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176-Always Learning: 10 Lessons the Garden Has Taught Us in 2020, with Meg Cowden

| Grow, Podcast

The most satisfying triumphs in the garden are built on experimentation and, yes, what many call failures, but what I always call learning opportunities. We’re always learning, no matter how long we’ve been gardening. Perhaps no one I know pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in the garden further than veteran gardener, Meg Cowden of the blog Seed to Fork, so I invited her on the podcast this week to find out what lessons the garden has taught her in 2020. 

Meg is an organic gardener who lives and grows in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area in Minnesota, and she shares her gardening journey on her blog and on Instagram. Starting seeds indoors very early and using low tunnels, Meg begins her annual garden months before many of us even think to get started. She also defies the conventional wisdom on what can be grown in her zone — USDA hardiness zone 4b, where air temperatures dip to -25°F and snow in April is common. She says challenging yourself to see what you can get to grow is such a joy.

 

Meg Cowden

Meg’s garlic harvest was 1-2 weeks earlier this year due to drier and hotter weather. Meg grows Music and German Red garlic. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Meg considers her garden a sanctuary, and in 2020 that’s been truer than ever. She said the more she gardens, the more her appreciation and reverence grows toward the natural world and its resilience. Gardening has also taught her to be more resilient herself.

Lesson #1: Cut Your Losses

Meg’s plans for a productive vertical garden this year were dashed when her cucumbers growing on a brand new trellis got anthracnose — a fungal disease that affects cucurbits, tomatoes and trees. She also trialed two new pole bean varieties this year, and she gave both a thumbs down and yanked them early. 

Meg had wanted her cucumber and bean trellises to create visual interest in the garden, but she had to let that idea go and cut her losses. As she puts it, she had a vision, and her garden had other plans. 

 

Bowl of green beans and tomatoes

Meg says it took a few sowings to get green beans at this plentitude. Her first sowings weren’t productive, but this harvest was her biggest of the season and was taken from another round of beans that were a second succession planting. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Rather than leaving failing plants in the garden in hopes that they will turn around, Meg has embraced change. She suggests asking yourself, what could I gain out of that space? She has found that planting something new in place of something disappointing is the more fulfilling path.

She also realized that every day that she left diseased cucumber plants in place, more fungal spores were accumulating in her garden, endangering the following year’s crop. As hard as it is to pull plants that may still produce something, it can be the best choice.

Letting go is an opportunity to renew, Meg says. It’s not a loss — it’s a gain.

 

Garden rows with vegetables

Where cucumbers and pole beans once grew, Meg pulled them out and reset with napa cabbage, beets, and kohlrabi in mid-August. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Lesson #2: Don’t Waste Space on What You Won’t Eat

Meg makes room in her garden for just one summer squash plant a season because it will produce as much as her family will eat. If it fails — as was the case this year due to squash vine borer — she will plant another, but she won’t grow two at the same time.

And then there are tomatillos, which Meg says she always intends on making salsa verde with, but instead ends up with 99 percent of the plant ending up as compost. 

What she’s learned is that if a vegetable isn’t exciting enough to motivate you to get into the kitchen, don’t grow it. The effort and space it took up could be dedicated to another crop that she knows she and her family will enjoy.

 

Cole slaw

Asian-fusion cole slaw is a summer favorite for Meg’s family (and Joe Lamp’l). Her recipe can be found on the Seed to Fork blog. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Lesson #3: Stick with Tried and True Rather Than Shiny And New

Meg is always trialing new varieties of vegetables and detailing her experience on her blog. One thing she keeps finding is that some tomato varieties that may succeed elsewhere are very disease-prone in the wet climate where she lives. She attributes this to the tomatoes being bred in dry climates where they will be more resilient to diseases such as tomato anthracnose.

For instance, while she loved the Black Beauty tomato — a black-shouldered tomato with a burgundy color — it got anthracnose in her garden. However, even a disease-resistant tomato can be a disappointment if it doesn’t have the flavor you desire.

Though Meg loves Brandywine, an heirloom beefsteak-shaped tomato, in general, she is not a fan of slicing tomatoes. She often finds the big slicers to be watery and lacking in flavor.  (As our friend and tomato expert Craig LeHoullier has told us, tomato flavor is in the DNA, and will not be affected or diluted by overwatering.)

Of course, personal preference comes into play. While the showy Costoluto Genovese tomato did not deliver the flavor profile that I was expecting, it is a slicer that Meg actually does like.

Embracing a tomato you love to eat can lead to more satisfaction than exploring every cultivar of tomato there is — a list that grows every year as new varieties are introduced. Meg asks: “At what point can I just say I’ve explored enough? My life is going to be okay, and it will still be fulfilling if I don’t try any more tomatoes.”

 

Bell pepper

Meg had great success with bell peppers this year. She says that this variety, called Sprinter, is as delicious as it is beautiful. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Lesson #4: Determinates Are a Canner’s Friend

Last year, Meg grew all indeterminate tomatoes, but out of 30 plants she only canned about 8 pints of sauce and 8 pints of salsa. This year, she pivoted to determinate tomatoes. With just 14 plants, she canned 50 pints of tomatoes. 

As you may or may not know, indeterminate tomato plants will keep growing and keep producing until the first frost kills them off. Determinate tomato plants get to a certain size, produce all of their fruit in about 10 days, and then they are done for the season. 

Determinate tomatoes hold up better for canning because they contain less water, among other beneficial attributes for canning. And from a timing standpoint, it’s more efficient to can many tomatoes at once rather than canning an ongoing trickle of ripe tomatoes. 

 

Bowl of tomatoes

Meg’s determinate tomato bed with 14 plants yielded over 130 pounds of tomatoes. At some point during those frenzied August weeks, she lost track of the harvest weights. Saucing tomatoes such as Plum Perfect, Italian Roma, and Paisano made for a delicious sauce. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Lesson #5: The Benefits of Starting Tomatoes a Little Later

Another big “aha!” moment for Meg came about because she wanted her determinate tomatoes to be ready for harvest at back-to-school time. While she had begun seed-starting indeterminates indoors in the middle of February, she waited until April 1 (six weeks before her local last frost date) to start determinate tomato seeds. 

Because she waited to start the determinates, they did not grow large indoors, so she did not have to pot them up twice. Not only did this mean less work for Meg, it also left her with more available space under her grow lights. There’s a lot to be said for plants that have a smaller footprint indoors and take less time and effort.

The cherry tomatoes cropped first in June, followed by the slicing tomatoes by the middle of July, and the determinate canning tomatoes in August. Next year, she also wants to start some cherry and slicer tomatoes later, so they will be younger and more vigorous — to hold out against disease pressure — and will start cropping later.  

 

Varieties of tomatoes

This year Meg had her largest tomato garden success. Here is one of her early August tomato harvests that she says was heavy on cherry tomatoes and plump with saucing tomatoes. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Lesson #6: Water Stress May Lead to More Disease Pressure

Meg also noted that her tomato plants that were most affected by disease were the plants that received the least supplemental watering. That water stress may have left them more vulnerable. 

The jury is still out on this one but the point is, after decades of gardening, this is a new lesson that just presented itself to Meg, maybe. It’s got her attention, and now she’ll be watching to see in subsequent years if this holds true. 

 

Monarchs on meadow blazing start

The main arbor in Meg’s garden looks quite light this year compared to last season. The best theory of Meg’s is that it’s due to the drought and high heat. At least the monarchs didn’t seem to mind, feeding happily on the meadow blazing star. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Lesson #7: Starting Early Has Its Rewards

For Meg, the best period to extend her short growing season has proven to be at the beginning — a time of expansion. This starts with very early varieties of brassicas (the genus that includes cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, kohlrabi and turnips) that she gets in the ground shortly after the spring equinox. 

Then, to make the most out of fall, six weeks before her first frost date Meg identifies what square footage is available to grow frost-hardy crops, like carrots, garlic, leeks and onions. Plants that have stopped producing or become overwhelmed by disease can be removed to make more room.

Lesson #8: Death Gives New Life in the Garden

In order to have a fruitful garden, gardeners have to be willing to turn over spaces as needed, Meg says, and they should know that death is an integral part of a garden. Meg says death is what a garden grows on — compost and leaf mold sustain life. 

 

Aerial garden view

A bird’s-eye view of Meg Cowden’s garden. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

Lesson #9: Plant a Diverse Garden to Reduce Pest & Disease Pressure and Expand Your Harvest

Broad plant diversity in the garden can help thwart disease and pest pressure and it also means there’s almost always something to harvest. Meg says plant diversity is one of her best strategies in the garden. Even when some plants are affected by pests and diseases, she still has baskets of food to feed her family. 

Different vegetables and different varieties of the same vegetable are ready to harvest at different times, so there is always something in Meg’s garden that’s producing.

Lesson #10: As Your Garden Grows, You Grow Too 

Meg says as your garden grows, you will grow to: your culinary skills, your flexibility, and your resilience to disappointment.  

 

Garbanzo bean plant

Every year Meg tries new varieties of a favorite vegetable. These are desi-type, 90-day garbanzo beans that make petite, pink flowers and are done in time to grow more food before the first hard freeze. Meg says this is a win-win, but the productivity of the planting is still to be determined. (photo: © Meg Cowden)

 

If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Meg Cowden, you can do so by scrolling up the page and clicking the green Play button in the green bar.

What lessons have you learned from your garden in 2020? Share with others in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 045: Succession Planting: Practical Tips For Growing More Food, with Meg Cowden

Episode 169: Your Biggest Garden Challenges of Summer, 2020

joegardener Blog: Squash Vine Borer Prevention & Control

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.

joegardenerTV YouTube

joegardener Newsletter

joegardener Facebook

joegardener Facebook Group

joegardener Instagram

joegardener Pinterest

joegardener Twitter

Growing a Greener World® 

GGWTV YouTube

GGW Episode 1012: From Seed to Fork: Growing an Abundant and Beautiful Cold-Climate Garden 

Seed to Fork blog

Seed to Fork Instagram

Meg Cowden Planting Guide (using garden hoops)

Meg Cowden Planting Guide (no hoops required)

Rain Bird® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com

Park Seed® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Use code Joe20 for 20% off your next order

*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, and Exmark. 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.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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