These weeks just after the calendar turns from one year to the next are the perfect time to think about your goals for the coming gardening season. On this week’s podcast, I discuss plotting out plans for doubling down on what worked well in the garden while also deciding on what I want to stop doing and identifying new things that I’d like to give a try.
Last week, I discussed my 10 garden lessons from 2022, and now I am shifting gears from looking back to forging ahead. There are things that I have experimented with in recent years to varying degrees of success, and I want to take those lessons and move forward, refining and enhancing the methods that worked for me. I always want to continue spending more time in the garden just observing and monitoring, which is something I had amazing success with last year.
Before getting into it, 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.
The Things I Want to Keep Doing
As long as I’ve been gardening — which is a very long time at this point — I’ve settled in on the things that I know work, and I’ve formed habits from those. I’ve pretty much culled all the things that just never really worked out for me so I’ve really settled in over a period of time to a nice consistent process of what I would call “best practices.”
Making sure that you’ve sited your plants in the proper growing environment is a big one that I can never stress enough — the right plant in the right place. A few other of the more obvious things I recommend are taking great effort to make the best soil possible, mulching, watering at the soil level rather than from overhead, and proactively conducting pest and disease management.
In addition to these long-practiced fundamentals of good gardening, there are some practices that I have adopted in recent years and found great success with, starting off with visiting my garden as often as possible. It’s said that a gardener’s shadow is the best fertilizer. The fact is a garden performs so much better when the gardener is out there identifying issues early and confronting them before they become irreversible problems.
One of the things I’ve found over the years with talking to many, many gardeners is that they get so ambitious, really go all in, and overdo it. It’s easy to fall into this trap when, at the beginning of the year, we have cabin fever and make grand designs for our gardens that ultimately prove to be more than we can manage.
For gardeners who are really new, what they soon learn is that there are limitations on how much we can handle in a certain size garden over the time that we have to do it.
Plants that we’ve set up for success (by following the fundamentals I mentioned above) will take off, but that can also lead to becoming overwhelmed. But one of the ways that we can not allow that to happen, even if we do overplant, is get out there fast enough to realize, ‘oh my gosh, this is getting ahead of me’ and take preemptive actions sooner rather than later so that it really doesn’t become debilitating to the point that you are frozen in your tracks because you don’t even know what to do next
If I could only give one piece of advice to gardeners — other than spend a lot of time improving your soil — it would be to get out into your garden as often as you can.
I recognize that based on our schedules and our lifestyles, that’s not always easy. It may be that you can only get out there once a week — but if that’s the case make sure you really do make it out there once a week.
On the flip side, if you’re able to get out there every day or even more than once a day, then you should do that. Not only will spending time in the gardener be pleasurable, but you’ll also be less likely to ever feel overwhelmed. When you stay on top of the changes that happen literally every day, the work will never pile up on you and you’ll have fewer issues with pests, diseases and weeds.
Remember Important Sowing and Planting Dates.
I missed two key planting times last year because of my busy schedule. In the spring, I got too late of a start on getting my cool-season crops in, so they did not mature before it got too hot. Then in the fall, several of my crops did not have time to mature before it got too cold. Those are windows of opportunity that I don’t want to miss again.
This time of year, when the pressure is off and there is time to think and plan, think about what you’ll be planting this year and determine how early you need to start seeds indoors and transplant seedlings outdoors. Be cognizant of your first and late frost dates and the days to maturity for each variety you intend to grow.
Think Outside the Garden Box
How much room do you have to grow in? It may be more than you think. Without investing a lot of money or clearing more land, you can create new growing space using grow bags and straw bales. Both options make it easy to squeeze in more crops.
Outside of the defined area where you typically plant, identify other areas that may not get as much sun as your main garden but could still be suitable for planting. Place some grow bags or straw bales, and you’re off to the races.
Gardening in areas that aren’t already fenced off risks attracting browsing deer, which is exactly what happened to me, but all it took was putting up three strands of fishing line on posts around the plants to repel the deer.
Practice Winter Sowing
Last year was the first time I had really gone all in with Heather’s method, and that is definitely something I’m going to keep doing because I’m really keen on filling my landscape beds with as many native perennials as I can. I’ve got a lot more room to go, but at the same time, I don’t want to break the bank buying those perennials when I can raise them myself simply for pennies on the dollar. Plus, it’s fun, and it’s a great project if you’re trying to get your kids involved.
Water with a Handheld Wand
If you have the time to be in your garden often anyway, consider using a handheld watering wand as opposed to sprinklers or drop irrigation.
Overhead watering with sprinklers can promote disease growth but it’s better than nothing. If you water this way early in the morning, there is less disease risk for the plants, but you’ll still be losing a lot of that water to evaporation. The best way to deliver water to where it is needed — the soil — is to use a watering wand.
I am a big believer in drip irrigation, which is very targeting and efficient, but using a watering wand has a benefit that drip irrigation can’t match: When you stand there for 30 seconds watering a plant, you are face to face with that plant, and you take in the health of the plant and the presence of pests and diseases.
Using a watering wand is very zen. If you’ve done it, you probably know what I mean. If you haven’t, then I just suggest you try it and see if you feel the same way.
Keep Growing Dwarf Tomato Plants
Dwarf tomato plants are just like a tasty indeterminate heirloom tomato, except they grow at about half the rate and are about half the size. The fruit on a dwarf plant is still the same size as your favorite conventional indeterminate heirloom tomato.
It’s a really neat way to grow your favorite tomato plants or similar varieties if you want something that doesn’t take up as much room, doesn’t require as much support, and in fact, is easier to maintain. I have found in my experience with many of the dwarf tomato varieties that I have grown that they’re less susceptible to pests and diseases, plus they seem to come on faster so you have a quicker harvest.
There are currently around 140-plus varieties of dwarf tomatoes. The Dwarf Tomato Project is something that my good friend Craig LeHoullier has worked on with colleagues around the world. They have been continuing to breed and stabilize seeds from their breeding project so that the seeds of dwarf tomato plants come true season after season. That means you could buy seeds of a dwarf tomato variety, grow out the plant, save the seeds, plant the seeds again the following year, and you would continue to get the same plant the following year.
Victory Seed Company has all the available varieties of dwarf tomato plants that you can get through seed.
Dwarf tomato plants are just beautiful. They have foliage that generally is thicker, greener and lusher. The plants are stocky and very sturdy, though they will need some support as the fruit comes on — their weight can pull the plant over.
What I Want to Stop Doing in 2023
I tend to continue to buy more seeds despite knowing that I already have those same seed varieties in stock already. For example, I save my black krim tomato seeds every year from the fruit that I grow, but I still buy new black krim seeds.
I think I just love the process of ordering seeds, and it’s a habit I need to break.
When I go to sow seeds, I use the newest seeds first rather than the oldest seeds that I have on hand — so I don’t get around to using the oldest seeds, and when the next year comes, those old seeds are that much older. Some day down the road, those seeds won’t be viable anymore.
New Things to Try in 2023
Like most of you, I can’t wait to get my tomato seeds started. I sow them indoors in February so they are ready to be planted out in April after the last risk of frost.
I love the process of growing my tomato seedling: putting the seeds in the soil mix, watching them germinate, potting them up, nurturing them along for six weeks and getting them in my garden and sharing them.
That’s the traditional time to do this. This is when everybody wants to get their tomatoes going because they want that Fourth of July ripe tomato just like I do. But for me here in Atlanta, zone 7b, where it’s hot and humid, I am fighting diseases sooner or later with all of my tomato plants or most of them.
By the time I get to the mid-summer timeframe, I’m tired of cutting out disease foliaged. And by the time August gets around, it’s easy to feel burned out
My good friend Brie Arthur, who is an expert tomato grower, has sworn off sowing tomatoes during the traditional time, Instead, she waits until June to sow her seeds and then gets them into the garden right around the Fourth of July or the middle of July. Growing in Raleigh, North Carolina, she still has enough time to grow them out and have an amazing crop of tomatoes before it gets too cold.
I can share from my own experience last year that some of my tomatoes that I left in the ground rebounded in that latter part of the season to the point that they were the best they had ever looked in September coming into October and producing like crazy.
I can’t resist the joy and pleasure of starting my tomato plants early, but I’d like to try. I have considered doing an early planting and then a second round later, around the time Brie puts tomato plants in the ground, but my concern there is that any diseases or pest issues that occur in the first round will easily move to the second-round plants. The best way to try this would be one planting.
Brie swears by this, and her word holds a lot of weight with me.
One thing that I already practice is propagating suckers. In spring, when tomato plants are putting out those suckers (shoots growing at 45-degree angles between the main branch and a side shoot) I remove those suckers and plant them in containers so they can set roots and become my backup plants.
I tend to go all out and plant all of one thing at one time. For example, let’s just say it’s bush beans — I’ll plant an entire bed of bush beans, though I should be planting a row of bush beans and then 10 days later, a second row, and 10 days after that, a third, and 10 days after that, a fourth, and so on. Staggering planting times leads to having a succession of harvested fresh beans throughout the growing season.
Succession planting can help to reduce garden overwhelm — that feeling that there is just too much to be done. When the harvest comes in gradually, rather than all at once, the work is spread out and easier to handle. Another benefit of succession planting is that if you planted the first row too early and it gets killed by frost, the subsequent rows will likely do just fine. Likewise, if you planted a row too late, the earlier rows will still be successful.
Cabbage is another great example. How many cabbages do you need all at one time? I have a 4-foot-by-12-foot-wide bed that I fill with cabbage seedlings in spring and fall, and sure enough, the spring crop is ready for harvest all at the same time and the fall crop is no different. And on top of that, where do you store 24 cabbage heads? Not in your refrigerator. But that’s the dilemma I’m faced with almost every year, and I kind of laugh at myself because I know it’s coming every time.
I do like seeing that full bed of cabbages heading up. It’s a beautiful site — but then you have to deal with it. And I don’t know many people who relish the opportunity to be given big heads of cabbage. Cabbage is just not the easiest thing to give away, especially when compared to fresh, heirloom, homegrown tomatoes.
So in 2023, I’ll be reminding myself to practice succession planting with more crops than ever.
More Flower Beds
Another thing I’m excited about this year is that we’ve added more raised beds for flower growing. It should be a beautiful sight.
The entire perimeter of my raised bed garden inside the split rail fence will have flowers all the way around: some cutting flowers, some native flowers, milkweed, lots of flowers that attract pollinating beneficial insect
I’m really glad I took the opportunity while I had it to have somebody bring the wood in and get that all set in place. The hard work is over and now it’s just filling with soil and adding the seeds. And with Tobi, my farm manager, who’s a great flower grower, I cannot wait to see how this garden looks this spring and summer. I look forward to sharing all of it with you, so be on the lookout.
Consider Sources of Shade
Many gardeners report that their first year was their most productive, and a very common reason for this is that what was once a very sunny spot is getting more and more shade. It could be that trees have expanded their canopies and now branches reach over the garden or the trees have just grown tall enough that they now block the sunlight’s path.
If you’ve gone from full sun to partial sun, there are a few options. You can live with it and accept your garden won’t be as productive as it once was, you can choose to plant more leafy crops that don’t require as much sun to thrive, or you can find creative ways to have that tree pruned by an arborist. And as a last resort, you can have the tree removed.
Try Disease-Resistant Varieties
Even though there are what appears to be unlimited varieties on pretty much every crop you can grow these days, I tend to go with the heirloom varieties that I have just always enjoyed growing in spite of the fact that many of them are challenging and they come with diseases and things that drive me crazy.
This past year, I was growing my bed of cucumbers. I’ve said before, cucumbers are not my favorite thing to grow for a couple reasons, and one is that they’re very prickly on the stems and the leaves, and reaching in to harvest a cucumber, contorting your body in crazy positions, is always itchy. And then there are the diseases — I always have cucumber diseases.
But this past year I grew some new hybrid cucumber varieties, including Sweet-Slice. The seed seller called this variety “bulletproof to diseases.” That caught my attention, and it looked like a nice size cucumber. I had nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain. I was expecting diseased leaves to occur over time, but in my local climate conditions — hot and humid — the bulletproof claim held up.
My advice is to order more new-to-you varieties with the traits that you are looking for. I will be getting out of my comfort zone much more and trying some of these newer varieties, because if this is the result I can get more often with these newer hybrids, I’m all in.
Improve Pest Management Strategy
What I do now for pest management works very well overall: I practice patience, invite in beneficial insects and create an environment where Mother Nature basically takes over and I’m not spraying or doing other things that could kill the beneficial insects as they kills the pests.
All of us should have a better understanding of the pests that are likely to impact the plants that were growing. We should understand where in the life cycle of that pest can we be most effective at minimizing the damage so that we can eliminate them more quickly.
When we understand a pest’s lifecycle, we can identify biological control solutions to get ahead of the issue before it becomes a problem.
The squash vine borer is a good example of this. I loathe the vine borer because it can decimate plants seemingly overnight. But if we know that the vine borer is the larva of a black and red moth, we can look out for the moth to get a clue of when it is laying eggs. We can put out insect barrier to keep the moths off our plants so they can’t lay their eggs, we can remove eggs by hand or treat the plants with Bt before the vine borers can cause destruction.
Monitoring for the presence of squash vine borer moths is easy with a pheromone-based indicator trap. The male moths are attracted to the pheromone, and if you find the males in the trap you will know that egg-laying females are present or soon to follow.
You can be proactive by adding beneficial nematodes (NemaSeek Hb by Arbico Organics) to the soil where squash vine borer are overwintering. The nematodes will eat the pupae and grow in population as they do.
Grow More Natives
Many of us are interested in growing more native perennials and rewilding our yards. Reducing the size of our lawns and creating something closer to a meadow is more pollinator-friendly and attractive, and it supports birds that rely on insect larvae to rear their young in spring and seed heads to get through the winter.
Dr. Doug Tallamy and other advocates for native plants have spread the word that native plants are necessary for ecosystems to support native fauna.
We have the Georgia Native Plant Society here, which every month has native plant rescues: They learn about developments where urban sprawl and subdivisions will clear the native trees and plant material from an area, and they get in there first. With permission from the landowner, the plant rescue team ethically extracts native plants so they can be planted where they will be protected. It’s an easy way to get an instant native garden in your garden while doing a really good thing. Plus it’s free and fun.
Native plant society membership fees are typically close to nothing, and membership often comes with discounts on native plants.
Next week, I will be focusing on some of the basics of seed starting, one of my favorite topics. And I’ll be discussing experimenting with various seed mixes using peat-free options such as coir and PittMoss.
I am also experimenting with new soil-blocking products that I am excited to work with, and I’m soaking seeds in advance of sowing to see if it will increase germination rates or cut down on germination time. And there are some really cool new options for seed trays that I’m trying out.
This year, I am new to greenhouse growing, so I’m figuring out how to incorporate it into my seed-starting process while also thinking about insulating the greenhouse and using supplemental lighting to see what difference it makes. I look forward to having that discussion with you next week.
I hope you enjoyed sharing in my 2023 plans and goals. 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 are your garden plans for 2023? 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.
NemaSeek Hb by Arbico Organics
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.