It doesn’t matter how big or how small your growing space is, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or have decades of experience under your belt. Every year brings new lessons, challenges, disappointments, and wins in the garden. With the end of another year just around the corner, I wanted to share with you my top gardening takeaways from 2019.
I’m a big proponent of keeping notes throughout the season. Anything you record in a season to look back on in years to come will go a long way toward helping you become a better gardener. As I looked back over my 2019 garden journal, there were twelve lessons that really stood out for me. Hopefully, these will resonate with you too.
2019 Takeaway #1
I love starting seedlings indoors in early spring. For one thing, it’s a great excuse to get my hands dirty long before the weather is conducive to gardening. I also love to experiment. Testing different methods to observe the cause and effect is a never ending source of fascination to my inner garden geek.
During the past two springs, I have grown thousands of seedlings with help from my daughter, Amy. The sea of seedlings served two purposes:
- Instilled an appreciation for gardening in Amy as she learned to care for the maturing plants and prep them for sale at our local farmers’ market. You can follow along with our first season in an episode of my show, Growing a Greener World®.
- Provided me opportunities to experiment with lighting, soil and the many other indoor variables that perplex seed-starting gardeners.
One problem I hear about often is seedlings that get too leggy. So last spring, I decided to grow some leggy seedlings intentionally, by restricting them from the amount of light they needed for compact, robust growth.
I’ve demonstrated the different ways to plant a leggy tomato plant on my joegardenerTV YouTube channel. But what if it’s still too cold outside to put seedlings into the ground, or you just don’t have time to get out there quite yet?
I wanted to demonstrate an easy way to “fix” seedlings which have stretched too far but need to remain indoors without flopping over or outgrowing the vertical space you have available.
Enter what I call the Snip-n-Dip method. I knew this option worked, but my “aha moment” last spring was just how successful this method was for producing healthy seedlings.
This option couldn’t be any easier either.
- Snip the stem of your leggy seedling in two, about halfway between the base of the stem and where the leaves begin. It’s this top section of the seedling which will become your new plant.
- Dip the stem into a cup of water, keeping the foliage above water level.
- Place the cup in a sunny window or near a grow light.
- Compost the remaining stem base and roots. (There is a small likelihood that the soil-bound roots and remaining stem base could sprout new foliage, but it can be tricky. It’s more work than it’s really worth for what may or may not be successful. Feel free to experiment if you like. I certainly get that! Otherwise, compost the lower portion and focus on the leafy stem.)
- Keep the water clean. Over the course of the next few weeks, it’s a good idea to refresh the water to prevent fungal growth.
If you would like to watch while I demonstrate this technique, I posted a video of it on my Instagram channel.
After about a week, the stem forms roots under the surface of the water. I recommend a clear container or drinking glass, so you can keep an eye on root development. Plus, it’s much more fun to monitor progress when you can actually see the changes from day to day. That said, any container of water will work for root formation. Multiple stem cuttings can root in the same container.
This method works particularly well for tomatoes, but it can also work for peppers and eggplants. Kids will love this project too. The roots will develop quickly, and the seedlings should be ready to go into the ground within 3-4 weeks of the date of the stem cut.
Ultimately though, the goal is to avoid leggy seedlings, right? If this has been a struggle for you – or if you’ve struggled with other aspects of indoor seed starting – I hope you’ll check out my Master Seed Starting online course coming in late January. In the course, I’ll show you how to avoid all the common problems – fungal issues, moisture level, timing, using the wrong soil, etc.
I’ll also show you results from many types of lighting options. What works best? What is worth the money? How to determine spacing and timing? You’ll see for yourself, so you get it right – and avoid buying anything that you just don’t need.
I can’t wait to share this new course. I’ve spent months on research to help you succeed at one of my favorite aspects of gardening. I’m also looking forward to meeting students in the Q&A forum to help with any follow-up questions and check out pictures or stories of everyone’s gorgeous seedlings and crops from the garden later in the year.
2019 Takeaway #2
Can I consider something a takeaway even if it’s something I’ve known about and loved for a long time? Heck yes! Why? Because I realized this year that I get just as excited about it now as the very first season. I’m talking about using shredded leaves as mulch.
I’ve been using leaves as mulch for years. I’ve talked about it on previous podcasts and in videos. The truth is, I can’t talk about it enough, because I don’t want any other gardener to miss out! If I had to pay for leaves to use in my garden, I would and happily. Fortunately, they are free every year – just waiting for us to put them to use.
Each fall, I reach out to my neighbors through the Nextdoor app. I ask if anyone has bagged leaves that they plan to throw away, so that I can pick them up instead. This year, I collected a record 350 bags in 24 hours, and it felt like Christmas had come early!
For one thing, I love knowing that I’m keeping all that material out of the landfill. It’s not doing anyone any good there, and conditions of a landfill make it more likely to convert bagged leaves into harmful gases than to decompose into soil.
That’s what leaves will do under natural conditions – decompose into soil. It’s what happens in the forest. I just take advantage of the natural process to improve the health of my garden. Unlike with grass clippings, I don’t worry that leaves from an unknown source might contain herbicides.
The leaves can be used whole, but I prefer to shred them for a few reasons. Shredded leaves break down more quickly, and their finer texture means they are less likely to blow away. I also prefer the consistent look of a layer of shredded leaves versus a hodgepodge of whole leaves. I love the feel of the smaller shredded pieces and how easy they are to spread.
I shred leaves when they are dry by pouring them out on the driveway and running over them with a mulching mower. The bag attachment collects the pieces, and I store the finished product outdoors in large wire “corrals.” If you don’t have a mulching mower, a chipper/shredder works great, or you can use an electric leaf blower in Reverse Mode to suck the leaves up. (I’ve noticed that a blower shreds them finer than I prefer, but it is still a good option.)
The shredded leaves begin to decompose over the winter, and by the time I’m ready for spring planting, they are perfect to lay over the soil as a 2-3” layer of mulch. The layer continues to break down over the summer, providing sufficient soil protection for the season. By the time fall rolls around, the layer has added a rich dose of nutrients to the soil.
Earthworms love the shredded leaf layer and leave behind their rich worm castings as they help to break down the leaves. There is nothing but benefit after benefit when it comes to leaves. They are a yearly gift to us as gardeners. Grab all you can!
2019 Takeaway #3
We all deal with garden pests of some kind. That is just a gardening inevitability. One that I have never had to deal with personally is moles. Then came 2019.
Voles have long been a furry little problem for me but not moles.
What’s the difference? Voles are mouse-like, and they eat vegetation (V for vegetation and voles). Like moles, voles burrow under mulch and soil, but voles are definitely the destructive enemy of the garden. When they feast on roots, they can kill a mature plant overnight. Moles don’t eat plants. They eat meat as they tunnel just below the surface looking for their next meal (M for moles, mounds and meat) – like grubs and earthworms.
Since they don’t feed on plants, mole damage is more cosmetic than really problematic. The mounds from their tunnels don’t look very nice in your lawn or garden beds. Their digging can disturb plant roots, but unless the plant is young or particularly vulnerable, it will likely recover.
I’ve had moles at the GardenFarm, but they stuck to the grassy or outlying areas of the property. Unfortunately, the unusually hot and dry conditions this year shifted the moles’ behavior.
I don’t provide much supplemental irrigation to my lawn areas. I take proactive steps to keep it healthy and drought-resistant. As a result, my lawn looks great without the need for much (or any) supplemental irrigation.
So while I didn’t water my lawn, I was keeping the soil in my raised bed garden moist. The earthworms and other mole food sources in non-irrigated areas probably went deeper beneath the surface to seek cooler conditions. That’s when the moles discovered the luscious richness of my raised bed garden, where the soil is loose and soft and brimming with fat earthworms.
I discovered their invasion while hand watering. Suddenly, the soil at the base of the plants began to cave in. I took a closer look and realized every bed and areas all around the pathways were riddled with sinkholes created by the moles tunneling and feasting under the soil surface. Moles had made themselves right at home, and who could blame them?
There aren’t many effective methods for eliminating moles. Caster oil spray and other repellents don’t work well. Traps can be a challenge to use, and personally, I would rather deal with damage than use kill traps. I would never recommend poisons, because the potential risks to pets, people and beneficial wildlife are just too high. It would have been great if my barn cats had played their part as predators, but they didn’t seem too interested.
The best way to prevent mole damage is to create a barrier. That’s challenging for in ground beds, but it’s a great benefit of raised beds. I have long recommended securing hardware cloth to the inner sidewalls at the base of the raised bed. Hardware cloth is galvanized metal wire mesh that is available in various sizes. It effectively keeps out burrowing pests like moles and voles for years.
Here’s the one drawback to hardware cloth: It has to be secured when the bed is built. So, can you guess what I didn’t do when I built my raised beds? That’s right – I didn’t take my own advice and put a protective barrier of hardware cloth in place. Since I had never experienced a mole problem, I wrongly assumed I would never have one.
Fortunately, the mole activity subsided late this fall. I didn’t notice any real difference in plant production, in spite of root disturbance. I know the population of my soil food web took a hit, but that will recover in time.
My big takeaway here is that it’s better to put proactive measures in place – even in preparation for the unexpected. When it comes to pest problems, I realize now that it’s just a matter of time before something new makes its way to my garden. I can’t prevent moles now without dismantling my existing beds, but I will never again build a raised bed without a barrier of hardware cloth – just in case.
2019 Takeaway #4
I love growing tomatoes. My favorites are the large and ever-growing indeterminate varieties. Unfortunately, tomatoes can be particularly challenging in the heat and humidity of the southeastern U.S., because those conditions are just what most common tomato diseases need to thrive.
Most soil-borne diseases are variety-specific. By moving where you grow specific crops – a technique known as crop rotation, you can “starve out” some disease spores. The most common crop rotation is a four-year period. In other words, tomatoes are grown in the same bed every fifth year.
Not all of us have the space to accommodate crop rotation. I have 16 beds, but that’s not enough to allow me to rotate the number of tomato plants I grow every year. I don’t let that stop me from growing what I want. It just means I may be managing more disease on my plants.
If you would like to rotate crops but don’t have the space, do what I did this year, and create more space with containers. At the recommendation of my friend, Brie Arthur; I added RootMaker® pots to my garden area. The plastic RootMaker containers feature holes all along the side of the pot. When roots grow out to each hole, the oxygen stops their growth. This is called air pruning, and it’s a healthy and natural method for controlling plant growth.
I grew 15 tomato plants in the 3-gallon size pots (at Brie’s suggestion) this summer. I had filled each container with a Soil Cubed composted soil product that I’ve had great results with. Then, I became so busy traveling to film for Growing a Greener World that I neglected to install drip irrigation to keep the containers moist while I was away.
As a result, I did experience some blossom end rot on the containerized tomatoes. That’s a condition common on the first fruit development when the plant isn’t provided even watering (contrary to the garden myth that blossom end rot is from calcium deficiency.)
I was surprised at how well the containerized tomatoes performed in spite of watering neglect. The indeterminate varieties didn’t get as big as those in my raised bed. They also didn’t produce quite as much. Yet, I still got an amazing crop of tomatoes, and it saved me raised bed space that I need to rotate tomato placement in upcoming years.
I definitely plan to grow tomatoes in containers, again, next season. RootMaker pots are a great option, but there are other viable choices too. I may opt for grow bags in 2020. I’ll also switch to a 5 gallon size, and I’ll make sure to get drip irrigation installed to keep the soil moist. Those changes should ensure I can continue to enjoy expanded garden space without sacrificing production quality.
2019 Takeaway #5
Speaking of tomatoes, the indeterminate varieties can be tricky to tame. They are vining plants that will continue to quickly sprawl, scramble, flop, and stretch beyond the limited space we have available for them.
You can control size by managing sucker growth, and there are a few different approaches on what to keep and what to remove. I’ve also shared a video demonstration of how to prune the top off of tomato plants once they reach beyond the bounds of their support.
I remove some suckers throughout the season, but I rarely have the heart to top my plants. If I see tomatoes forming on the upper vines, I usually can’t bring myself to give them up. The thought of more ripe tomatoes usually wins out over pruning.
So, I was excited to discover something new this year – heavy pliable wire with a soft rubber coating to keep overgrowth contained. I found a product that comes in different shades of green, so it blends right in with the vines. It’s so invisible, I’ll bet you didn’t notice it front and center in a photo from a summer podcast on tomato plant disease.
The roll of wire is easy to cut into whatever length I need and so malleable it’s easy to wind around the main support (in my case, my Ultimate Tomato Cages). Although tomato vines are surprisingly delicate, the coating on the wire is gentle enough to prevent cutting or bruising.
Last but not least, I love this stuff because it’s reusable. I’m a thrifty guy. I don’t like to spend money when I don’t need to. So when I took out my tomatoes at the end of this season, I kept each section of wire. I’m storing them somewhere dry, because I know they’ll come in handy for at least a few seasons to come.
2019 Takeaway #6
It shouldn’t be very surprising that three of my twelve takeaways have to do with tomatoes. This takeaway isn’t so much a first-hand lesson or experience. Instead, it’s a commitment to something new in my 2020 plans.
Grafted tomatoes aren’t particularly new. I’ve known about them for years, although they haven’t been common among the home gardener. I suspect that tide is turning, because in 2019, I heard more praise for grafted tomatoes than ever before.
What is a grafted tomato? The top growth, or scion, of a tomato variety you love is grafted onto the root stock of a different tomato variety. Picture the scion that was cut for the snip-n-dip technique I described in Takeaway #1. Instead of being placed in water, that section of plant is grafted onto a short stem protruding up from the roots of a different tomato.
The rootstock tomato is a variety that has particular qualities – like disease resistance, drought tolerance, etc. Once grafted with the scion, the root stock provides those beneficial qualities to the mature plant. Meanwhile, the fruit of the grafted plant maintains the qualities of whatever it is about the scion variety that you love – like flavor, color, size, etc.
Let me describe this another way. Maybe you love growing Brandywine tomatoes, but that variety always seems to succumb to Alternaria stem canker in your garden. Try a grafted tomato – one with a Brandywine scion that has been grafted onto the root stock of a tomato variety resistant to Alternaria stem canker. You’ll get the disease resistance of the root stock and Brandywine fruit.
The farmers and gardeners I’ve talked to this past year tried side-by-side trials, and their results were clear. The grafted varieties lasted longer, produced more and just performed better overall. My neighbor Phil is a market gardener, and he was blown away by the success of his grafted tomatoes.
Grafted tomatoes haven’t become mainstream quite yet, but I expect they will in the next few years. Until they do, it’s not easy to find them. You’ll probably have to do some homework and special order these plants online. You can bet I’ll be reporting back on the results of my grafted tomatoes during Summer 2020. So, stay tuned.
2019 Takeaway #7
My favorite time to garden is in the fall. There’s less pressure from pests and diseases. Fall crops are my favorites overall. Also, fall is a cooler and more pleasant time to be in the garden – usually. That was not the case in 2019.
Fall here in the Atlanta area this year was relentlessly hot. Temperatures remained in the mid-90s through most of September. That’s a problem when you’re trying to plant fall crops.
Those crops – like broccoli, cabbage, leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, etc. – can tolerate (and even be improved by) some cold. Still, it’s important to get them into the ground early enough that they will reach maturity before temperatures really drop. That means planting anytime between late August and mid-September.
Carrots need to be planted particularly early, because carrot seeds take 21 days or more to germinate. They require cool, moist soil during those few weeks before germination.
As much as I love mulch, it is not a good option over carrot seeds. The mulch material can smother the seeds and prevent the tender growth from breaking through to the light. Still, the soil needs some protection during hot days late in the season.
Thank goodness for burlap. If you have a coffee roaster nearby, the owner may be happy to provide you with a few burlap sacks for free (shout out to my local coffee roaster!) or at a low cost. If not, rolls of burlap are readily available online or at fabric and craft stores.
I’ve used burlap for other projects around the GardenFarm, but this year, I realized how well it works as temporary soil protection. The fabric lets in light and irrigation, but it also holds moisture in the soil and blocks some of the heat of the intense sun. I set myself a reminder for the expected germination of my carrot seeds, and as that date drew near, I could easily pull back the burlap to check on progress.
As soon as I saw the first sign of germination, I removed the burlap and stored it for next season, because this natural fabric will last a long time around here.
Burlap was an easy fix for protecting my carrot crop during unusually hot, dry conditions. I recommend that you keep some on hand too.
2019 Takeaway #8
I gleaned three takeaways from my Hotlanta Fall of 2019. This next one was a reminder that it’s possible to provide too much protection.
I use floating row cover (also known as reemay) to protect plants from pests at various times through the year. Around here, cabbage worms are a big problem. They are the larval stage of the eggs lain by the cabbage butterfly. I can control the worms with a dusting of Bt – bacillus thuringiensis (a safe, organic biological control that only affects larval insects).
I prefer to prevent the worms in the first place. If the butterfly can’t lay her eggs on my plants, I won’t have cabbage worms. Floating row cover is my go-to tool as a barrier against these or any other flying pests.
It’s a light fabric which allows light, air and water to pass through. In fact, it’s light enough that it can be draped directly onto plants without crushing foliage.
Here’s the problem: row cover also traps heat. That’s good news if your goal is to cover plants as protection from an overnight drop in temperatures. That’s bad news when it’s covering GardenFarm seedlings during a 90-something September afternoon. I pulled back the cover one day to find scorched foliage underneath.
No matter how long we garden, we all still make mistakes. This one didn’t cost me any plants. I removed the row cover, and the plants recovered over the course of a couple of weeks.
However, it reminded me that I need to allow more air space between cover and plant growth during hot periods. By placing the row cover over plastic or metal hoops, I can shield plants from pests, while providing more room for air movement to keep things from burning.
2019 Takeaway #9
When I shared my row cover mistake on social media, a friend and fellow gardener shared another solution for pest protection that’s even lighter. Susan Mulvahill was a guest on my show a few years ago and has great garden tips. She suggested I try bridal veil (tulle) to cover plants as a pest barrier.
Tulle is extremely light with an open weave that allows for better air circulation than row cover. I was impressed when I tried it over some of the GardenFarm crops. The drawback to tulle is its durability. I bought a roll online for a reasonable price, but I only expect it to last me two or three seasons.
That said, I was grateful to Susan for introducing me to tulle for my pest-protection arsenal. With ever-changing garden conditions, one thing we gardeners can never have too many of is options.
2019 Takeaway #10
When temperatures are still hot but you need to get fall seedlings into the ground, it can be difficult to keep things growing. Before I saw any signs of the cabbage butterfly that indicated I needed a pest barrier, I knew I needed to take steps to protect fall seedlings from the punishing rays of the sun.
In spring, I use shade cloth to protect seedlings during the hardening off process. Shade cloth comes in different densities. I place the shade cloth (usually what’s considered 70% shade protection) over plastic or metal hoops and use clips to hold it in place.
Shade cloth was the ideal option to buy the time my fall crop seedlings needed to acclimate to what felt like mid-summer temperatures. These young plants still felt the heat but at a lesser intensity. Over the course of a couple weeks, they matured and toughened up enough for the shade cloth to come off.
I usually leave the ends of the dark shade cloth tunnel layer open for air movement, so it’s not a great option as a pest barrier.
Shade cloth is super durable and versatile enough that I recommend it as a must-have for protecting plants from intense sun during transitional months. I didn’t lose a single seedling in spite of 90 degree temperatures through much of September.
2019 Takeaway #11
In my zone, it’s usually heat – not cold – that I need to worry about. During my travels this year, I was reminded how many gardeners are looking to extend their growing season into the wintery grip of colder zones.
I featured a four-season garden master during Season 3 of Growing a Greener World. Eliot Coleman grows and sells food all year – in Maine. He discovered that, by using poly tunnels, he could replicate a South Georgia climate all through winter.
Two gardeners I visited for this year’s Season 10 of the show use poly tunnels in their winter gardens too. Meg Cowden’s low tunnels give her a jump on spring and protection into December – even when the Minnesota snow is still flying. Niki Jabbour’s low tunnels and a high tunnel protect her four-season crops from the intense winter cold of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
If you’re looking to extend your season, poly tunnels are a great solution. A poly tunnel is easy to build using clear, thick plastic (4-6 mil) over metal or PVC support. A high tunnel is tall enough to walk into. A low tunnel is short, using hoops. In both cases, the area is fully enclosed to trap heat.
In the spring, the air within a poly tunnel is heated by the warmth of the sun. It can raise your soil temperature to create an environment ready to plant weeks before your area’s last frost date.
In fall, warmth from the soil remains trapped under the cover. That heat protects crops as winter creeps in.
Poly tunnels are more effective than frost blankets or floating row cover fabric at containing heat. Eliot places low tunnels in his high tunnels to double the effect, and I was impressed at the production of that setup.
I hope more gardeners will look beyond the summer growing season, and poly tunnels are just the ticket for cooler climates.
2019 Takeaway #12
Gardeners are good people. I’ve known that for decades, but I was blown away again this year by the gardeners I’ve met and heard from.
I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Gardeners who meet for the first time share an instant bond. After a few minutes, it’s like we’ve known each other all our lives. I believe that comes, in part, from our shared love of nature. As a group, we feel a strong responsibility to protect our planet, starting with the little patch of ground under our care.
Gardening also keeps each of us humble – thanks to Mother Nature’s constant reminders that we are not in control. Finally, we are optimists. This season brought setbacks and challenges, but we always feel new and unbound hope for the fresh possibilities of next season. I love that about us.
Thanks to each and every one of you who have shared this past year with me. My team and I are honored by all of you who listen, share feedback, reach out on social media, and let us know that our work is meaningful to you. Here’s to more shared experiences in 2020! We can’t wait to hear from you – starting with your top takeaways from 2019. Please share yours in Comments below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases, and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access! Watch for my new course on seed starting coming soon!