To All The New Gardeners

Starting a new garden often begins with excitement, enthusiasm, and optimism for all the possibilities that await. In winter, you choose the most beautiful pictures and mouthwatering descriptions from the seed catalog. In spring, you bring home the best looking plants from the local garden shop. You prepare your soil with loving care and good intentions and you plant. Then maybe late frosts or spring storms come. Maybe some of the plants get injured or sick, or even die. The ones that survive will have to battle weeds to stay in the game until mid-summer, and then the insect predators arrive, and you may wonder if your labors will bear any fruit at all.

If you’re feeling a little garden frustration right now, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. I’ve been there, countless others have been there, and many are feeling what you’re feeling right now. Gardening is a process. You’re not just growing plants, you’re also growing soil and skills.

Today is the 8 year anniversary of this blog, my 6 year anniversary with my land, and the 1 year anniversary of my life as a full-time farmer. In celebration of this auspicious day, here is a post all about my first garden ever, and filled with the lessons I harvested from it twelve years ago.

Invest in Organic Fertilizer

My first garden was planted in fill dirt, on top of an old landfill. It was a community garden so I didn’t own the land, and I thought I wouldn’t invest any money in the soil. Instead, I got loads of free rotted leaves and wood chips from the city and used coffee grounds from various coffee shops. While these items are great for gardens and make excellent mulches, they are not the same thing as compost.

I likely would have seen much better harvests much more quickly if I had purchased compost the first year. My many loads of free mulch did eventually build fabulous soil after about three years, but it was a long wait. You can make your own premium compost at home for free, but if you’ve just started gardening, you probably won’t have any homemade compost ready until the second year. Learn more about making your own compost from my article The Foundation of Our Future.

Grow Some Easy Wins

The most popular garden vegetables are not necessarily the easiest to grow. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, and squashes all require good soil to thrive. Spinach and head lettuces must have a long cool season and rich soil, or they will go to seed before you ever get a salad. Carrots will grow into funky shapes if the soil isn’t perfectly light and loose and free of any twigs or stones.

Other garden plants are much more forgiving and adaptable. These are some crops that produced abundant harvests for me when other crops failed:

TomatillosKaleOregano
SunflowersCollard GreensMint
SunchokesRadishesLemon Balm
PeasSwiss ChardDill
BeansFennel

It’s worth noting that some of the plants mentioned may become weedy.

Make Friends

By joining a community garden, I had ample opportunity to talk to other gardeners. I was able to learn from their wisdom as well as my mistakes. Gardening is an inherently local act, and the wisdom of gardening is inextricably linked to place. There are many great books and blogs about gardening, and they’re worth reading. But that knowledge must be paired with local gardening knowledge that you can only get from experience- yours or someone else’s. So join a gardening club or a community garden or at least pay a visit to your county extension office to give yourself the best start possible.

Avoid Gimmicks

There are all kinds of stores out there trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. Invest in good soil amendments, durable hand tools like a digging fork and a hori-hori, quality seeds, and maybe a hose. Once you have gained some experience, you may realize the need for another tool or two, but I suggest starting from a minimalist perspective.

Try, Try Again

Keep a gardening journal and record all your joys, sorrows, trials, and lessons. Take pictures to document your gardening journey. You can refer back to them next year when you’re planning your next garden. And most importantly, plant that next garden. Every year, your garden will become better than the last, and you will become a better gardener. Gardening does not deliver instant results, but it is an ancient and rewarding pursuit. Keep showing up for your garden day after day, and it will show up for you as well.

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Infinipeas : Grow Peas, Save Seed, Repeat For A Never Ending Harvest

The hardest part about saving seed from pea plants is to refrain from eating every last pea. But if you can bring yourself to leave some of those beautiful pods on the vines, you can reap a different kind of harvest: the harvest of next year’s garden.

The start of the seed-saving process happens before planting, when you are ordering seeds and designing your spring garden. You’ll need to start with heirloom pea seeds. These are seeds that will reproduce true to type and are free of any patents or restrictions. You can find heirloom pea seeds from places like Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek. If you want to save seeds from a small garden, it’s easiest if you grow only one variety of pea, though it is possible to grow more than one kind with some care.

Peas are self-pollinated and not very eager to cross pollinate with other pea plants, but if you’re growing more than one variety of peas, it’s best to put some distance between each variety to prevent cross pollination. Some sources suggest that as little as ten feet of space between varieties is enough to prevent crossing, while others suggest a minimum of 50 feet or even hundreds of feet. You can use your own judgement based on the size of your garden and how important it is to you to prevent cross pollination. If you’re growing multiple varieties of peas with a smaller isolation distance, you can further reduce the risk of cross pollination by planting lots of other early flowering plants in the garden to keep the bees busy and away from your pea flowers, or by placing screens or covers over your plants to exclude bees and prevent cross-pollination.

Snow peas, garden peas, and sugar snap peas are all the same species (Pisum sativum), and it is possible for them to cross pollinate with each other. If that happens, you might grow a whole new type of pea that’s not really a garden pea, nor really a snow pea, nor really a sugar snap. You might like the result, or you might not. Even if you’re only growing snow peas, if you’re growing three varieties of snow pea, they could cross pollinate with each other to create a new variety that may or may not be a favorite. If you’re a very relaxed and experimental gardener, there’s nothing wrong with saving mystery pea seeds, growing them, and trying the result! But once you find a favorite pea variety that you really want to preserve, you’ll need to separate it from any other Pisum sativum to ensure that the seeds you save will be true to type. Peas will not cross pollinate with beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), limas (Phaseolus lunatus), black eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata), chickpeas (Cicer arietinum), or anything else that isn’t a Pisum sativum.

Once you have your seeds and your garden design, the next step is planting. I like to plant my peas on St. Patrick’s day here in central Indiana. I dress all in green and lure my husband into the garden and we plant them ceremonially as a part of our holiday festivities. I use a no-till gardening method and prepare my soil in the fall, so I don’t have to wait for the ground to dry out enough to support heavy machinery. In my best years, I build trellises for the pea plants out of bamboo stakes and jute twine. This spring I never quite got around to building the trellises. The plants didn’t grow as tall as they might have with good support, but I still got a decent crop. Peas are a wonderful crop for the organic garden, because they build soil fertility and are relatively free of pests and diseases. Since my goal was to expand my pea plot significantly in next year’s garden, I ate only a small percentage of the pods and left most on the vine to ripen into viable seeds. Next year I’ll have many more plants, so I’ll be able to eat more peas while still saving the same number of seeds. It’s best to save a few pods from as many healthy plants as possible to maximize genetic diversity, rather than to save all the pods from a few plants.

Pea Pods Dried on the Vine

The seeds in the pods are fully ripe when the pods are brown, dry, and brittle. In my garden, the whole plant is usually brown and dry by this time. If your pods are almost dry but you’ve got a hail storm or a hurricane on the way, you can probably pull the whole plants up by the roots and hang them upside-down in a protected location to wait for them to finish ripening and dry fully. If you aren’t facing terrible weather, it’s best to leave them in the ground until fully ripe and dry.

When it’s time, shell the peas out of their totally dry pods and leave them in a cool, dry, shady location for another few weeks to make sure they are all the way dry before storing them. Make sure you store them with a good label including all the relevant information about the seeds. After they are totally dry, they will keep longest in a sealed container in the fridge. If you plan to grow them within the next year or two, it’s fine to store them at room temperature in a cool, dark, dry location.

Pea Seeds, Labeled and Ready To Save

For further reading, check your library for the book “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth, and this article by Seed Savers Exchange. You can also read more about my multi-purpose seed-saving garden in my post A Multipurpose Garden.

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The Strawberry Moon

Tonight is a full moon, but not just any full moon. In the Algonquian languages, the group of languages spoken by all the original inhabitants of Johnson County (the Miami, Lenape, Kiikaapoi, and Kaskaskia nations), the full moon of June is called Strawberry Moon. This moon is celebrated because it coincides with the strawberry harvest, and the beginning of the local fruit season. People often think that this farm is named after strawberries, but it’s actually named for this moon, this time of year. The beginning of the fruit harvest. Today I’m celebrating the Strawberry Moon more fully than ever before, because we finally have native wild strawberries growing on our land!

I started these strawberry plants from seed over the winter, and they have grown really prolifically. Strawberry seeds require a process called cold stratification in order to germinate. This is a fancy way to say that the seeds need to go through winter before they will sprout. That makes a lot of sense if you think about the life cycle of a strawberry. The seeds are in the fruit, and if they sprouted as soon as they hit the ground in June or July, the plants wouldn’t have time to get big and strong enough to survive winter before it comes. So the seeds are patient. Gardeners can place moistened seeds in the refrigerator for a couple of months to convince the plants that winter has passed, and then give them an early start under lights. The plants are incredibly tiny and fragile at first, so they must be watered from the bottom or with a very fine mister until they gain some size.

Since these plants are so young (strawberries are perennials), they don’t have fruit on them yet. But they do have flowers! And flowers are the promise of fruit. Notice how the flowers shown are white, not yellow. You may have seen another plant that looks very similar. Mock Strawberry (Duchesnea indica) looks very similar and even bears little red fruits. But the fruits of the mock strawberry have very little flavor. The Mock Strawberry has yellow flowers, and the fruits are round with little bumps on them. If you look really closely at the fruits, you may be able to tell that they don’t really look like strawberries, but they have duped even some experienced foragers. Admittedly, I’ve never actually tasted a native wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), but I’m told that the flavor is phenomenal. I look forward to acquiring some first hand experience on this subject soon. 😋

Unlike Alpine Strawberries (Fragaria vesca), our native strawberries send out runners. Runners are like long stems that sprout baby plants along them. This is one way that the plants reproduce themselves. Some gardeners prune the runners back, but I am not doing that this year. I’m excited for the plants to spread and reproduce themselves. I don’t think it’s possible to have too many strawberries.

This image shows the mock strawberry, Duchesnea indica. This is not a strawberry. It’s not native here, but it is very common. You can see that the leaves look very similar. The fruit is red and round with bumps on it. The fruit is white inside, not red inside like a strawberry, and the flowers are yellow.

Although I’m still currently strawberry-less, you need not feel sorry for me. I’m writing this article powered by a full belly of black raspberries. Black raspberries are another amazing native fruit plant!

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Sage Abundance

Last summer, I wrote an article about two different cultivars of garden sage growing in my garden. It has been fascinating to watch these plants grow side-by-side. Their differences go beyond those of leaf shape and flavor. Both are the same species, Salvia officinalis. For me, growing a diverse assortment of plant varieties is one of the great joys of gardening. I love to taste all the different flavors, delight in all the colors and shapes, and enjoy extending the harvest season by growing some varieties that yield early, some that yield in great abundance, and others that can be stored well through winter.

Before I built an herb spiral and raised beds, I never had any luck growing sage. It didn’t thrive in my moist clay soil, because it’s a plant that loves heat and good drainage. The plants didn’t survive the spring rainy season, so I never even got to find out if they survived winter. This spring for the first time in my life, I have sage plants that are over a year old! They’ve grown from tiny seedlings into shrubby bushes, and even crowded out some of their plant neighbors. I’ve been photographing these plants all year and taking notes comparing the two varieties, so you can join me in observing them through the seasons.

May 2020

Here’s the herb spiral, brand new and just planted in May of 2020. You can see both sages at the very top of the spiral. The large, rounded leaf variety on the left is a German cultivar called “Berggarten”, and the narrow leaf variety on the right is not a named variety, it was simply sold as “sage”. At this stage both plants are tiny, and about the same size.

July 2020

In July 2020, both plants have put on some impressive growth in their first two months. At the time, I felt like the Berggarten plant was growing faster, but they look about the same in this photo.

Berggarten Sage and Garden Sage Growing Together
August 2020

By August, both plants had reached a large enough size for me to begin carefully harvesting small quantities of individual leaves from each plant. This is the only kind of harvesting recommended for sage plants in their first year. I am told that a sage plant needs to conserve its energy to have a good chance of surviving winter, so it is not advised to harvest much from a sage plant in its first year.

February 2021

In February, Berggarten sage still looks pretty good! The garden variety sage is not very attractive this time of year, and looks near death.

March 2021

In March, Berggarten sage is much greener and more lush than the “regular” sage. It has already begun growing again!

April 2021

By April, both sage plants are totally green and growing. And already, the garden variety sage plant is passing up Berggarten in size and vigor.

May 2021

By May, the regular garden sage plant is in full bloom. It put on a beautiful display of lavender colored flowers, the delight of bumble bees and gardeners alike. Both plants are vigorous, lush, and healthy.

I still haven’t harvested large quantities of sage from these plants, because I don’t want to impede their growth. I’ve been using up most of my sage harvests for tea. The tea can be made with 1-2 tsp of dried sage leaves per cup of boiling water, steeped for about 10 minutes1. If you brew the tea too long or too strong, it can be unpleasantly bitter and astringent, but I find the lightly brewed tea to be very delicious and soothing. Sage is beloved by herbalists for its many health-boosting properties, and by chefs for its warm savory flavor.

If you’re interested in learning more about sage’s uses in herbal medicine, I recommend the following books:

  • “The New Healing Herbs” by Michael Castleman
  • “Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs” by Rosemary Gladstar
  • “The Herbal Apothecary” by JJ Pursell
  1. Tea recipe comes from “The New Healing Herbs” by Michael Castleman

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A Multipurpose Garden

Last summer I had four raised bed gardens and one herb spiral. It was the humble beginning of what will eventually become a 3/4 acre market garden. I suppose I could rent some expensive heavy machinery and purchase a huge quantity of compost and seeds and hire some help and take over the entire 3/4 acre space at once, but I don’t prefer to work that way. I prefer to minimize my costs and my fossil fuel consumption, I like doing this work by myself and by hand, and I choose to grow my planting areas slowly so that when I make a mistake, I can correct it before it becomes a giant mistake. I worked all winter long expanding the garden, and it now consists of 13 raised beds, two herb spirals, a 20×30 in-ground vegetable patch, a large herb border, and mulched pathways. It’s my home garden, it’s a mini-sized market garden, and it’s also a seed garden. Next year I hope to make it twice as big.

I’ve filled every garden I’ve ever planted with heirloom seeds (open pollinated seeds that have been & can be saved and passed down through the generations). I choose heirlooms partly because I appreciate the colors, textures, rich flavors, history, and diversity, but also because I believe in them. An heirloom seed is a renewable resource. If you learn how to steward it, you never have to buy it again, and you can share it with whomever you please. And if you select seeds only from your best and healthiest plants, every year your seeds will become better adapted to your needs and local conditions.

One way to support heirloom seeds and keep them available for all is to purchase them from independently-owned seed companies with good ethical practices. I’ve done my share of that over the years, but lately I’ve been working towards becoming a seed keeper myself. Last year, I successfully saved seeds from my Provider Bush Beans, several kinds of herbs, and a particularly vigorous and tasty butternut squash from my friend’s garden. I also saved enough Carola seed potatoes to double my potato planting from last year, and I have previous experience saving garlic cloves to replant year after year. It is extremely satisfying work. This year I planted the seeds that I saved, and now I’m watching them thrive with an extra layer of pride and connection. I remember your parents, little plants. Let’s make them proud together.

I structured my whole garden this year with seed stewardship in mind. Plants that can be isolated by distance have been given that isolation space to prevent cross pollination. For some other plants that can’t be isolated by space, I planted only one variety of each species so that no cross pollination can occur.

Corn is a special case, because it can be cross pollinated by wind up to 1/2 mile away. Although I’m only growing one variety of corn, my neighbors grow another. Since I can’t isolate my corn by distance, I am attempting to isolate it by time. I started my corn seeds extra early (indoors under lights, then transplanted at the proper time), and I chose a variety that is supposed to mature much faster than the kind my neighbors grow. With luck, my corn will be completely done before the surrounding field corn tassels. It’s really important not to let your garden corn cross pollinate with field corn, especially if you plan to save seeds, because the patented genetically modified genes from the industrial corn can get into your seeds. Even if your mother plant is an heirloom, if the father pollen is a GMO, you aren’t legally allowed to plant those baby seeds. Seed Savers Exchange does sell some special bags that can be used to protect the silks from stray pollen, and I am planning to use those too as an extra measure of protection.

I’ve even planted a few varieties that are rare and/or expensive, so I’m growing them just to make more seeds! One of these is a special bean from the Potawatami Nation called Potawatomi Pole Lima that I sourced from Truelove Seeds. The seeds are rare and they sell out quickly, so I only got one packet. I may not even eat any of the harvest this year, because that would reduce the number of seeds I can save to grow a larger planting next year. Another is Mandan Parching Lavender corn, a beautiful pink colored flour corn that is one of the traditional native corns from North Dakota. I’m also growing French Grey Shallots, Santé Shallots, Inchelium Red Garlic, and Tree Onions. These are not grown from seeds, but from bulbs. Bulbs are expensive compared to seeds, and $100 bought barely enough bulbs to fill two 4×8 beds. Will I get my money’s worth from that planting? Probably not, if I simply eat the harvest. But if I re-plant all or most of it, I’ll be able to increase my planting next year to many times that size for no additional money!

Before too long, I should have a market-sized planting of gourmet garlic, shallots, onions, lima beans, and much much more, and plenty enough to save seed AND eat my fill AND take to the market. With certain fruits like tomatoes and ripe peppers, you can save the seed and still eat the fruit the seed came out of. Win-win. Year after year, for as long as I continue the work, I’ll always be able to have these plants in my garden.

If you’re interested in saving seeds from your own garden, there are wonderful free resources available from Seed Savers Exchange. I also recommend the book “Seed To Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth. Perhaps it’s available for free at your local library! It’s a very rewarding, economical, and accessible skill.

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A Night In Tomato House

I still remember my first year as a gardener. I had been dreaming of that garden all winter. Literally, I had dreams of watching carrots grow. I could almost taste the tomatoes. You couldn’t buy a good one back then, and I desperately missed the taste of my grandpa’s garden. April seemed so warm, and the official “Last Frost Date” for my area is April 16. I had never really noticed that we frequently get frosts as late as Mother’s Day. I planted my tomatoes in April at the community garden, along with all the other newbies. The elder, more experienced gardeners patiently prepared their soil and waited for May. I had to re-plant.

One would think I’d learn my lesson that year, and I thought I had. I know full well that the frosts will keep coming. I still plant early, starting with hardy peas and radishes on St. Patrick’s Day, but I surround my plants with jugs of water for extra thermal mass, and I build low tunnels over all my raised beds so I can easily cover them with clear plastic sheeting at a moment’s notice. Still, I usually wait to plant most of my really tender seedlings like tomatoes and peppers until May. But this year, my improved seed starting setup produced hundreds of seedlings that grew to such enormous proportions that I simply couldn’t keep them in the house any longer. The spring had been consistently warm and the two week forecast was clear, so I planted. But then the winds changed, and last night’s forecast predicted snow, ice, and a low of 26 degrees.

Perhaps my plants would’ve survived with the coverings I had already provided them and no extra effort. But 26 degrees is extremely cold for a tender plant, and I felt I couldn’t rest with months of work, hundreds of dollars of investment, and most of the summer’s harvest on the line. So, I woke up at 4am, just before the coldest part of the night, and I boiled some water. I took two quart jars of hot water, and two jars each containing a lit tea light candle to place inside the coverings of each raised bed. Then I placed a candle, a watering can full of hot water, a mug of hot tea, a flask of homemade fire cider, and myself inside the big tomato tunnel, and stayed there to monitor the situation and to share some of my own warmth with the plants until the sun came up, the candles burned out, and the ambient temperatures began to rise.

Side Note: If I had enough Wall-O-Waters to place one on every single plant, I wouldn’t have worried. But my garden this year is market sized, and my collection of Wall-O-Waters is not. I felt reasonably confident that my low-budget combination of plastic-covered low tunnels with gallon jugs of water interspersed would work down to 28 or 29 degrees, but I was concerned that 26 might be just that tiniest bit too cold.

Camping Inside The Tomato Tunnel

By 7:30 I was exhausted and a little frosted, so I went inside and crawled back into bed with my own hot water bottle. Later, I returned to check on the plants. All look healthy! I don’t think I lost a single plant. Was all this effort necessary? I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll do a controlled experiment on another 26 degree night and find out. But for now, I’m simply glad that the garden survived, and looking forward to sinking my teeth into the earliest of ripe tomatoes. And, if all goes as planned, some of these fruits will make it to my local farmers market this coming summer.

Tomato Plant Inside A Low Tunnel With Thermal Mass

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Becoming A Garden Superhero: 6 Skills To Cultivate For A More Resilient Garden

Last year, the pandemic and its accompanying shutdown produced a record increase in home gardens. By April, we saw shortages of garden supplies, seeds, plants, and food preservation supplies. Although the supply shortages were inconvenient, most people I know were still able to grow an abundant garden. I believe gardening is a positive, empowering, healthy and healing activity, and I hope this trend of increased gardeners continues. So far, it looks like it is continuing, evidenced by signs of overwhelm brewing in garden supply businesses. Baker Creek has already needed to temporarily suspend web orders while they catch up on their backlog, Seed Savers Exchange is reporting a three week shipping delay, and several seed varieties I was hoping to try this year have already sold out. So if you need garden supplies, don’t delay. But you may need less than you think, and just a few basic skills can transform you from a consumer of garden supplies into an all-around garden superhero.

#1: The Power of Cooperation

Do you have at least one friend or neighbor who gardens? Most seed packets contain more seeds than one gardener can use. Offer to share your extra seeds, or ask about combining your orders and splitting the cost of any new seed packets that you both want. Established perennials need to be divided every few years to keep them healthy. Instead of buying all your plants new from a nursery, offer to trade cuttings and divisions of plants with friends. This can all be done through contact-free drops, and may also help us feel more connected during these (hopefully) last few months of distance.

#2: The Power of Regeneration

Learn how to collect and save seed for free. Many popular garden plants are very easy to harvest seed from, and if you learn that skill, seed packets become a once in a lifetime purchase. And in addition to those new seeds being free, they can actually be better. Each year you grow and save seeds, you have an opportunity to choose the seeds from the plants that performed best in your specific garden. Those seeds will be a little more adapted to your local growing conditions, and the seed children of those seeds can be better still!

#3: The Power of Transformation

Learn to see everyday waste products as garden supplies. Flattened cardboard boxes make great weed blocker. Plastic clamshells, yogurt cups, and tin cans can become planters. Soda cans can be cut into beautiful DIY plant labels. Some food scraps can be replanted to keep on growing. Other food scraps and yard waste can be composted to create free fertilizer.

#4: The Power of Preservation

Learn to take good care of the garden supplies you already have. Oil your wooden tool handles. Sharpen your digging tools and your cutting tools. Don’t leave stuff out in the rain and sun. Keep your seeds in a sealed jar or bag in the refrigerator to extend their life. Take good care of your plants so they will thrive and produce new seeds or divisions for your next garden expansion.

#5: The Power of Selection

Learn to choose wisely. There are many alluring garden gadgets that are really unnecessary. Don’t buy the hype. You really don’t need much to grow an abundant organic garden. When you do need to buy a tool, choose a tool that you won’t have to replace. Limit your seed packet orders to a quantity that is realistic for you.

#6: The Power of Abundance

Gardening is one way for we humans to increase abundance. When our needs are met with abundance, we gain the freedom to relax into a great peace. Our needs are met. The land provides. When we have plenty to share, we can share our plenty with joy, nourishing our bodies as we nourish our relationships to the land, to each other, to our truest and kindest selves.

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Growing In Place : How To Spot Bad Garden Advice Before It Spoils Your Harvest

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the bad advice I have received on my gardening and farming journey. Some of it mislead me for a season, and some has set me back for multiple years. Most of it has cost me money, and all has cost me time. Some advice has wasted precious resources. This is why I often write about my mistakes, and about the things that have proved more difficult than I expected. I want you to be inspired to try. But more than that, I want you to be empowered to succeed. Mistakes are the very best opportunities for learning and growth, and I hope that by sharing mine, we both can learn.

Most of the bad advice I have received could have been good advice when applied to someone else. But successful growing is not so much about following a set list of rules as it is about developing an intimate knowledge of your land, your place, your needs, and your ecosystem. I try to always use language like “this is what worked for me”, and “this is what didn’t work for me”, and “this is why I think this thing did or did not work for me”. When I encounter phrases like “so easy”, it makes me wonder… do they understand why they experienced success? Will that success be repeatable for me? What conditions might cause that “so easy” effort to fail? Let’s take an opportunity to dive into some classic bits of advice that did not work for me, and think about why they may or may not work for you!

Bad Tip #1: Zucchini grows abundantly, and without pests. I’ve read this from many sources, but for me, the dream of growing way too much zucchini continues to be a mirage in a desert of squash bugs and sorrow. I still believe in the dream of the abundant organic zucchini, and I have even achieved it in years of extreme hand-picking persistence, but the squash bug has been a formidable foe in all my gardens to date. I do meet people even in my own city who claim not to have any squash bugs in their gardens, so this issue may be extremely site-specific. Ask your near neighbors who garden which pests are most problematic for them.

Bad Tip #2: Everybody should add lime to their garden soil. Of course, the lime in this common suggestion is the mineral lime, not the bright green fruit you find in your margarita. Whether or not you need lime in your garden depends entirely on the results of your soil test. You can run a soil test easily for about $10, and your county extension agent can give you instructions for gathering the sample and a list of all the labs in your area capable of providing that service. If your soil is too acidic for the plants you want to grow, then you can add lime to the soil to raise the pH. It is common to have acidic soil in many locales. However, all of my gardens in central Indiana have had soil that is neutral to alkaline. If I added lime to my soil, I would ruin it.

Bad Tip #3: Tomato hornworms are the most devastating garden pest. This may be true in many places, because I read it often. But I find zero to three hornworms in my whole garden, per year, total. When I see them I hand pick them and move them to the chicken yard. The chickens act like they just won the lottery. I think they wish I had more tomato hornworms.

Bad Tip #4: Tomatoes are totally over by September. There are two growth types of tomatoes: “determinate”, and “indeterminate”. Every tomato variety falls into one of those two categories. If your seed packet or seedling label doesn’t say whether it’s a determinate or indeterminate type, a quick google search should provide that info. Determinate tomato plants produce all their ripe fruit during a shorter time window, and the plants reach a smaller total size. This type of behavior is preferable for gardeners who want to can their tomatoes. It’s easier to have a few big canning days where the canner is packed full than to process many half-full batches throughout the season. Although I’ve read several sources that claim that determinate plants ripen all their fruit within a two week window, that has never been my experience with the Rutgers determinate variety that I like to grow. I find that I get fruit from my Rutgers determinate tomatoes for most of the summer. However, by this point in the season, my Rutgers determinate plants are focusing on ripening their last few green tomatoes while my indeterminate Brandywine plants are still growing new vines and flowering new flowers. The Brandywine plants will usually continue growing and flowering until the frost kills them in October, so planting both varieties of tomatoes allows me to can my tomatoes and eat them too.

Bad Tip #5: Potatoes are done flowering in July. If you didn’t see them flower, you probably just missed it because the flowers are inconspicuous. Dig them up anyway. This tip was shoved at me repeatedly on the garden forums back in the early days, and caused me as a young gardener to cut down many a fine potato plant in its prime. This year I grew my first really successful potato crop. It’s nearly October now, and I still haven’t dug them. They continued flowering for well over a month, and the flowers were more conspicuous than tomato flowers. I would never have missed them. The right time to dig up your potato plant depends on your location, your soil, which potato variety you grew, and maybe even the mood of your particular seed potato. Trust yourself to notice the white flowers of similar size and shape to tomato blossoms. This is the advice I’m following for my Carola potato crop this year, with great success:
1. Wait until the plant is totally done flowering.
2. Wait two weeks after that. If it flowers again, go back to step 1.
3. If you want small “new potatoes”, you can dig some two weeks after the vines have stopped flowering.
4. If you want large potatoes, wait until the vines start to die back, then dig up all the plants. It’s nearly October now and I’m still waiting.

Bad Tip #6: Scythes are easier than weed whackers. This might actually be true, but it’s misleading. Even weed whackers couldn’t handle my weeds. If you are mowing a section that consists of nice flowing grasses or maybe some grain crops, the scythe might be a good tool for you. And it is enjoyable to use under those circumstances, for short periods of time. I tried to use a scythe to mow my wild and crazy fields though, and it was a disaster. The reason for the backache was mostly to do with a plant called giant ragweed, whose stem is too tough for even my hybrid brush blade to cut down. Instead, when striking one of these powerful stems, the scythe blade gets stuck midway through. By the time you remove it, the blade is dented. A similar outcome was produced by mulberry saplings, which I also have a plenty. The other obstacle I encountered during the great scythe experiment of 2016 is that I was trying to mow too large an area (about 8 acres was the goal). By the third acre, all my project deadlines were late, and I had sprained most of my fingers. By the way, I later learned that cork bicycle handlebar tape is a great addition to the scythe hand holds, and helps to prevent those finger sprains. I still have my scythe and I hope one day my fields will be tame enough to use it.

Bad Tip #7: Nothing grows in flood plains. There are great plants native to almost every ecosystem type. As it turns out, flood plains can be one of the most productive of all ecosystems, and they can grow some pretty awesome food. If you have a site with flair, like a flood plain or a sand dune or a rocky hillside, try to learn about it. Find out what the unique advantages are. Learn about the role that type of ecosystem plays in the wild. Seek out the history of what your site used to be part of before land was industrialized and grid divided and cleared. Your extension agent or NRCS representative may be able to help you get started. It’s a real shame to tear down the unique habitats of the world in favor of homogeneity.

For context on my findings: I do all my in-ground gardening in central Indiana, USA, in USDA Hardiness Zone 6a. I’ve gardened on three sites. The first site was a community garden built on pretty awful fill dirt (over an old landfill, if I recall correctly). The major problem there was the terrible soil, which I spent three years overcoming by infusing 6 inches of compost and mulches each year, and finally eventually achieved a thriving garden. The second site was another community garden on average lawn soil in a church yard in a city. That garden grew decently well, but my harvests were reduced by hungry neighbors who thought that the garden produce was free for the picking (truly, an honest mistake given the location and some confusing signage). Currently I garden in my own back yard in a rural area, surrounded by corn fields on two sides, established woods on one side, and a baby woods on the other. I use a mixture of raised beds and in-ground garden space. I have also grown a patio container garden in two different micro-climates of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Sage Advice

I’m growing two varieties of garden sage (Salvia officinalis) in the herb spiral this year. One plant was simply labeled “Sage”, and the other was labeled “Berggarten Sage”. Early in the summer, it seemed like Berggarten Sage was extra productive, but regular Sage has totally caught up and now both are producing about the same amount. The Berggarten variety has a slightly milder flavor, and huge round leaves. The large size of the Berggarten leaves is an asset when making fried sage leaves, such as are used in one of my favorite lasagna recipes. In most other recipes, the sage leaves are chopped and/or dried, and there is only a slight flavor difference between the two varieties. Both varieties are labeled as hardy perennials in zones 5-9. I planted them in zone 6, so I hope to enjoy both of these plants for years to come!

Most people don’t think of sage when they go to brew a cup of tea, but sage makes a very nice herbal infusion. Brew as you would mint tea. À votre santé!

Pro tip: In past years, I’ve tried growing sage in the ground with no success. Sage enjoys dry climates and well drained soil. It does not thrive if the soil is soggy all spring long, such as is common here in central Indiana. If thriving sage plants have eluded you in the past, consider growing it in a raised bed, or near the top of an herb spiral. A little elevation has made all the difference for me!

Both plants were purchased from Companion Plants nursery in Ohio in May 2020.

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A Midsummer Day’s Feast

It is the beginning of August. The sun and the rain have been battling for dominion over our days, settling into a ferocious and unpredictable, yet nourishing and balanced cycle. Harvests are abundant in these conditions.

On a personal note, regular readers may remember that I lost my day job at the start of the COVID shutdown. Recently, on the seventh anniversary of this blog, I officially decided to make that a permanent change. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for years, and now feels like the best time to dive in. I’m working the land full time now, and I’ve never felt better. I find my life harmonizing with the weather patterns. Sunny days are for field work, gardening, sun tea, and hanging laundry. Rainy days are for preserving the harvest, making and mending what is needed, and for studying. I’m studying hard, and I’m learning a lot. Every day is magical, and I’m so grateful for the combination of luck, strategy, and hard work that brought me here. I know what a rare chance this is, and I won’t waste it.

As you might imagine, there’s a large pay gap between a software engineer’s salary and a beginning farmer’s salary, so anything I can produce rather than buy increases my odds of success in this venture. This is especially true of high quality fresh food, which pays me not only in grocery savings, but also in improved wellness. I harvest regularly from my gardens – four raised beds, an herb spiral, and some container plants. But I also supplement my garden’s offerings by foraging wild edible and medicinal plants from my fields and wooded areas.

A trio of foraged plants: lambsquarter, red clover, plantain
A Foraged Bounty: Lambsquarters, Red Clover Blossoms, Plantain Leaves

Right now, lambsquarters, red clover, and plantain are plentiful. Lambsquarters is a wild relative of spinach, and it tastes just as delicious as its famous cousin. Red clover and plantain have many uses for food and health. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use red clover and plantain, both are covered in Rosemary Gladstar’s excellent book “Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide“. My library has a copy, and maybe yours does too! As the farm evolves, my goal is not to remove weeds, but to continuously skew the weed populations towards useful species. I mow and cultivate selectively to discourage poison ivy, cocklebur, and hemlock while encouraging useful weeds to grow and multiply. I’ve even planted some seeds of native weeds I enjoy, in hopes they will take hold and spread through the untamed parts of the land.

Herbs gathered from the garden
Garden Herbs: Tulsi, Lemon Balm, Sage, Garlic Chives, Chives, Sweet Basil
Garden Veggie Harvest
Garden Veggies: Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Sunflowers, Green Beans

Tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans are thriving in the garden. My sunflowers have had limited success. Most of the sunflower seeds didn’t grow- I suspect the seeds were devoured by hungry wildlings. And who could blame them? Sunflower seeds are delicious. Of the few sunflower plants that germinated, only one is yet in bloom.

Sun Harvest : Sun Tea Brewing
Solar Harvests: Sunshine brews the most beautiful herbal teas! And you can save a tiny bit of electricity by brewing them this way.

Much to my surprise, my greens garden is still producing, even in the summer heat! I expected the collard greens and kale to bolt once the weather warmed, but they are unfazed. The radishes did bolt. Other brassica family members have started to differentiate themselves from the nearly identical forms they all shared as young plants. Kohlrabies are growing bulbs, cabbages are forming heads, and Brussels sprouts are sending up their tall stalks. You may notice there are no pictures of harvests from that garden today, and there’s a reason for that : cabbage loopers. The little green worms have eaten more than their fair share of these plants, and so I paused my harvesting while the plants recover from that damage. BT is an effective organic pesticide for cabbage loopers that I do use when necessary, but I waited a little too long between my applications of it. These plants are very vigorous, and I’m confident the harvests will resume in a couple of weeks.

A Visual Feast : Beautiful Marigold Blossom
An Especially Nice Marigold Blossom
Not Yet A Harvest : Fig Tree Beginning To Flower
Not Yet A Harvest, but a baby fig!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.