herbs are great for continued harvests all winter, and peppers can be cut back, allowed to go into dormancy, and then brought back outdoors in spring.
Melissa Galbreath was another butternut squash first-timer, and adds that though her tomato plants had many issues she still had a bumper crop of tomatoes because she learned in Master Seed Starting how to deal with those issues.
Doug Carder’s biggest accomplishment was continuing to improve his gardening skills in general. With his newfound knowledge, Doug increased his crop of cucumbers by moving them to get more sun, and saw his largest crop of hard neck garlic and tomatoes since he and his wife started gardening four years ago. His wife’s rose bush grew wonderfully as well.
Joey Pavlik found a winner this year in the Kozula 24 tomato. He grew a 50-inch-tall plant in a pot and harvested more than 30 tomatoes. “Outstanding, upfront, bold flavor,” he says. “My girlfriend told me I had to grow it again next season!”
I was unfamiliar with the Kozula 24 tomato, so I had to look up. I discovered it is ranked as one of the top five best tasting tomatoes of 2015. It is a robust-flavored tomato released by a Polish tomato breeder in 2010. Joey shared a photo of a Kozula 24 sliced in half, and I must say it is a beautiful tomato.
Tanja Smith typically buys tomato plants from a greenhouse for her garden, and they develop blossom end rot or just end up dying. But this year, Tanja decided to start tomatoes from seed. “I planted 18 of them hoping that at least one plant would make it,” she says. “Well, all of them made it, some of them over 8 feet tall, and gave me tomatoes galore.”
Flower Growing Wins
Laura J. Maestas grew “Grandpa Ott’s” morning glories and says they were “just glorious!” These morning glories are one of the seeds that inspired the creation of the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. The eponymous Grandpa Ott is the grandfather of Seed Savers Exchange co-founder Diane Ott Whealy, and the morning glories originated on Grandpa Ott’s 40-acre farm in St. Lucas, Iowa.
Mike Lizotte and Posy Magis-Syer both say they had gardening success with dahlias. Posy says this had started a love affair with flowers that fuels the soul.
Mike, who is the owner of American Meadows, points out that dahlias are easy and fun and provide big color. He also recalls the “mini meadow” in his front yard that I helped him expand last year for an episode of “Growing a Greener World.” He shares this recent photo of the meadow in its second year.
Andrea Miller “stole” a cutting of Plumeria from a friend in Florida two years ago and stuck it in soil. This year, the cutting bloomed — in Colorado, well out of Plumeria’s range. With the right soil, moisture, drainage and light (plus some patience ) plant propagation can be easier than many of us realize.
Maren Vance planted more flowers in her vegetable garden than ever before and she found that it attracted many beneficial insects. “Zinnias, marigolds, borage, nasturtiums, lavender and many others were a stunning contrast with my onions, grapes, broccoli, beans, kale, rainbow chard, asparagus …” she says. “So many textures and colors and all planted in a random yet planned way. It felt like a much needed oasis. This was the first year I grew purple basil and I was amazed at how ornamental it was. I’m definitely planting it all over my garden next year.”
Not only do flowers provide extra beauty to the garden, increased plant diversity provides a synergistic effect for a healthier, more bountiful garden. Flowers that continue to bloom into the fall provide food for pollinators, and the seed heads are food for birds.
CA Callahan realized the benefits of allowing native wood asters and goldenrod to grow around his property. “They are usually too weedy to tolerate, but I’d had so many contractors working out there this summer I had to give up on gardening,” he says. “And in the interim, these weedy plants grew tall and lush and were absolutely covered with bees for weeks. I’ve never seen so many bees in my garden. Next year, I must incorporate them into my gardening scheme. No more impatiently weeding them out for me.”
Nicol Claire Hammond reminds us that we need to find more whims. She shares: “On a whim, I planted a whole bunch of tulips around this time last year. I tend to focus on food and herbs, but this was pure indulgence, and come spring I was so glad I had. They were spectacular.”
A little effort in the fall, when it’s cool and you have some time to plant some things, leads to deferred gratification. The following spring, when you’ve nearly forgotten all about those bulbs, flowers spring up to add a wonderful burst of color to the garden.
Pest & Disease Wins
Leo Governale shares that he always thought the “ladybugs” on his lillies were from his green thumb. Turns out, they were lily-eating bugs — and they were everywhere. Leo used mechanical pest control. That is, he flicked the bugs off by hand into soapy water, and he scrapped the orange larvae off the leaves. “So this year, instead of getting two lillies on wiry leaf eaten stems, I got six flowers and sturdy stems,” Leo says.
Leo’s issues didn’t stop there. “My peach tree leaves were rusty looking and eaten,” he reports. The leaves had a fungal disease, which he controlled with organic copper fungicide.
“My success came from identifying abnormalities by paying attention and actively searching for issues in my gardens,” Leo says. “I had a blind eye with my garden … now, I see everything.”
Being proactive is so important. The more you can get out into your garden, the quicker you can identify changes and address problems.
Annie Stevens has fewer slugs this year, which is worth celebrating. “I put all of my petunias on plant stands and applied Sluggo at the right time to eliminate the majority of slugs,” she says, adding, “I had lots of bees and other pollinators, with a variety of birds.”
Sluggo is one of the brand names for iron phosphate, a snail and slug bait that is a safe, organic option. It is free of metaldehyde, which is toxic to pets and wildlife.
A Little Bit of Everything
Some gardeners had a grab bag of gardening successes that they took joy in.
Tricia Mae Chua grew plants from seed and gave winter sowing a shot in February, but that’s not all. She assembled her indoor growing stations with LED lights this fall, increased her worm bin capacity to 2,000 red wigglers, sourced free, safe, composted horse manure locally, and started a butterfly garden in her front yard.
Denise Reynolds nurtured seedlings in a greenhouse that her husband built. When her plans to have a plant sale were thwarted, a friend sold many of her extra seedings at a farm store and invited her to provide more seedlings next spring.
“I was able to bless many with even more seedlings that I just gave away,” she added. Looking ahead to next year, she’s planning on an even bigger greenhouse and maybe a high tunnel too.
Eric Collyer from San Diego, in zone 9b, made green pepper sauce using his home-grown peppers and a family recipe. “Goes great on tacos!” he notes. Eric’s dog is his garden helper and sometimes harvest stealer when he’s not paying attention. One particularly memorable moment this year was when a 3-foot-tall egret hid among his peppers plants.
Eric grew just four pounds of produce and not a single tomato last year at his new home. But in 2020, using the same growing space, he was harvesting nine pounds of tomatoes, four pounds of peppers, seven squash, and three pounds of beans per day at the height of the growing season. His garden became a source of free food for families in his community who had lost their jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eric learned that the biochar he used in his planting bed mix may have sucked up nutrients in its first year. But by the second year, as the compost in the mix continued to break down and release nutrients, the biochar got its fix, and his plants could enjoy the rest.
Biochar has been around for literally thousands of years. It’s carbon in its purest form, and it acts as a supercharger for soil productivity. It’s not a fertilizer, but it helps fertilizers work better by slowing the flow of nutrients. By preventing the nutrients from leaching, biochar keeps the nutrients bound up in the soil and ready for plant roots to take them up. It also helps soil retain water. If you want to learn all these is to know about biochar, you can listen to my interview with biochar expert Mirk Highland of Organic Mechanics.
Katie Kirkup had a great year for tomatoes, as many gardeners have reported, and she had some successful experiments too. She tried a new pruning routine on her tomato plants. Instead of pruning to just one or two main stems, Katie focused on just giving the plants the room they needed to grow upright without overlapping.
The year still had frustrations for Katie. Early on, a critter came through her garden and snapped the main stem off all of her tomato seedlings. Because she started her own tomato seeds, she had plenty of extra seedlings to replace them with, except for one variety named ponderosa pink. Having nothing to lose, she worked to save the ponderosa pink that the critter had damaged. She made a paper collar and a splint, and the plant went on to give her many tomato sandwiches all summer.
Garden as a Refuge
Many gardeners shared how their garden served as a refuge amid the coronavirus pandemic and social isolation. In fact, when season 11 of “Growing a Greener World” wraps in a couple of weeks, you’ll see videos of even more gardeners sharing how they used gardening for good in these difficult times.
Here is what a few listeners had to say about finding peace in their garden:
- Kathryn Reeves: “Our tiny garden was a wonderful refuge during social isolation. We were rewarded with wonderful lettuce, chard, kale, kohlrabi, sugar snap peas, cucumbers, bush beans, pole beans, golden summer squash, and butternut squash. We could have had more tomatoes and sweet peppers, but enjoyed and were grateful for what we had.”
- Susan Schoeler McKenna: “My garden was not lush or bountiful this year, but it was definitely a place of respite and refuge during the lockdown, and even now I can have friends over and we can keep our distance as we walk through the garden or sit on the patio. I don’t think I could have handled this year without it.”
- Anna Forbes: “Gardening is a new hobby for me (and my husband is hooked too!) We had lots of success with plants this year, but the best part of our garden was our nightly ritual of putting our baby and toddler to bed, pouring ourselves a glass of wine, and doing a weed walk around our house. We pulled weeds and made plans for our future gardens. Gardening is therapeutic — a way to feel calm in the midst of craziness and for us to connect and dream. So thankful for the joy that gardening brings!
- Laurey Ahonen: “This year the garden was the perfect therapy. The calm and quiet, the wonder of watching it all develop, the goodness of having time to think about solving problems that arose with a certain bed or plant. It was a respite.”
- Adrienne Veglia Mazeau: “I work on the COVID response for New York State. One night in late March I came home exhausted but determined to start my seeds. As a result of extreme neglect and working 7 days a week, they all died. Friends gave me seedlings, I direct sowed during a rare morning or two off and ended up with a beautiful lush garden that was my escape from the chaos when the summer months hit. I just picked the last of my tomatoes before the first snow this week. Gardening was my happy place during this challenging year!”
To round out this 2020 highlight reel, here are three final takeaways that serve as a reminder of why so many of us have fallen in love with gardening.
Walter Tom Fisher says his biggest gardening success this year was taking the Master Seed Starting course. “I’m glad I took the plunge,” he shares. “In the end, it made me reaffirm a core principle I’ve sometimes gotten away from: That knowledge is power. And this year I got some much needed knowledge.”
Walter says he’s never been short on effort, but this year he’s reaffirmed that “ready, aim, fire” is a better strategy than “fire, ready, aim.”
“I feel that the class has caused me to slow down, plan, think, observe, and look at cause and effect in a way I’d shunted at times in my gardening efforts,” he continues. “For every action, there is a reaction. Like my county agent chided me after bringing in a soil sample after a two-year struggle, ‘So you spent how much before spending $7 on a soil test?’”
Walter says he’s excited beyond words about what he’s learned this year and his resolve to apply it.
Diana Owens succeeded in never giving up. “I learned that despite any setbacks, planning for the next project always brings hope,” she says. “Time in the garden with my 6-year-old daughter was priceless. It is my happy place, no matter what. The endless life cycles seen in the garden are amazing.”
And, finally, Dawn Brown Fender said her biggest takeaway was not what came out of her garden, but what came out of gardening. She helped her daughter and granddaughters start their first garden at their home. She enjoyed every, “Mom, what do I do next?” text and weeding with her granddaughters as they explained what each plant was. “I guess my success was passing my love of gardening onto them,” Dawn says.
I hope that you find encouragement and inspiration in the stories fellow gardeners have shared. If you haven’t listened to this episode yet, you can do so by scrolling up the page and hitting the play button in the green bar.
What were your gardening successes in 2020? 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™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
“DIY Dutch Bucket Hydroponics” by Thomas Martins, Ph.D.
“Veggie Garden Remix” by Niki Jabbour
Wild Alaskan Seafood Box – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code “Joe” at checkout for two special bonuses just for our podcast listeners – 2 pounds of Dungeness crab with your first order and free scallops for the life of your subscription.
*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being 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: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Park Seed, Exmark, and Wild Alaskan Seafood Box. 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.