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361-Online Gardening Academy™ Students Share Their ‘Aha’ Moments and Lessons Learned

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You’ve heard me say many times that what I love about gardening is there is always more to learn. Gardening keeps us on our toes and constantly presents opportunities to refine our methods. I decided to check in with gardeners in my Online Gardening Academy™ about their top takeaways from this past gardening season and what changes they will make in 2024.

The Online Gardening Academy offers courses in beginner fundamentals, seed starting, tomato growing, pest, disease and weed management, organic vegetable gardening and more. I reached out to a number of active students from around the country to ask them to share their “aha” moments and lessons learned so we can all benefit from their newfound knowledge. They shared valuable insights on succession planting, time management, tomato support and more.

 

Joe Lamp'l in the garden

I had fun making calls to Online Gardening Academy students to hear about their “aha” moments from the 2023 gardening season and how they plan to adjust in 2024.

 

Succession Planting Tomatoes

Tom Fisher of Anderson, South Carolina, wanted to try succession planting tomatoes, like succession planting experts and repeat guests on the podcast Meg Cowden and Brie Arthur do. 

Tom’s usual experience when growing tomatoes is to plant them out as soon as he can after the first frost date and harvest his last tomatoes Labor Day weekend. This past growing season, he received tomato seeds from a friend and wanted to test their viability. That June, he germinated the seeds successfully and then planted them out. This was several weeks later than he would ever plant out tomatoes, and as a result, he was still growing tomatoes in October. When frost was expected, he picked the green tomatoes and ripened them indoors, enjoying his tomatoes through Thanksgiving.

“There are adjustments I’m going to make this year based off what I learned from this past year,” Tom says.

He grew a tomato variety last year that took 80 days to harvest. Tomato plants, depending on the variety, can mature anywhere between 60 and 100 days. This year, he will choose a variety that is on the lower end of the days-to-harvest range.

Tom will also be mindful that the sun is different in September than in July and August, so he will site the late tomatoes in another spot in his garden that should get better results.

A benefit of the plants maturing in September is the pest and disease pressure is significantly reduced and there is less heat stress.

 

A tomato plant in a fall garden

Tomato plants that were started late will continue growing in the cooler days of fall until frost does them in. Even if they were struggling before, they may rebound once the pest and disease pressure of summer has largely passed.

 

The Benefits of Planting Cover Crops

Christine Stillings is a relatively new gardener but a very active one. She gardens in northern Orlando, Florida, which is newly designated zone 10a. I asked about her “aha” moments and learning opportunities in the most recent growing season.

Her biggest takeaway last year was using cover crops.  She explains that she planted cowpeas in a bed that was vacant after she harvested other crops. She knew it would be too hot for other crops, and she wanted to experiment with the cowpeas from her sister-in-law’s garden.

“It was wonderful because given how terrible things are in the summertime, I could look out at my garden and see lots of things growing,” she says.

The cowpeas served as a cover crop rather than letting the bed lie fallow. She allowed a few of the plants to grow to maturity just as an experiment, but most she cut back to the ground in August. Then she added compost and mulch, waited a couple of weeks, and planted her fall garden.

Christine’s fall crops took very well to the soil that had been cover-cropped. That’s because cover crops encourage microbial life in the soil and add organic matter. Cowpeas and other legumes make great cover crops because they are nitrogen-fixing, which means they infuse nitrogen from the air into the soil.

She did have trouble with her fall crops when it came to critters that would bypass her row cover to eat her Brassicas. She is formulating a strategy to keep critters out this season.

An “aha” moment came for Christine when she realized that in addition to the vital dates discussed in the Organic Vegetable Gardening course — the frost-free date in spring and the first-frost date in fall — she needs to have another date marked on her calendar: the heat date.

Being in such a warm climate, she must be very conscious when starting heat-sensitive plants. 

“Tomatoes stop pollinating,” she points out. “There’s a whole new onslaught of pest pressure in the heat, and fungus and wonderful things like that. And so I’ve decided that once I get to 90° on a regular basis, if I have stuff that isn’t bearing, it’s coming out and I’m not starting anymore. I will wait until I start planning for fall.”

 

Crimson clover

Crimson clover is ornamental, feeds pollinators and serves as a living mulch or cover crop that feeds the soil. (Photo credit: Amy Prentice)

 

Tomato Staking

Kate Hemphill lives in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where the soil is poor. For the most part, she grows in raised beds, aside from native blueberries, which are happy when grown directly in the ground.

She says 2023 was a busy year and she definitely learned a few things, starting with needing a better system for staking her tomatoes. She tried using stakes and tying up the branches, but she admits she did not keep up with it as well as she should have. “It made for some tomato plants that were bending at the waist and not quite standing upright,” she says.

Kate’s plan for 2024 is to try my Ultimate Tomato Cage. This isn’t a product that I sell but rather a design that I give freely. All you will need is a livestock panel, bolt cutters, and a straight board. Each panel will yield two Ultimate Tomato Cages.

She also learned in 2023 that she can garden at any time. Her work schedule was crazy, so she would go out at night, in the dark, with a headlamp on. 

“The plants don’t care what time of day I come out here to deal with them, so if I’m working till 10 p.m. then it’s going to be dark, but I can still go out and I can still do what I need to do,” she says.

Kate would work on whatever needed attention.

“I was harvesting things. I was pruning things,” she says. “I’m sure my neighbors probably think I’m completely crazy.”

That sounds perfectly normal to me. In fact, I’m a little jealous. 

 

how to make a tomato cage

My “Ultimate Tomato Cages” at work.

 

Address Water Issues Immediately

Dr. Melissa Lucas lives in northern Kentucky, zone 6a/b, where she maintains five raised beds. She uses soaker hoses to keep the garden watered between rains. She says her lesson learned in 2023 is that once you’ve identified a watering problem, address it immediately.

This past summer, Melissa went away to Europe. She needed to figure out how to make sure her garden would get the water it needed in her absence. She experimented and learned she couldn’t just connect soaker hoses end to end to reach all five beds from one spigot because the hose at the end wouldn’t get any water. She realized she could put a bifurcator in the middle of the beds and send water down soaker hoses in either direction.

“A dry period is a real stress test of your system, but I really didn’t get that until I left,” she says. Her system just wasn’t watering some of the beds sufficiently.

“My harvest was terrible this year,” she says. “I had a reasonable initial harvest due to the rainfall that was early in the season, and then a very poor harvest after that.”

She said she didn’t fix the issue because it wasn’t obvious, convenient, easy or fun. 

She provided supplemental water by overhead watering, and she ran the soaker hoses that got water to some beds but not enough to others, but she didn’t adequately address the issue.

“When the earlier signs are there, get in there and fix it,” she says. “Do something.”

 

Timer with soaker hose

A soaker hose on a timer reduces your workload in the garden, but you need to ensure the water is getting to the farthest reaches. If too much hose is on one spigot, consider using a bifucator so only half of the hose is supplying water at any one time.

 

Block Off Time for Garden Chores and Other Activities

I reached out to Dave Faoro, who lives in the Northern Foothills of California, after he shared this thoughtful post in a course discussion group:

“When will I ever learn that I can’t do everything that I have the vision for? So many interesting things and so little time. I know this may sound blasphemous to this group, but my gardening this year took up way too much time from my other interests. For 2024, I hope to plan better and be sure I’m setting aside time for my important other activities. I’m going to start by doing what I used to do in my career by blocking off my calendar for other activities and “Me” time. I think I’ll be more efficient on my gardening time that way also. When I felt I had unlimited time for the garden, I was easily distracted by other shiny objects around the garden.”

 

Online Gardening Academy student Dave Faoro, who lives in the Northern Foothills of California, after he shared this thoughtful post in a course discussion group:

Online Gardening Academy student Dave Faoro shared this thoughtful post in a course discussion group.

 

Dave retired two and half years ago from a more-than-full-time job that involved a lot of international travel. Even then his garden was huge: 50 large beds on a 5-acre property with horses.

“The joke in being retired is you have unlimited time and no time,” Dave says. He identifies with that scenario. 

He realized that he had given up on his time management. When he was working, he had to manage his time better, he says. He had a to-do list and a calendar where he blocked out time for certain activities. In retirement, he had nothing but free time — so he did not stay organized. 

Dave got an app that I use and recommend, Day One, a journaling app. Each Sunday he created a to-do list for the week using the app’s checklist feature. Working on his list helps him prioritize and gives him focus.

Like me, Dave likes to take his morning coffee out in the garden and wander around. If he finds an issue that he can fix in less time than it would take to make a note in his app, he fixes it immediately. If it would take longer, he makes a note to return to complete it later in the week.

One of my personal mentors said to me that the activities that you have for the day expand to fill that time. That means if you just have one thing that’s on your list for that day or that you think you need to do, you’re going to take the whole day to get that one thing done. There won’t be a sense of urgency. But if you have 10 things that you have to get done that day, you will be crazy efficient and get every task done. 

Dave doesn’t beat himself up if something doesn’t get done — he just adds it to the following week’s to-do list or takes it off the list completely if he decides it isn’t all that important.

“My gardening is fun,” he says. “I want it to keep being fun. I don’t want it to be my job.”

If you let your passion become your prison, that’s not a good thing.

Don’t take yourself too seriously in the garden, and stop trying to pursue perfection in the garden. Once you let that go and realize that’s never going to happen and you’re never in control, that’s liberating. That was a big turning point for me quite a few years ago, when I finally wised up and didn’t have to put so much pressure on myself. As I have had an ever-increasing international audience who expects that I’m going to be able to control everything, I think the best thing I’ve been able to do is let people know that I can’t make my garden perfect all the time, and neither can you. So quit trying.

Row Cover Does Not Fix Existing Pest Issues

Grace Barry has been a gardener her whole life and a serious gardener for 50 years. She lives in Challis, Idaho, which was in zone 4a and zone 4b but is now labeled zone 5 on the updated USDA hardiness zone map.

A 2023 “aha” moment came for Grace when she realized that when she puts row cover over existing infestations and diseases, they will still be there when she lifts up the row cover later.

“When you lift up the row cover after a while, you may discover that your plants that you thought were going to be fine and the bugs were going to die and all that — well, they’ve kind of been eaten,” Grace says.

When it comes to using floating row cover — a spunbond nylon fabric often called Reemay — timing is everything. Row cover is a physical barrier that prevents pests from landing on your crops and laying eggs. But if you put row cover on after the eggs are already present or have already hatched, row cover won’t help. In fact, row cover will make the pest issue even worse because it will stop predatory insects from eating the pests.

Another discovery Grace had concerned her fall garden. She points out that once the cold sets in, growth slows. She realized that she started her fall garden too late because the crops did not have enough time to size up before the temperature dropped.

Day length is also a factor to consider when planting a fall garden. As the days get shorter in fall, crops receive less light, and that means less photosynthesis and less growth. 

Seeds for cool-season crops should be started in the middle of summer, or even early summer depending on where you live.

 

Squash bugs

Installing floating row cover won’t do anything about the eggs and larvae that are already on the plants or in the soil.

 

I hope you enjoyed my conversations with Online Gardening Academy students. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

What were your “aha” moments and lessons learned in 2023? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

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

Episode 136: Top Garden Takeaways From 2019: Lessons Learned

Episode 183: Your Gardening Successes in 2020

Episode 295: Looking Back on 2022’s Garden Lessons 

Episode 343: Top Gardening Takeaways of 2023

joegardenerTV YouTube: Why I Leave Some Tomato Plants in the Garden After Summer

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. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

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 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.

Earthbound Expeditions: Discover South Africa with Joe Lamp’l

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 Floating row cover

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Territorial Seed Company – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JOE2024 for 10% off your order

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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 was 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: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. 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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