To mark the release of my new book, “The Vegetable Gardening Book,” which hit shelves on Tuesday, for the podcast this week we’re going to turn the tables: My friend and frequent podcast guest Meg Cowden of Seed to Fork is going to interview me.
When Meg pitched this idea to me, I agreed it would be a lot of fun. Meg is an organic gardener in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area in Minnesota, an expert on season extension practices and a gardening author herself. Other than me, Meg is the only other person out there to receive an advance copy of my book. She really did her homework and came into this interview well prepared with a list of questions. Meg says this is the first interview she’s ever conducted, which you would never know because she does a bang-up job.
The full title of the book is “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest.” If you pre-ordered the book by September 5, I’d like to send you a signed bookplate as a token of my thanks. Just go to joegardener.com/bookplate before September 15 to claim your free bookplate.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
Penning a New Gardening Book
I have written gardening books before, but it’s been quite some time. There’s “Over the Fence with Joe Gardener,” released in 2007, and “Green Gardener’s Guide: Simple, Significant Actions to Protect & Preserve Our Planet,” which followed a year later. I wasn’t actively considering writing another book, and each time my publisher, Cool Springs Press, asked, my standard answer was no. I have just become too busy between hosting and executive producing “Growing a Greener World,” making appearances and of course, putting together this weekly podcast. I love books and have a ton of them, but writing books just wasn’t my thing anymore.
Then my friend Jessica Walliser at Cool Springs Press reached out one day with a book in mind and said I was the only one she wanted to write it. I warned her that I would likely say no, but she could tell me what the idea was and I would think about it. Jessica revealed Cool Springs Press wanted an updated, complete book on vegetable gardening.
When she said that, I realized that they were either going to have me do it, or they were going to have somebody else do it. And if this book was going to be written, I needed to write it. I wanted my voice in that book to inspire people — especially the new gardeners — to know that growing food doesn’t have to be overwhelming. And while you’re doing it, you can create a lot of beauty with your vegetable garden by incorporating flowers that introduce biodiversity and make a difference to the environment you’re in. I wanted to encourage gardeners to do their little part in something we all need to do more of — to be better environmental stewards.
There was so much more to this opportunity than just teaching people how to grow food. Ultimately, I had a lot to say and submitted 12,000 more words than could make it into the book.
Though this book is more geared toward readers who are new at growing food, I incorporate information that will be new to even people who have been gardening for a really long time. This book is more than just the fundamentals of gardening and best practices. It contains the “why do” behind the “how to.” That is to say, I get into the science behind why certain gardening practices work so well. I do this in a way that’s tailored to beginners and lay-people, with no prior specialized knowledge or formal training required.
I hear from my Online Gardening Academy™ students all the time that they have learned something new from my courses even though they have been gardening for decades. Some have Master Gardener certification and still learn things for the first time from the courses. I brought that same depth of knowledge to this book because I want readers to be more than “cooks” following a recipe. I want them to become “chefs” who can work with all of the ingredients in the pantry. This book empowers readers to become smarter, better, more confident gardeners.
When I wrote the outline of how this book should flow, I didn’t spend a lot of time on it. In a matter of minutes, I worked through the progression of what gardeners should know. It came to me easily because I have been teaching people how to garden for over two decades.
Think Like a Plant
Meg shares one of her favorite quotes from chapter three: “Educating yourself as a gardener is a lifelong pursuit. There’s so much to learn about how to grow plants, but remember that it’s really the plants themselves that teach us how to grow them. The plants will tell you what they need to thrive. Oftentimes your most important job as the gardener is to learn how to listen to them. Don’t be afraid to turn off your own brain from time to time and just think like a plant.”
Meg says many gardeners tend to fret over plants because they are wired to live in a state of worry. Her question is, how do we let plants lead us?
There is a reason why we have two ears and only one mouth. We learn a lot more by listening than by talking. We also have two eyes, and when we observe plants and take notice of the subtle changes from day to day and the more dramatic changes over a few days or over a season, we can learn so much.
Being a gardener means putting on your detective hat from time to time and becoming Sherlock Holmes. By really paying attention to what’s happening and creating experiments, small or large, gardeners can gain a greater understanding of cause and effect firsthand.
Not everything gardeners try will work out as intended, but I don’t like to call less than successful endeavors “mistakes.” To me, these are learning opportunities that strengthen my ability to garden, to react to issues and know when to take action and when to step back and allow plants to do what they are going to do.
Planting starts with putting the right plant in the right place and providing it with the soil conditions it needs, because a plant can’t get up and move when it’s unhappy. Gardeners should investigate why it is struggling. That’s when we use our intellect and our observational skills to figure out how we can do things differently and how we can make it better.
Why Feeding Soil Makes a World of Difference
Soil is everything. There is a reason why there are soil scientists and many books strictly on soil. We know way more today than we did 10 or 20 years ago about soil, but we haven’t scratched the surface. It’s still the tip of the iceberg in terms of the way that plants and roots respond to the microbes in soil and the symbiotic relationship they share. It’s fascinating, and we’re just beginning to understand it.
Giving a plant a jolt of chemical fertilizer instead of planting it in healthy soil is like the difference between eating a sugary snack and having a balanced diet with lots of vegetables, fruit and nuts. Plants grown in soil that’s been fed plenty of compost and other organic matter will be healthier and more vigorous than plants that subsist on a junk food diet.
When soil is well amended and host to an abundance of beneficial microbes, it can provide nutrients to plants on demand, as needed. Alternatively, if all we do is pour salt-based synthetic fertilizers on soil, plants will be more dependent on us and won’t be as healthy.
A teaspoon of healthy soil contains more fungi and bacteria than there are people in the world. I know it’s hard to wrap your head around that, but that’s why it’s so important to appreciate and respect soil and your ability to help it thrive.
Getting the Timing Right & Reevaluating
In my book, I wrote that successful gardeners strive to coordinate their plans around the climatological cues of the season and the natural life cycle of the plants that they’re growing. This takes research and homework, a keen observational eye, and a whole lot of good old-fashioned firsthand experience. Lifelong growers find themselves reevaluating what they thought they knew as they continually work to get the timing just right.
Meg and I both like to pause and check in. It’s important to stop and reevaluate from time to time rather than just plow forward with plans made weeks or months earlier.
This year I have had to reevaluate many times because this has been the hottest season I’ve ever been through, and I hear the same from many of the student community in my Online Gardening Academy courses. This has been the first year in more than two decades of filming gardening TV shows outdoors that I’ve been uncomfortably hot in the garden — and I see my plants are responding negatively to the heat as well.
Pests have stuck around longer because of the heat, and some plants failed to pollinate. This summer has really made me question what changes I have to make in the future as heat and weather conditions continue to get worse. I need to determine whether to put plants out sooner or later so the heat doesn’t cause them to fail. I’ve never pondered so much about what next year is going to be like because this year was so alarmingly different than any other year for me.
Meg is reevaluating planting cucumbers and melons. She had a couple of years when her cucurbits were killed off by anthracnose or similar plant diseases and was discouraged. She was going to take this year off from planting cucurbits, but her husband talked her into it. It turns out the plants are now doing fabulously, without a cucumber beetle in sight. (She’s heard from other gardeners across the Midwest that cucumber beetles are bizarrely absent this year.) “It just goes to show that we are part of that pest pressure cycle,” she says.
As there were fewer pests around, there was also less fungal disease presence. Meg notes that for the first time last fall, she disinfected all of her garden structures with hydrogen peroxide, which she says could have also contributed to reduced disease pressure.
Gardening for Harmony
I don’t garden just to grow food. I garden because it completes me. It fills me in every way: intellectually, philosophically, physically. It puts me in awe every day.
I’m inspired by the variety from day to day. Knowing that each day out in the garden will be different than the last grounds me and helps put life in perspective. It reminds me that there’s something much bigger out there, and I’m not in control. As much as this control freak right here would like to think that he is — I’m not.
I apply that, consciously or subconsciously, to the rest of my life.
Must-Grow Crops and Can-Skip Crops
Something I grow every summer is edamame, commonly called soybeans. Once plants put on pods, they won’t continue to produce more as you pick, so you won’t get a huge harvest, but to me, they are worth the space in the garden. To have fresh edamame from your home garden is irreplaceable.
Onions and garlic are two more crops that I believe are too obvious, though Meg says more people are intimidated by these crops than I realize. What I love about them is that you can plant the, forget about them, and then when summertime rolls around you have these amazing bulbs that you can store.
Eggplant is a crop that I have always enjoyed growing for aesthetic value but never really enjoyed eating. Well, that changed this year when my farm manager, Toby, took home some eggplant from my garden and brought it back to me in the form of eggplant parmesan — and I was blown away.
Squash is a crop I think you can skip as a new gardener. Squash plants are sprawling and are susceptible to squash vine borer, squash bugs and a number of diseases. Not to mention the leaves and stems are prickly. It can be unpleasant to reach in to retrieve a squash, and then that squash will spend a long time sitting on a counter. I grow squash every year, but I also question whether I should continue.
I feel much the same way about cucumbers. They don’t do well where I grow, in Georgia, though this year, as Meg experienced, I had my best year ever with cucumbers. I say no more than ten plants are needed, while Meg says no more than three!
Beets are on my must-grow list because nothing tastes better than a home-grown beet. Then there’s okra, which is not on everyone’s list of favorite things to eat, but okra fresh right off the plant is on mine.
The most important thing is to grow what you love to eat. That will be the gateway to exploring and trying new things. You’ll get good at growing what you love, and then you’ll want to expand your palate and your horizons and step up to new challenges.
Living from Our Hearts
Meg poses an interesting and thoughtful question: How important is it for us in the gardening world to live from our hearts?
The question makes me reflect on the fact that gardeners are, essentially, nurturers. There is a reason why they call places that sell plants “nurseries.” Gardeners are taking care of living things that, on some level, are dependent on us. When we put a seed or plant in the ground, we’re taking ownership of that living organism and should feel responsible for it.
We anthropomorphize plants so much, and I believe it’s okay to do that. Their human-like traits may only be in our minds, but it’s the truth that they are alive and need certain things from us to thrive.
Sometimes I hear from folks that they went away for two weeks and when they came back, their plants didn’t skip a beat. I am aware that plants know what they need to do, but I still enjoy the daily interaction, even if I’m just out there pulling weeds.
Gardening is like any other activity: To get to the 70% that you enjoy, you have to put up with the other 30% (the dirty 30) that you don’t enjoy. In this book and always, I encourage new gardeners to pace themselves so they don’t become overwhelmed. Starting small helps keep that enjoyable 70% in perspective.
The biggest takeaway I want gardeners to have from this book is the joy that I find in gardening, beyond just the physical act of planting and growing. It’s the opportunity to be an environmental steward, promote biodiversity and healthy habitats, and do our part to support pollinators and other wildlife in this age of urban sprawl and climate change.
Gardeners, we add up. We’re millions and millions strong, and if we all do something, our collective efforts are going to make a difference.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Meg Cowden on “The Vegetable Gardening Book.” If you haven’t listened yet, 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’s the most important thing new gardeners should know in your view? 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 membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the waitlist here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
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 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.
Seed to Fork blog
“Over the Fence with Joe Gardener” by Joe Lamp’l
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: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, National Wildlife Federation and TerraThrive. 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.