When a new year begins, I like to reflect on the year that was in my garden: the wins, the challenges, the memorable moments, the teachable moments and the lessons learned. Since we’re all in this together and learning from each other, this week I am sharing top takeaways from 2022 in hopes you can benefit from my experiences and apply that information in your own garden.
I am a firm believer that no matter how much you know about gardening, there is always more to learn. That’s why I enjoy tuning in when other gardeners talk about their growing seasons and what transpired — the good and the not so good. Everyone who gardens has valuable things to share, and when we lend them our ears and really listen, it makes us better gardeners.
For a number of reasons, 2022 was a great year for me in the garden. The No. 1 reason is I was out in the garden more often than I have been in several years. I was able to spend more time in the garden than my schedule normally allows because we devoted much of the year to filming content for the next new course in the Online Gardening Academy™, which will be titled Organic Vegetable Gardening.
To prepare the course material and video lessons, the plan was to grow in my garden all the top warm- and cool-season crops — the most common ones that people are likely to grow in their own vegetable gardens. This required my full-time attention, which was great. No complaints there.
My crew joined me to document the growing season and film it and to talk about things in real time as we came upon them, from seed to harvest. If you’d like a sneak peek, you can check out the promo video for the course. It will give you a good idea of what to expect from the course and tell you a bit more about me and my approach to teaching gardening skills.
No doubt, because I was in the garden so much and giving it a lot of attention, it was one of the best garden years I’ve ever had as far as productivity and health. I know I got these great results because I was present. There’s an old adage that says “the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow,” and that proved true last year.
While you’re here, I want to take a second to remind you that I have a new book out, “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest.” It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
Lesson #1: Fulfilling My Greenhouse Dream
For many years, I have wanted a greenhouse. When I decided to finally go ahead and pull the trigger, I found that getting approval for adding one to my property was more difficult than I could have imagined. Fortunately, I was finally able to get it done just before year’s end, but it was a lesson learned for sure.
If you are considering getting a greenhouse, here are some things you should know:
If you are in an area with subdivision requirements, homeowners association rules or city zoning provisions, be conscious of setback requirements. A setback is a specific minimum distance from the property line that must be adhered to when building or placing a structure on a property, be it a house, garage, shed or greenhouse. Maybe I should have been aware of this, but that was the first time I have ever done anything like this, and I imagine I am like most people, who don’t find out what the rules are until it’s too late.
I had my greenhouse all picked out and meticulously determined where it needed to be sited on my property. I have 5 acres, but half is dedicated to pasture for my animals and the other half has heavy tree canopies in many areas. I was really left with only one viable spot for the greenhouse.
Before I got my permit approved, I heard from the concrete company I had inquired with about pouring a concrete pad for the greenhouse. They told me they were super backed up, and if they didn’t pour the pad the next business day, I would be in for a long wait.
I told the concrete company to go ahead and pour the slab, and all was well until two days later when I got a response to my permit request. That’s when I learned the greenhouse I proposed — and the slab that had already been poured — was required to be 50 feet away from the property line. Well, my pad was inside the setback area.
It took the better part of the year, and many letters from my neighbors, to get the greenhouse approved inside the setback. You can imagine the red tape. It was a real hassle that could have been avoided. I encourage you to do your homework to save yourself the time and heartache. If you do as I say and not as I did, you’ll thank yourself for planning ahead.
Lesson #2: Adopting Winter Sowing
I have done two episodes of the podcast on the subject of winter sowing, one explaining Trudy Davidoff’s plastic milk jug method and the second with Heather McCargo, the executive director of the Wild Seed Project, explaining how to easily sow native seeds. This past year was the first time I gave winter sowing a try.
I used the method Heather endorses. She uses open-cell trays filled with coarse, well-draining soil and sprinkled with native seeds. She sets the trays outdoors and covers them with hardware cloth to keep critters from devouring the seeds. She germinates thousands of native perennial seeds annually this way.
I left my trays outdoors and basically forgot about them, only checking in periodically. Lo and behold, a few months later, after the seeds experienced a few months of winter and cold stratification, they germinated. I was amazed by the high rate of germination especially when considering how little work and maintenance was required.
“Let’s face it, those seeds are pre-programmed to do what they do, and the main thing they need to do first is germinate. Just give them a decent environment and they do it.
If you’ve never tried winter sowing before, whether using the milk jug method or this process, you should give it a go. You can check out the conversation I had with Heather McCargo and look at the show notes on the step-by-step process and the pictures that go along with it.
Lesson #3: Windows Are Narrow and Timing Is Important
The window of opportunity to sow your seeds or plant your seedlings is limited. You need to be paying attention to soil and air temperatures, or you could miss it.
If you want to grow cool-season crops, your chances to get them in the ground are in early spring and the start of fall. And you need to start the seeds even sooner.
Where I live, in zone 7b, the time to start my brassica seeds, such as broccoli and cabbage, is now if I want a spring crop. The trick is to determine when it will be safe to transplant your seedlings outdoors, and work backward. The seeds should be started indoors six to eight weeks before you intend to plant out the seedlings. If you wait too long, the weather will be too hot at the time the cool-season crops should be reaching maturity for harvest.
Last year, I missed my spring window for my favorite crops, such as snap peas, because I just got too busy filming the new course. To avoid your seed-starting window creeping up on you, plan ahead. In fact, if you haven’t ordered your seeds yet, I encourage you to stop reading right now and get that done. I’ll be here when you get back.
Likewise, if you wait too long to plant your fall crop, the plants will run out of time to mature before it gets too cold. When cool-season crops are young, they can take the heat of August, and they can take a few frosty nights come fall and winter and will become sweeter as a result of exposure to the cold. However, when it gets too cold, the plants will die and you will have nothing to show for all your hard work.
An arctic freeze came through the South over Christmastime, with temperatures plummeting to single digits. I was out of town so I didn’t have the chance to harvest everything I could before the deep freeze. When I got home, everything was mush. Single digits is just too cold, even for brassicas under frost blankets.
Lesson #4: The Power of the Livestock Panel
Livestock panels are incredibly versatile and handy for so many things in the garden, like my Ultimate Tomato Cage. I’ve even done a podcast episode dedicated to 10 different garden uses for livestock panels.
This past year, I used livestock panels in a way I had never tried before. I did this after finding myself in a jam. I was counting on having the greenhouse available in April to protect the 3,500 seedlings I was raising for my annual seedling sale. Because my greenhouse couldn’t be installed when I had been expecting it, I had to find an alternative. So I made a hoop house out of livestock panels where the seedlings could survive cold April nights.
The makeshift hoop house was a lifesaver for me. Three or four 16-foot livestock panels shaped into U’s and covered in plastic make a great hoop house or high tunnel. I also applied a couple of layers of floating row cover for extra protection.
Once I no longer needed the hoop house, I disassembled it and put the livestock panels aside for the next time I have a need for them. They will last forever, which is another thing to love about them.
Lesson #5: Grow Bags and Straw Bales to the Rescue
I have 16 big raised beds that I have been growing in for 10 years now. I have to be conscious of the fact that soil pathogens will build up in soil if the same family of crops is grown in beds over and over again.
For example, I love growing tomatoes. Eggplants, peppers and potatoes are in the same family (nightshades) and are affected by the same plant diseases. What I should do is rotate in other crop families for a few years before planting nightshades again. Though I know that crop rotation is what needs to be done to avoid having soil-borne diseases attack my plants, I don’t practice rotation as much as I preach it.
It’s caught up with me, so now I am giving those beds a break from nightshades to hopefully starve out those soil-borne pathogens that need nightshades to proliferate.
However, I still wanted to grow my tomatoes and other nightshades. I needed to find alternative growing areas. That’s where grow bags came in. They are affordable and sturdy and make it easy to find new garden space. I used 7-gallon grow bags and had great success. The key is having great soil. I filled my grow bags with Soil3, a humus-rich soil that’s available in the Southeast.
The other option is straw bales — but not hay bales. Straw is far less likely to contain the persistent herbicides that are occasionally found in hay. Straw bales can be found at box stores or nurseries in the $5 to $7 range.
Straw bales do need to be prepared for planting starting 15 to 20 days before putting seedlings in them. The bales require some treatment with nitrogen fertilizer or compost to soften them up and make them more soil-like where the roots are going to grow.
Any of your edible crops will grow well in straw bales. My friend and frequent podcast guest Craig LeHoullier, the author of “Epic Tomatoes” and “Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales,” grows his tomatoes exclusively in straw bales and has amazing production, with far less disease pressure.
At the end of the growing season, the straw has broken down to the point that it makes a great biomass input for your compost. Alternatively, the straw can be used as mulch.
Lesson #6: The Power of Patience for the Rebound
In the middle of the growing season when pest and disease pressure are peaking, it’s tempting to throw in the towel. I want you to know that when the going gets tough, it’s worth sticking it out.
Let’s say you’re out there and your tomatoes or peppers aren’t looking so good. You might be inclined to just say the heck with it and give up and pull them out or just start ignoring them and moving on. But if you can just give them a chance, help them along a little bit, they can rebound.
Staying on top of watering and removing diseased foliage and fruit can get the plants through a tough time. When extreme heat and humidity pass and pests have moved on, the plants can regain their vigor.
Peppers, for example, are notorious for getting a disease called bacterial spot, which can affect leaves and fruit with dark brown or black spots and be fatal. It often comes via the seeds or the duff layer of foliage left over from the previous year. You can reduce recurrences by being vigilant about removing fallen diseased fruit and foliage.
I gave my peppers a chance to rebound in 2022, exercising the power of patience, and ended up with a bumper crop. I also made a conscious decision to allow a few tomato plants to stay in the ground longer than I had before, and the results speak for themselves. The plants survived past the disease cycle, the pathogens were no longer circulating, and I was harvesting tomatoes later than I ever have before.
If you exercise patience, you will likely be rewarded.
Lesson #7: Patience for Fewer Pests
We are so inclined to reach for a pesticide, whether synthetic or organic, when we spot a pest on our plants. But early intervention is not necessarily the best practice. Mother Nature has her own ways of controlling pests. She has many reinforcements waiting in the wings to prey on pest insects.
Also, keep in mind that not every insect you see on your plants is a threat. That scary-looking crawler you see may, in fact, be a lady beetle larva that is a voracious eater of pests such as aphids. If you kill off lady beetle larvae with pesticides, you will be killing the predator that was going to take care of your pest problem for you.
I noticed some aphids moving in early in 2022 but instead of hand-picking or applying insecticidal soap, I checked the leaves for beneficial insects. Sure enough, there were already ladybug larvae and lacewing eggs on the leaves. I left the aphids alone because I knew they would be dinner soon. And if any greater threats than aphids did show up, there would already be lady beetles and lacewings there to greet (and eat) them as they arrived.
Another pest I came across was the tobacco hornworm, which, like the tomato hornworm, can quickly devour tomato and pepper plants. It’s smart to remove hornworms as you find them, but I left them alone because I wanted to document what often happens to hornworms: Cotesia wasps arrived and laid their eggs inside the body of the hornworms. This quickly stops the hornworms from eating, and soon the eggs hatch and larvae eat the caterpillars from the inside. The larvae then emerge, spin white cocoons that look like grains of rice standing up on the skin of their host, and pupate.
This year was a great testament to how planting flowers that attract beneficial insects while refraining from spraying leads to predatory insects taking care of pest problems.
Lesson #8: Leave the Leaves
More people are recognizing the importance of leaving the leaves where they fall for a simple but important reason: Insects that overwinter in leaf litter feed the birds, but if we remove and dispose of leaves, we remove that resource birds need to rear their young.
A lot of us like a tidy garden and a nice landscape that’s clean in the fall, and so when those leaves are coming down, we’re either raking them up and getting them off our property or we’re blowing them into beds. Well, blowing leaves into beds is a far better option than bagging leaves and sending them away to a landfill.
I am a big fan of shredded leaf mulch, but for the past few years, I have been changing my ways. In years gone by, I have gone out and collected the leaves that my neighbors packed up in paper bags to be delivered to a landfill. I rescued those leaves and, in prior years, dumped them into my shredder, let them sit for six months, and used them as mulch in spring.
Now, I still collect as many bags of leaves as I can handle, but for the most part, I free half of the leaves rather than shred them. I dump the whole leaves into my landscape beds in hopes that the insect eggs, larvae and pupae on them survive.
The leaves themselves will decompose in place over time, enriching the soil and reducing stormwater runoff.
Lesson #9: How Cold Is Too Cold? And Is Cold Really What Does Your Plants In?
The arctic blast I mentioned earlier led to temperatures that went as low as 4° Fahrenheit. All I could do before I went out of town was to put down row cover and frost cloth, harvest what I could ahead of time, and hope for the best. When I returned, I found that even at 4° the Brussels sprouts did fine under cover, and uncovered kale looked relatively good, with new growth despite taking a beating.
In the subsequent days, which were warmer, those plants that had survived started to look worse. Why? It was the wind. Cold winds are desiccating, meaning they remove moisture from the plants. Row cover and frost cloth won’t be adequate to stop cold winds. Plastic cover that goes over the plants and seals the perimeter is what’s necessary. However, that plastic should be removed during the daytime so it doesn’t create a greenhouse that cooks those plants.
Lesson #10: It Pays to Save for a Rainy Day
I often remind myself that it is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. For example, what happens if you need plastic sheets to prepare for an arctic blast but you don’t have it on hand and there’s no time to go buy it?
There are many examples of materials that you may not need in the moment but you should stock up on anyway, such as row cover, insect netting, spare parts for drip irrigation, and mulch. You know you’ll need these things in time. It’s not a matter of if but when.
When you suddenly need something, you’re probably not the only one. The price could be at a premium because it’s peak season, or it could be out of stock. So keep a stash for a rainy day.
Another thing to keep is copious notes. As you write things down and take pictures, you may not realize at the time how valuable that information will prove to be later on. I use my phone to document what happens in my garden and store the data in the cloud so I can pull it up from my computer at any time. In fact, I prepared this week’s podcast by scrolling back through the year to remind me of these lessons that I just shared. Your notes will remind you of any number of things, like when to plant, what to buy and what mistakes to avoid repeating.
Next week, I’ll be discussing what I am looking ahead to in the 2023 growing season, including what I want to repeat because it went so well and what I want to do differently. I’m looking forward to sharing with you.
I hope you enjoyed my 10 lessons from 2022. 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 lessons did you take away from 2022? 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 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.
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.