Gardening 101 · Winter Prep

How to Start Composting

There are so many things to think about when getting started in the garden. I’ve already talked about picking your plants and observing your site in order to select your location, but another crucial thing even the beginning gardener needs to think about is the health of the soil.

There’s a reason compost is also known as “black gold” to gardeners.

The soil is what feeds your plant! Without healthy, nutrient-rich soil, your plants will be scraggly and bear weak fruit, if they grow at all. If you want big, juicy tomatoes and crunchy carrots, you need to make sure you’re taking care of the soil. While you can do this by adding chemical fertilizer to poor soil every year, it’s far more important to work towards creating rich, healthy soil that will repay you for years to come. Finished compost is one of the best materials to add to your garden to make this a reality, and best of all, you can make your own for FREE!

I’ve composted on-and-off for the past four years. Sometimes I’ve paid a local company to do all the dirty work for me, sometimes I’ve done it all myself, and some years it was something in between. Here’s what I’ve learned from both ends of the compost heap:

Select location

Plenty of people will try to sell you a fancy, hand-cranked tumbler to put your compost in. They’ll promise beautiful compost in half the time, and even say it’s odor-free! (Of course, the tumblers themselves aren’t free.)

Sure, if you live in a fancy neighborhood where the mere sight of decomposing materials might be offensive to the hoity-toity next door, or if your yard is overrun with vermin like the Disney movie Ratatouille, maybe you do need a compost tumbler. For the rest of us though, a regular compost heap will do just fine.

You’ll want to locate it somewhere close enough to your garden that you can access it with relative ease and close enough to your kitchen that you’ll be motivated to add kitchen scraps to it. However, you’ll want to have it far enough away so on those days you don’t properly balance the moisture or your “browns” and “greens” (more on this in a second) and your pile might have a slight odor, you won’t be disturbed. As a bonus, you might place it somewhere sunny, for added heat to aid in the decomposing process. A prime location might be behind a shed or garage, against a fence, or on the edge of a tree line.

Collect Scraps

In our house, we usually do this by keeping an empty coffee can on the counter, but I’ve seen a variety of jars, tubs, and other containers do the job. The most important thing is to pick something with a lid that seals smells in and fruit flies out as much as possible. In addition to that, you don’t want it to be an eyesore on your kitchen counter, where you’ll need to leave it if you want to remember to use it.

Pictured: future compost in the form of a banana peel, onion peel, and wilted flowers from my baby shower.

Once your kitchen-sized container is full, you can go ahead and either dump it directly on your pile (as we do in the summertime) or use an intermediate step and fill up a larger bucket to reduce your trips to the pile. This is what we do in the winter when we don’t want to trek out through the snow piles every week.

Our five-gallon Home Depot bucket takes about a month for us to fill with kitchen scraps.

You should also feel free to collect other organic material to your pile that you have lying around your property: leaves, grass clippings, certain kinds of animal droppings, and other plant material.

Feed your pile

Here’s where it gets tricky.

You don’t want to just pile up random kitchen scraps and anything you find in your yard in a giant heap and expect that will turn into compost! Sure, given enough time almost anything will break down, but there are some things that take WAY too long to decompose, and some things might leave dangerous bacteria in your pile.

Here are the rules for how to feed your pile GOOD food:

These things NEVER go in your pile: cat, dog, or human waste, diseased plant material (not like a piece of bread that started molding, but like a tomato plant that caught the blight), fats and oils, dairy, meat (including bones), plant material like grass clippings that have been treated with pesticides or herbicides, and weeds or hay that might contain active seeds.

Cat/dog/human waste, diseased plant material, and materials treated with pesticides or herbicides are no good because they might introduce harmful bacteria or chemicals to your pile that could harm the plants you try to feed the finished compost to. We don’t want that!

Fats, oils, dairy, and meat are bad for the average pile because they take a while to breakdown and can attract critters like raccoons or worse to your pile.

Finally, weeds and hay should only be added to piles that get REALLY big and hot, because that will be the only way to kill off the seeds they carry. If you add them to your average pile, you might just be creating compost filled with weed seeds that create more problems than solutions for your garden down the road.

Here’s my pile, which lives behind the garage. It’s amazing how THIS (uh-gly) stuff turns into gorgeous, fragrant compost with just a little time and care.

These things go in your pile, but in proportion: “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials) and “browns” (carbon-rich materials). Every compost pile needs LOTS more carbon than nitrogen, though. If you can remember to always add a handful or two of “browns” every time you add a bit of “greens,” you should be fine.

Don’t be fooled with those color names, though- not all nitrogen rich materials are green, nor are carbon rich materials always brown. Some of your most common “greens” are fresh, wet materials, usually lawn clippings and kitchen scraps. “Browns” are often dry discards like shredded paper, wood shavings, cardboard, and dried leaves.

These things need to be incorporated into every pile: water and air! A pile that’s too dry won’t decompose at all, and a pile that’s too wet will start to stink like a landfill. Aim for a pile that’s moist, and amend with a sprinkle from the garden hose or the addition of dry leaves if it leans too far in one direction or the other.

As for air, this is what those fancy compost tumblers can actually be pretty good at. You should turn your pile once a season, and if it’s getting really big, it might be a good idea to stab it with a pitchfork a few times in between turnings, just to make sure the inner layers aren’t getting too dense and compact, which can stall or stop our friendly aerobic bacteria from decomposing efficiently. Airflow is why you don’t just throw everything in a sealed box; keeping the sides slatted (as I plan on doing this year with wooden pallets) or surrounded with chicken wire to contain your pile is fine, but don’t cut off the air circulation!

In conclusion, I know it can sound like a lot of work to start up and maintain your compost pile, but never fear! Once you start, composting will become such a habit that you’ll forget you ever had trouble! Keep a checklist (like the one above) near your kitchen bucket to remind you of the rules until you get the hang of it, make sure to add plenty of “browns” every time you add some “greens,” and water your pile when it gets dry. If you can do that, you’ll have a gorgeous pile of “black gold” to add free nutrients to feed your plants. What could be better than that?


Are you attempting a compost pile for the first time this year? Congrats! Let me know any questions you have in comments!

Gardening 101 · State of the Garden Address · Winter Prep

Garden Resolutions 2019

Hello blog readers!

No, I’m sorry to say, it’s still not planting season yet. At least, not here in Maine. (Is it planting season where you live yet? If so, I am so jealous.) But that doesn’t mean I can’t be thinking ahead!

I’m dubbing today the inaugural “State of the Garden” address. One of my big goals for starting this blog is to not only share what I’ve learned, but also help me observe and learn more from my own garden. After all, I’ve got experience and that Master Gardener certification, but I’m by no means an actual botanist or a “Better Homes and Garden” model. I figured something like this was the best way to keep me accountable.

Of course, when my garden currently looks like this…

*sigh*

…the first State of the Garden address will have to just be my list of goals for the year.

So here we go! My gardening hopes and dreams for 2019:

Balance gardening with the rest of life
If you don’t know me in real life, you might not be aware that I’m currently nine months pregnant with my first child. All signs point to life dramatically changing once a little one enters the world, so I’m not delusional enough to think I’ll be able to keep up with a gardening load like I’ve had in previous years, and certainly not the more adventurous ideas I had in mind when my husband and I bought our new house about a year ago (which, to be fair, were ridiculous. Who has time to plant an entire food forest in a single season?)

Pick mostly easy, low-maintenance seeds and seedlings
I just posted last week about how to pick which plants work best in your garden. This year, the most important thing for me to keep in mind when deciding is how much time I’ll have to care for them with a newborn on my hands. So I’m thinking beans, onions, peas, lettuce, and carrots for this year, since those can mostly take care of themselves.

Buy seeds and seedlings!
The first step to having a garden is getting seeds! I first shop from my stash of seeds that I’ve preserved from last year (many of which are gifts or were otherwise free), but if I need to buy new ones, I like to order from Johnny’s or FedCo. I’ll also patronize the Saturday farmer’s market downtown or the Master Gardener’s plant sale fundraiser for seedlings and transplant sets. I like knowing the seeds I buy come locally, from good stock, and at least from somewhat ethical business practices. I can’t say the same for the seeds they sell on those end caps at Walmart.

I won’t be starting these peppers or tomatoes from seed this year, and they’re from 2017. But the packets are so pretty!

Put in two more raised beds
As I think I’ve mentioned, a friend generously gave me a dump truck of fully finished compost as a house warming present to help get my gardening kick-started last year. I was able to put one bed in with the help of my husband last summer, but awful morning sickness kept me from doing the rest. I’d love to put in at least two more raised beds using the same sheet mulching technique. (I’ll be covering that in a future blog post. It’s easily the best way to set up a new bed without messing with the current soil in your garden!)

Plant my seed garlic and potatoes
Last season, I made sure to harvest all my garlic and keep the biggest bulbs to plant this coming season. Of course, in the midst of all the holy crap we’re having a baby hoopla, I forgot that garlic needs to be planted in the FALL. That means that when I get my garlic in as early as possible this spring (which you can do) that it unfortunately won’t grow as nice and big as if I’d planted it in October. I can still get some nice green shoots, scapes, and hopefully bulbs, though. I’ll keep you updated!

Check out these monster bulbs!

I also kept a few potatoes from last year’s harvest that I intend to use for seed this year. At this point, I’m about 75% sure they’re the Katahdin variety as opposed to the Kennebec, but one more growing season would help me determine officially. I’ve been keeping and storing seed from this stock for the past five years, and I just never wrote down what seed I originally bought. Good thing I won’t make that mistake again (she says, almost entirely sure that even with the help of a blog, she’ll forget something crucial this year, too).

Put in a picket fence and plant flowers along it
I’ve definitely gone a bit nuts dreaming about this idea. There’s not much curb appeal at our house, and I’ve got big plans for a picket fence along the front sidewalk with a small flower garden bordering that. I can just see the clematis climbing up an archway, peonies blooming along the side, and little bursts of yarrow filling out the mix. I plan on visiting my gardening guru grandmother soon and picking her brain about specific species and varieties, and I’ll be sure to bring her wisdom here to share!

Get some raspberry canes established.
I’ve tried growing raspberries once before on a rental property with a former roommate, but they really didn’t turn out that well. I’ve learned from my mistakes though, and plan to give them plenty of room to spread out, good, well-drained soil full of nutrients, and some sort of trellis system to keep them from falling over. Hopefully we’ll have fresh-picked berries by next summer!

Finally, plant my wedding flowers.
Last May, I walked down the aisle holding a bouquet of lilacs and lily of the valley, my two favorite flowers which just happened to be blooming in my parent’s neighborhood the week I got married.

Since I have access to transplants/cuttings of both, I’m going to try propagating some and resettling them somewhere on my new property so I can always be reminded of that day.


After having just done that exercise, I highly recommend writing out your own list of goals for your garden this year. Seriously, grab a piece of paper right now and just scribble down some thoughts. Not only will it help keep you organized, but MAN! It has it gotten me way more enthusiastic than I was before.

Let me know what wild and crazy gardening hopes you have for this year! We can all get excited for spring together. 🙂

Gardening 101 · Winter Prep

What should I plant in my garden?

Moving along with my series on “things to do during the winter months before we can actually get in the garden,” everyone’s favorite part of garden prep:

PLANT SELECTION!

We’re talking plant selection today! Get out your seed catalogues, my friends. Or, if you currently have none, what are you waiting for?

Or you can just order seeds online. While it’s certainly more environmentally friendly, I can’t help myself with the rustic FedCo catalogues!

While it’s always tempting to just browse through the catalogs or websites and order a packet of whatever’s brightest- or most delicious-looking, your wallet will thank you if you think a little farther in advance. Here’s what you should consider before clicking ‘checkout.’

What do you have time to grow?

Every plant has its own internal calendar and is fully mature at different times. To find out if you have enough time to grow the plant in question, find out how many days it takes to mature. Then, check out when your zone’s first and last frost dates are, and when the seed needs to be in the ground by. This is important because frost can damage plants and fruit/vegetables. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has an excellent web tool for finding your town’s frost dates. You can also check out the official USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map as a reference.

Confused? Here’s an example:

Say you want to plant bush-style green beans. You know your area’s last spring frost date is May 11th and the first fall frost date is October 1st, giving you a 142 day growing season. The packet of bean seeds you got said they need to be planted “after all danger of frost has past,” so that means May 11th (or a little later, if you’re watching the weather that week. Frost dates are an average after all, and have some possibility of slight error!) The packet also says they’ll take 60 days til full maturity. This is perfect! You can start planting after the frost date, and have delicious beans a little after the 4th of July.

Another fine alternative to shopping the catalogues or online seed warehouse is going to your local, old-timey hardware and scooping a few ounces of bean seeds from a giant whiskey barrel. I always leave feeling like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Some plants require more time than your area can give, however. For example, living in Maine like I do means I can’t just plant tropical plant seeds in the ground after the frost date and expect to get any kind of quality harvest. They need too much warm weather time to germinate, mature, and produce fruit. If I REALLY wanted to, however, I might be able to plant them indoors under grow lights and transplant the little seedlings, or plant them in a greenhouse and let them grow happily in there year round.

What do you have time to care for?

Some plants are just attention hogs. This might be because they’re prone to labor-intensive pest control, they don’t compete well with weeds and need you to fight all their battles for them, or they might need constant watering adjustments. If you aren’t ready to treat your growing shoots like newborn babies, you can either plant them anyways and just settle for a mediocre harvest (or none at all) OR you can stick to easy plants.

In my experience, the plants that will grow right along without caring two whits what you do are:

  • Oregano (honestly, this one grows so well for me I’ve decided to never plant it outside of a container again. It just spreads so much!)
  • Carrots
  • Snow peas
  • Pole beans
  • Kale
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Potatoes
  • Cherry tomatoes
Such good growers.

What will you actually eat?

There’s no point in buying the gorgeous striped-zucchini variety if you can’t stand eating zucchini (ESPECIALLY zucchini, because one plant will give you approximately one billion pounds of the vegetable). I make sure whatever I’m putting in the ground will also go over well on the dinner table. The only exception to this rule is if it’s something everyone else seems to like plenty, like tomatoes, which the local food pantry will be happy to take. (Come back next week when I talk more about Plant a row for the hungry/Harvest for Hungry gardens.)

2016, year of “HOLY CRAP WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH ALL THESE PEPPERS AND TOMATOES.” (Answer: make a lot of sauce.)

This extends to types of plants, as well. With tomatoes, for example, neither my husband nor I really like to eat raw tomatoes, but we use pizza and pasta sauce fairly often. For that reason, I tend to grow paste-variety tomatoes instead of the big, chunky beefsteak ones you find showcased in the grocery store, because I’ll turn paste tomatoes into sauce and can it for later. Consider all the possible uses you’ll have for the plant when selecting your seeds!

What is your planting site suited for?

I already covered this one pretty thoroughly here, but do make sure your potential plot has all the light, water, and soil specifications you need!

Is this plant going to benefit your local ecosystem?

Finally, I added this one at the end to remind us all that whatever we plant in our backyards and gardens isn’t just there for us. It’s for the friends we feed around our table, the neighbors who get to see a little splash of beauty as they walk or drive by our garden, and it can also be for the birds and bees who live in the spaces around us.

The most obvious way to protect your local ecosystem is to not plant anything that would poison any friendly bugs, animals, or human friends who happen to wander through. (Ask me about that one time I had to call poison control because I planted something poisonous in my garden because it was from Harry Potter and my arm went numb. Fun day.)

Aside from that, think about growing plants that are historically from your area. These “native” plants will typically have better-than-average ability to repel common local pests, withstand local temperature ranges, and typical water availability. This all means less work for you! Not only that, but native plants will provide a food source and habitat for native animals (especially if we’re talking larger plants like trees and bushes) and also for smaller creatures, like pollinators. Let’s keep those busy bees, butterflies, and other beneficial creepy-crawlies happy!

The gigantic silver maple in my backyard, home to birds, bugs, and several families of squirrels (including the one my brother-in-law aptly named Mr. Fatty).

So there we have it! What plants are you dying to try this year? Let me know in comments!

Uncategorized

Any Questions?

Hey all!

Just a quick update today. Here in southern Maine, we have a conference for all the Master Gardeners once a year we call “Digging Deeper.” It’s coming up this Saturday, March 9th, and if you’re in the area I believe there are still tickets available to purchase for non-Master Gardeners. For those who can’t come, I figured I would preview the topics and could both A) report out and B) bring your questions with me! Here are the three presenters and their topics:

  • Lucinda Brockway- Best Lessons from English Garden Design and Discovery
  • Helene Lewand of Black Rock Farm in Kennebunkport- A Year in the Life of a Gardener/Landscaper
  • Fellow Master Gardener, Garrett Bent- Intensive Organic Production of Vegetables for a Farm-to-Table Restaurant.

I’m personally very excited for the second two since I tend to favor vegetable gardening over flower gardening or straight design work, but I’m sure all three will be informative and engaging, as they’ve always been.

Let me know in comments if you have any questions, and I’ll bring them up to the speakers!

13 days til spring!!

The seedlings my students started last year. Look at these little guys, reaching for the sun!
Gardening 101 · Winter Prep

Observing your garden- how and why

Is this your first time ever hoping to put in a garden? Or have you recently moved, changed the layout of your space, or seen any big ecological changes on your property?

Then before you even touch your hoe or seed packet, you need to spend some time observing your space. Think of your backyard (or front yard, side yard, or flower bed) as uncharted territory, like a wild and unknown forest that you need to master before you tame. For some of you inheriting someone else’s overgrown garden or a concrete jungle, this might be a rather large project, but for everyone else, I promise this will be manageable.

I know it’s tempting to jump right into putting a flowerbed by your front door (that’s where they go, right?) or visiting the nursery for your favorite bushes, but resist! What if you put your bed right on a floodplain, or somewhere that hardly gets any sun, or on top of a secret trapdoor to an underground tunnel? (Ok, the last one is pretty unlikely.) Learning as much as you can about your backyard will keep you ahead of the ecological curve and future *facepalm* moments.

If you want a really in-depth look at the process of observing your growing space, I highly recommend Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier.

He and his buddy Jonathan spent an entire year watching, measuring, and mapping their property in Holyoke, MA before putting a single seed in the ground, a practice which I have (mostly) copied myself. Of course, you don’t have to go this in-depth if you don’t want to, but any amount of studying will improve your knowledge and therefore, your growing.

So what in particular should you be paying attention to?

SUN

Knowing the patterns of sun and shade is crucial when picking a spot for a new plot (or evaluating whether or not last year’s plot will still work, if you’re on year 2+ of this cycle). For all you know, the neighbor’s new line of poplar trees reaches so high that it completely shades out where you wanted to put a tomato patch. Or you might realize the spot you thought you’d grow some partial shade-loving lettuce actually gets full sun. If you study beforehand, you’ll avoid the lost season of growth and be one step closer to a bountiful harvest.

The beautiful, sunny view from my community garden plot.

Observing new-to-you land takes some work and prep, if you want to do it right. Not only should you think about what sun patterns look like now, but also a season or two or three from now. The sun’s angle changes, and so will the amount of light different patches get at different times based on the shadows thrown by your or neighbor’s houses, nearby trees, and any other tall structures. If you don’t want to spend a full year literally watching grass grow (I hear ya!) check out suncalc.org or another solar calculator to help you determine position and length of sunlight.

Soil

If you’ve never done it before, you really should get your soil tested. This will tell you
– your soil’s pH
– % soil organic matter
– nutrient levels (and recommendations for how to get levels perfect)
– whether or not you have dangerous levels of lead in your soil
– other interesting things

Soil test kits are available at your local Cooperative Extension office (the same organization that usually runs Master Gardener programs). They don’t cost too much if you’re just a home gardener. Where I live, the University of Maine will do a standard analysis for just $18.

It’s also important to know what kind of soil you have- silt, sand, clay, or loam. This won’t be covered in a soil test, but you can generally discover yours by using an online tool like the USDA’s Web Soil Survey. Put in your address, use the AOI (area of interest) tool to draw an outline around your property, and see what results come up! In the near future, I’ll be writing a post on what to do if your soil type is less than ideal, and how to get your beds as close to loamy as possible.

Water

I don’t just mean looking at how much rainfall your area typically gets in a year. I mean finding the little patches where your backyard turns into a lake after a drizzle, or where the water cuts a path running down your hill, or the best place to harvest rainwater for later use. Here in Maine, I don’t have to worry about water conservation techniques (or ridiculous rainwater harvesting laws), as we get plenty of rainfall spread out pretty evenly throughout the year. If your climate is more arid, however, this will probably be a crucial part of your observation.

Wind

You certainly don’t want to plant some delicate, easily-blown-over onions right in the path of frequent gusts. You also might want to think about wind if you were hoping to plant some wind-pollinated species. Check ahead to make sure wind won’t be a factor!


In addition to the natural elements I’ve already covered, there are also some human components you should think about when picking a garden site, including but not limited to:

Foot traffic patterns

Where are you going to walk when trekking between the tool shed and your berry patch? Where will your guests come from when visiting to check out your blooms? Think ahead before planting.

More from the community garden. Notice the giant, mulched pathway down the middle that branches off to go between each of the beds on either side.

Even after you’ve mapped out the rough area where a garden would best fit, make sure you think about how much space you’ll need to move around between beds for planting, weeding, and harvesting. You don’t want to be stepping in your nice bed and compacting the soil every time you go to pick a flower! Leave some space for maneuvering around.

Parking

Are there any potential issues with people parking on the strip of grass at the edge of your driveway where you planned to plant those adorable mini-pumpkins?

Underground stuff

If you were hoping to put in some deep-rooted plants or trees, make sure there aren’t utility lines or pipes underground to watch out for. The last thing you want is for your sewer line to get blocked up because you didn’t know it was right under the site of your new weeping willow. Also check with the neighbors to see if the last owner was ever seen with a box and a shovel in the backyard at night. Maybe.

Which brings me to my final point,

General neighborhood notes

Does one of your neighbors have an overgrown bush that’s home to about ten thousand common sparrows? (Ask me how I know about this one.) How about a hoard of semi-feral cats always looking for a good litter box? These are things to know and plan ahead for! Perhaps some fences or netting is in your near future.

Knowing this cat hangs around the garden means I know to add ten minutes to my planned gardening time. You know, for belly rubs.

You also might want to know about potentially beneficial elements found around you. For instance, maybe someone nearby keeps bees that could help your plants with pollination, or maybe that pond down the road is home to a bunch of pest-eating frogs! Lucky you!

At the end of the day, you probably won’t be able to plan ahead for every single facet of your growing space. Even if you could, Mother Nature has a way of changing things around on you just as you’re getting the hang of it (like a giant tree that once shaded your whole backyard coming down in a blizzard). Ecological succession is something you’ll be contending with as long as you work outside, so you might as well get used to the process of observation right away.

That’s it for me! What did you think about before putting in your first garden? Or what do you still have questions about? Let me know in comments!

Uncategorized

Biggest Gardening Fails

You know the old saying, “you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs?”

I’d like to make a motion to change this to “you can’t be a gardener without accidentally killing everything you touch once or twice.”

Because c’mon. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. Let’s just get it out in the open, have a brief moment of silence for every plant we’ve mutilated, and move on together.

So today, I’ve gone through all my old garden notes from the past five seasons to find the biggest mistakes I’ve made in the dirt.  Everyone needs a good dose of humility every now and then, right? So let’s see what kind of scarecrows I’ve got in my closet…

Summer of 2014- Ignoring pests

2014 was the first year I really held the reins of my little community garden plot. I had complete control of what, when, and where in my plots I planted for the first time, and I got a little drunk off that power in the beginning. I felt large and totally in charge.

Then came the hornworms.

♪I CAME IN LIKE A WREEEEECKING BALLLLLLL…♪

They showed up, as hornworms usually do, in the middle of the summer, just when my tomato plants were starting to form tiny green tomatoes. But they GROSSED ME OUT. I couldn’t bring myself to do more than try and flick them off with a three foot stick. I think I kept hoping these magic, beneficial wasps I’d read about would swoop in and come to my rescue if I just waited long enough.*

As a result, I lost everything to those chubby green buggers.

Solution- Woman or man up and squish those guys. This past summer, remembering my former shame, I got my gardening gloves on and plucked these guys off by hand. I didn’t even have to spend much time doing it. Once or twice a week for ten minutes was enough to hand-manage these slow moving pests and actually have a tomato harvest through the summer. (Pesticides, even safe ones like Neem oil, should be second or third on your list of pest management techniques, as they can kill the beneficial bugs you want to keep along with the garden-destroying kind.) All it took was patience and familiarity with my plants, because hornworms are excellent at camouflage.

As an added idea, this would be an excellent task to get little kids helping with in your garden! They’re right at eye level with the green beasts and I know tons of kids love all things that wriggle and can be placed in a bucket.

Spring of 2016- Gardening too early
In 2016, I was in the middle of completing my Master Gardener certification, and I was so excited! I was soaking up everything I could learn about soil, botany, pests, organic practices, and so much more.


However, in my enthusiasm, I overlooked one crucial lesson. On many packages of seeds, it notes that planting should occur “as soon as the soil can be worked.” In my naivete, I assumed that meant “as soon as the ground is no longer frozen solid.”

Can anyone guess what kinds of seeds came in this package?


That would be a mistake. If soil is too wet in the spring (as it often is, with all the rain, melting snow, and still-chilly temperatures), moving the soil around too much will cause the soil structure to be DESTROYED. Instead of a nice, crumblike structure come May or June, the soil will have dried out into giant clods that turn to dust if you break them up. And nothing grows well in soil like that.

Solution: Be patient. Test the soil when you’d like to work it by grabbing a small handful and squeezing it into a ball. Upon releasing your fist, if the ball stays firm like play dough or doesn’t break apart nicely with a little pressure from your thumb, you’ll just have to find other projects to keep you entertained, because it is not planting time yet.

Alternatively, if you’ve already made the same mistake I have, the problem can take years to fix, depending on how vigorously you dug up your too-wet soil. Adding some more compost (in various stages of decomposition) and/or working in some manure to the top of your damaged soil, then seeding with some kind of “green manure” like clover or winter rye on top might help it heal faster. In the meantime, find a new patch to plant your veggies in, build raised beds on top of the damaged soil, or think about container gardening for the season if your plot options are limited.

Every year- Not thinning seedlings

I should know better. Intellectually, I know that if plants have optimal spacing, they’ll produce bigger, better, and maybe even faster. And yet some part of me always feels so guilty pulling out those little, tender carrot tops or radish sprouts.

“How can you kill us when we’re so small and cute?” they seem to cry out to me as I pluck and discard them. “What did we ever do to youuuu?”

And so I leave all four hundred carrots in the tiny patch I sowed them in, and thoroughly regret my soft heart about a month later when my carrots look more like wimpy shoelaces than, well, carrots.

Solution: It’s the same advice I give to my high school students looking to write a better short story- kill your darlings. It’s much better to have properly spaced plants produce big, beautiful fruits and veggies for you than to keep a bunch of measly looking ones. Trust me.

Students at Farm Camp doing exactly what I should always do- THINNING CARROTS.

Fall of 2017- Not harvesting completely

Sometimes, I get so excited about finally pulling all the potatoes or carrots out of the ground, I rush. I go as fast as I can so I can run home and make soup immediately with all my delicious, fresh veggies. (Which, of course, you should never do with potatoes. Let them cure for like two weeks in a cool, dark place before cooking with them.) In my haste in 2017, I missed a few and got a big surprise the following spring when something that was DEFINITELY not a bean plant popped up in my bean patch.

Potatoes are proof that there is a God.

Solution: Go slow, use a hoe. (If in doubt, eh, it’ll sprout.) (Pull it then, that’ll be the end.)

(Okay, I’m done now.)

What about all of you? What do you consider your biggest gardening fails? (It’s okay, this is a safe, judgement-free garden. 😉 )

*Yes, this is actually a viable solution if it happens to present itself. The parasitic Braconidae wasp lays its eggs on the backs of hornworms, and if you wait long enough, the baby wasps will hatch, feed on the host hornworm, mature, and then fly off to destroy hornworms all over the neighborhood. So if you ever see a hornworm with what looks like dozens of bright white eggs on its back, LEAVE IT!