As the year winds up, I like to pause and reflect on the valuable lessons that I learned over the past gardening season. These are my top gardening takeaways of 2023.
Joining me this week is my Director of Marketing and Communications at Agrivana℠ Media, Amy Prentice, and you’ll also hear from Tobi McDaniel, the garden manager of my five-acre GardenFarm™. As avid gardeners themselves who are also tuned into the goings-on in my gardens, they have their own insights and takeaways to share.
Every year in the garden has its surprises, wins and challenges. 2023 was an especially educational year for me as I learned the ins-and-outs of greenhouse ownership and also expanded my garden with new flower beds. My garden is always evolving, and I’m always trying new things. It’s what makes gardening so exciting for me.
The Greenhouse Learning Curve
I kicked off 2023 with a new greenhouse — my first. Having never had a greenhouse before, I faced a bit of a learning curve. A greenhouse is a whole new world with a life of its own.
One of the reasons a greenhouse is so advantageous is that it’s much warmer during the day. But what I don’t see enough people talking about is what happens at nighttime.
When you step into a greenhouse from outside during the day, it’s like slipping into a warm bath. The greenhouse traps so much heat from solar activity during the daytime. But at night, that heat is not retained unless the greenhouse is super-insulated.
Realizing that the nighttime temperatures in a greenhouse are barely warmer than the outdoor temperatures — that’s an “aha” moment. So I worked to insulate my greenhouse by adding skirting around the base of the greenhouse where cool air was coming in from the sides and up through the floor. Then I insulated the side panels with pink foam insulation. On top of the insulation, I put some oil-filled electric heaters in the greenhouse, plus a thermostatically controlled heater as backup, plus two propane heaters in case the power goes out when I have 3,000 seedlings in my greenhouse and the temperature outside has plunged.
As a private pilot, one of the things you learn is redundancy and how important that can be. You need a backup plan. The same applies to operating a greenhouse.
Also this January, I had a carpenter friend build new beds around the perimeter of my vegetable garden specifically to add flowers.
We filled the beds with Soil3 and then added lots of flowers. Oh, what a difference this made. In terms of the presence of beneficial insects in my garden, it’s been unbelievable compared to previous years.
My whole five acres was already wildlife friendly. We don’t spray or use any chemicals, so we have plenty of pollinator activity. But this year, when we added certain flowers to the garden to attract pollinators, it really ramped things up.
While working in the garden, Tobi and I often stopped what we were doing to remark on how different the garden felt. It’s a testament to the difference the flowers made to draw in pollinators and other beneficial insects. Not to mention it enhanced the beauty of the garden and its abundance.
Amy too has noticed how my garden has evolved over the years from something more formal, with clean lines, to something more wild and more beautiful. I am symmetrically inclined, but I have loosened the reins, which feels good. I am casual in my everyday life — I prefer jeans and a T-shirt to a suit and tie — and that is finally showing itself in my garden.
In addition to the perimeter flower beds, I have interplanted my vegetable beds with marigolds and nasturtiums to attract beneficial insects.
With the help of smartphone apps, I was able to identify a number of the insects that visited my garden that I was previously unfamiliar with. Google Lens, iNaturalist and Picture Insect are all good apps to identify insects in photos, as well as birds and other wildlife.
Amy successfully used Merlin this year. This app by CornellLab identifies birds by their songs. She leaves her phone out on the edge of her garden bed, hits record and just lets it collect the sounds.
“It just opened up a whole other world because I never noticed how many birds were in and around my garden,” Amy says. It was an eye-opener that revealed there are more bird species around you than you know.
The app had “bird packs” to download based on where you live. These packs include photos and birdsong for the birds in your region.
One day my Merlin app was running when I heard a bird sound I didn’t recognize and was really curious about. The app revealed it was a yellow-billed cuckoo, a bird that is not uncommon in the eastern United States but is rarely seen. They don’t make their presence known other than their song.
A Space for Acclimating Plants
When you have plants that you don’t want to leave in the shade but aren’t ready for full sun either, it can be hard to find an appropriate place to put them. This spring, I found a solution.
I came across a photo of a portable carport — a frame with a tarp over the top. I thought that is exactly what I need, but rather than put a tarp over it, I used a 50% shade cloth secured with zip ties. I am planning to upgrade to heavier steel and have three of these for a shade nursery. I can also dial up the shade with 70% or 90% shade cloth.
Squash Vine Borer Timing
Amy has always struggled to grow squash because of the dreaded squash vine borer. In 2023, she delayed planting time until after the squash vine borer’s season. By timing the planting after the squash vine borer’s annual life cycle was complete, she avoided this devastating pest.
She also used physical barriers, namely floating row cover, to prevent insects from laying their eggs on her plants. However, the row cover needed to be removed in the morning so pollinators could get in to pollinate the squash flowers — and she could never get out there early enough to uncover the plants before the flowers closed up.
Amy did see some juvenile squash bugs that she swiftly took care of, and went on to have a successful season for squash. She grew Butter Baby butternut squash and a long gourd-type squash called North Georgia Candy Roaster. Both were winners in Amy’s book.
The issue with planting squash later in the season is there may still be fruit on the vines when the frost comes. Around Halloween, frost killed Amy’s plants, and there were still lots of young fruit on the vines.
“That was kind of a heartbreaker, but it was just like a lesson learned that even though it’s super hot and miserable, I need to get my squash in a little bit earlier and try to time it both for the insects and for the weather,” Amy says.
The delayed timing technique works better when growing summer squash rather than winter squash because summer squash has a shorter days-to-maturity timespan. Another technique to try is hand pollination to ensure female squash flowers will yield fruit.
Potatoes in Grow Bags
I usually plant potatoes in grow bags inside my vegetable garden, but now that I have a greenhouse, I have a blank wall on the south side of my greenhouse that was just begging to have something grown there. I decided to put 16 large grow bags there, fill them with good soil and plant potatoes.
The potatoes grew incredibly and made for a great harvest. However, early on I had a realization that I was growing my potatoes right out in deer country, with no fence to keep deer out. So I added garlic and onions to the grow bags, knowing that deer don’t like the pungency of Alliums. Later in the season, after that pungency had worn off, deer generously browsed the tops of my potato plants — despite the solanaceous leaves being toxic.
I harvested the tubers as the foliage died back, but I didn’t get to them all. By Thanksgiving time, the foliage had well died back and a new flush of growth appeared, coming from the unharvested tubers. Then this month, I turned over a grow bag and found it was full of new potatoes — a double bounty — and they were delicious.
Deer and Rabbit Pressure
Not all garden pests are insects. Mammals can be particularly troublesome, doing great damage in a short time. While I deal with deer, Amy deals with rabbits.
“We have extreme bunny pressure in our backyard,” Amy says.
Not only do the rabbits like to get into Amy’s garden beds and eat the greens, but they also make their nests in the beds.
Amy finds that when she plants spinach in her garden beds, the rabbits just wipe it out. It starts to grow back, and they come and eat it all again. The same happens with chard and lettuce. However, when she plants these crops in whiskey barrels, which are much taller than the beds, the rabbits can’t get to them.
A raised bed is typically 10 or 12 inches tall, which is easy for a rabbit to hop up into. A whiskey barrel is tall enough to exclude rabbits.
Using All Parts of the Harvest
Amy grows a lot of vegetables and herbs to preserve, whether by drying, freezing, pickling or making her own spices.
“I try to come up with something new every year. And this year for me it was using up the onion greens,” Amy says.
Amy had a bed of onions, which grew green and robust foliage. In fact, the foliage could grow so robust that the bulbs would be uprooted out of the soil. So Amy cuts the onion greens to add to salads. However, she had so many onion greens she couldn’t use them all immediately. She decided to dehydrate the greens and then grind them up into an onion powder for her spice collection. The powder was flavorful, bright and vibrant green.
“It was just like one of our favorite things that I grew and preserved in my little spice collection this year,” she said.
Cutting the greens from onion bulbs you intend to harvest later has mixed reviews. Amy’s mother would tell her how her grandfather would step on and mash down the foliage to encourage energy to go toward the bulb. But other gardeners suggest the bulb needs the foliage to collect solar energy.
Amy did her own experiment. The rule when harvesting herbs is to take no more than a third of the plant when harvesting, so she only cut the top third of the onion greens from three rows of onions. For the fourth row, she didn’t cut the greens at all and just let them grow. In the end, she didn’t notice a difference in the size of the bulbs.
Be Careful of Where and What You Clean Up
Around my greenhouse where I placed the grow bags, I allowed weeds to grow freely. They were in a spot where they didn’t bother me or my crops or lawn, so I let them do their thing. But one day I decided they were getting to be a bit too much. And as much as I love to hand weed, on this particular day I used a string trimmer.
I was conscious to avoid hitting wildlife with the string trimmer. Before I got started, I inspected, pulling the weeds back. And I’m glad I did. Hidden among the weeds was a box turtle. Had I used my string trimmer without checking, it could have been disastrous for that turtle and devastating for me.
Amy frequently finds toads and leopard frogs around her grow bags. Wildlife must enjoy the moist environment that the grow bags provide.
Whenever you are going into any area with a trimmer, mower, edger or another piece of power equipment, always check for wildlife first — before it’s too late.
Leave the Leaves
I am a big fan of using organic mulch in my gardens, especially leaf mulch. In fact, I collect bagged leaves from my neighbors. We don’t have a composting facility nearby that takes leaves, so when I see leaves left out by the curb, I know their destination is the landfill. I take the bags to my property to save them from this fate, and I empty about 75% of them into my various garden beds. The other 25% I put through a shredder to be used in my vegetable beds or wherever I’m using shredded leaf mulch.
Knowing what I now know about the amount of wildlife that overwinters in fallen leaves, I am leaning toward shredding even fewer leaves than I have before. Insects need leaves for habitat to live out the winter so they can emerge in spring and continue doing what they do — pollinating, becoming food sources for birds, and eating garden pests, to give a few examples.
This year, my farm manager Tobi collected bagged leaves from her subdivision neighbors and borrowed an old leaf shredder from me. However, she has an eagle eye, and when she looked into the top of the bags she spotted adult lady beetles, lady beetle larvae and lacewing eggs.
Tobi began taking individual lady beetle larvae off the leaves and putting them in a safe place in her flower bed, but she soon realized the leaves were loaded with lady beetles at different life stages. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this shredding thing’s not going to happen,’” Tobi says.
Amy’s husband picked up a leaf just the other day and found a fritillary butterfly chrysalis attached to it. It’s amazing what you notice in your garden when you’re attuned to it.
Fall is my favorite gardening season because disease and pest pressure are reduced and it’s more comfortable working outside. Working on my Online Gardening Academy™ Organic Vegetable Gardening course this year inspired Amy to try a fall garden again and plant cool-season crops.
Amy noticed that after many pests have moved on, cabbage worms and army worms remain in the fall. “A lot of your challenges from summer gardening are gone, but you still have some things you got to keep an eye out for in the fall garden,” she said. “So broccoli taught me patience because I have big, gorgeous, beautiful broccoli plants, and I didn’t think they were ever going to head up. But they finally did, and I’m still harvesting amazing, wonderful, beautiful heads of broccoli.”
Brassicas taught her resilience because they were hit so hard by caterpillars. In fact, the kale was completely skeletonized. “I actually called them kale-etons — kale skeletons,” she says. But the kale grew back once the caterpillars were gone.
Resilience also came in the form of resilience from heavy frosts. A bad frost at the end of October had her concerned that she lost her giant red mustard, but despite some damage and lost leaves, it has grown back and she is still harvesting new leaves for salads almost every day. She continues to harvest cabbage, chard, spinach and lettuce as well in early December in Oklahoma.
My friend Peggy Anne Montgomery challenged me to install a bulb lawn, and I took her up on that challenge. She and her husband, Dan, had started a bulb lawn the previous year, using a bulb auger to create holes in their fescue lawn to plant daffodils and other single-flowering early spring blooming bulbs. The whole point was to attract pollinators that are emerging at that time of year when there aren’t many pollen sources available because not many flowers are in bloom.
I wanted the lawn space in my landscape to be utilitarian for beneficial insects rather than just a green monocrop of turfgrass. A bulb lawn allowed me to accomplish this.
We ended up getting 3,000 bulbs and planting them over the course of two weeks in front of my greenhouse. This coming spring I’ll have a beautiful early-spring-flowering bulb lawn. The bulbs will naturalize over time and multiply, enhancing the density and beauty of the bulb lawn.
While I was at it, I decided to plant out my woodland garden too with Spanish bluebells and snowdrops.
For all of my bulb planting, I chose flowers that are deer resistant. Deer love tulips and crocuses, but they hate daffodils, for example. So far, so good. The deer have not dug up my bulbs.
Soaking Garlic Cloves
I plant garlic every year in late November. Then just this week I saw a post from Keene Garlic about soaking cloves in a disinfectant and then liquid fertilizer prior to planting. Soaking the garlic can ward off diseases such as the harmful bacteria that inherently live on garlic.
I’ve never soaked or treated my bulbs before and have always had a good harvest, but this extra level of insurance appealed to me, and it is easy to do. The process starts by soaking the garlic bulbs in hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol or vodka for 10-15 minutes. Next, I soaked the bulbs in fish emulsion overnight diluted to the specifications on the bottle — a tablespoon per gallon of water. And then I planted them.
I wanted to know if this process actually makes a difference, so I set aside cloves that I did not treat or soak in fertilizer. I planted them at the same time as the soaked cloves, and a week later I checked to see if the soaked bulbs had greater root development. Well, they did have significantly bigger roots as well as shoots that were quite tall compared to the shoots that were just starting to form on the unsoaked cloves.
If you haven’t listened to my 2023 top gardening takeaways, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
What are your gardening takeaways from 2023? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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