Six Letters Re: Experiences of a Novice Gardener

Dear Editor:
J.B.’s article his was very interesting to read and it sounded a lot like what we went through 4 years ago when my wife and I started gardening.  Many people are still stuck in that “growing in the ground in rows” mentality.  If you do not have a large amount of land (an acre or more) then you should stick to container gardening.  Our second year of gardening we started with Earthboxes and we had a very successful harvest that year and every year thereafter.  The concept is very simple to where you can even manufacture your own (see Global Buckets).  If you do not like watering plants daily then you may even look into the Autopot system that has a valve that will open and close when the plant needs water from the reservoir.  The other option available is called Square Foot Gardening. (See the book All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.)

I wouldn’t give up on gardening and anyone can do it with container gardening.  Planting in rows should be left to those who have large plots of land and the time and energy to do it.  The other thing we have learned is to grow your plants from seeds.  The seedlings from stores tend to be too old for the plants to reach their full potential, but you may want to use seedlings for the first year or two to get used to the process.  I hope this will help you and others in your gardening experience. – KJP


James Wesley:
I’m sure you’ll get more than a few e-mails on this, but I just had to make some comments on J.B.’s experiences as a Novice Gardener:
1)        Don’t get discouraged! It gets easier the more experience you gain.
2)        Search for “soil blocks” for starting your seeds. Easiest, most cost effective method.
3)        Light: is everything for seedlings. Make sure you use a full spectrum fluorescent lamp no more than 1 inch away from the plants. Some may even touch the lamps.
4)        There’s not much you can do about amending clay soil besides removing it and bringing in clean, loamy topsoil. Consider raised beds. Deep soil is important to plant resilience. In a perfect world there should be nothing by loam to a depth of at least 3 feet. Soil, soil, soil – remember: You are not growing plants. You are growing soil – the plants are a side effect letting you know you’re growing good soil.
5)        Plant spacing is the most critical element of a successful garden. I suggest the book “Gardening When It Counts” by Steve Solomon. Plant spacing impacts everything: water requirements, light requirements, disease/insect resistance, yield. In theory (and I’ve come close) with proper spacing you should never have to water your garden. I have a section of my garden designated as the “No Water” section. It is planted per Solomon’s “Extensive” spacing guidelines. I’ve successfully grown squash, pumpkins, melons, potatoes, and corn with absolutely no watering besides that provided by Mother Nature for an entire season. YMMV depending on your climate.
6)        Proper fertilization is important. There can be “too much of a good thing”. Over-fertilization leads to unnatural, “steroid-induced” growth that is highly susceptible to disease and insects.
7)        Heirloom corn is not going to look “supermarket perfect”. Also, what you probably experienced was incomplete pollination. Every strand of silk equals a corn kernel, and every silk requires a single grain of pollen. Corn is planted in huge fields because it is pollinated by the wind. The center of the field is usually well-pollinated, but the edges of the field are not, and are usually discarded by growers. Small, home corn patches are usually pollinated by hand if you have less than 50 plants. Search for “hand pollinating corn”.
8)        Staying ahead of weeds is important, and the proper tools make the job easier. I recommend a good stirrup hoe and a collinear (“coleman”) hoe. Buy the best quality you can afford. I weed once a week. Period. I rarely pull anything by hand unless it’s too close to the plant for me to carefully hoe.
9)        Cracked tomatoes are a sign of *too much* water. Tomato plants will wilt both when they have too much and too little water. Dig down 6” next to a tomato plant and gather a handful of soil. Squeeze it into a clump hard with your fist. If water squeezes out between your fingers: too much water. If it doesn’t hold together: too little water. If it holds together, then busts apart when you press it with your thumb: perfect. The key is 6” down – the top few inches of soil will look like a desert, which is a popular conundrum for new gardeners. But under that dry soil is where all the moisture is and that’s what matters to deep-rooted plants. The only place your garden shouldn’t look like a desert is anywhere you have shallow rooted produce like lettuce. YMMV because of clay content.
10)    Blueberries must establish a root system and might not produce the first year or two. They also require good pollination from neighboring plants. If they haven’t established themselves, they may bloom at different times, thus little or no pollination, and thus, no berries.
11)    If you think a garden is hard (it’s not), steel yourself if you want to plant fruit trees.
I have to respectfully disagree: With experience, patience, knowledge, and the right tools, growing food is neither hard, sweaty, nor toilsome. It should be pleasing, and dare-I-say, spiritual. Eventually, over time, it will also be cost effective. Take this winter to get yourself on the right track next year by reading these key references:

Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, Steve Solomon
The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Ed Smith
All books by Carol Deppe, especially The Resilient Gardener
All books by Eliot Coleman, such as The New Organic Grower and The Winter Harvest Handbook
Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth (gives perspective on how plants grow)

Regards, – E. Koala Tea


I just wanted to thank you for J.B.’s novice gardener post. I laughed and laughed! Okay– I know I shouldn’t have, but veggie gardening is hard sometimes, even for a non-novice gardener. 

I hope JB tries again next year. There is nothing quite as satisfying as never having to buy tomatoes because you’ve put up enough of your own to last a full year. But you don’t get to that state over night. 

Regarding some of JB’s specific issues… . 

This fall rake up your leaves and if you have a blower/leaf sucker-upper suck them up and then spread them on your garden plot. Rake or till them in if you can along with some lime. Adding organic matter this fall will loosen up the clay. Your soil will be much easier to work with next spring. I have Mississippi clay. I get it.

The “mutated” corn had common smut, a fungal disease that persists in the soil. If you plant corn again next year, don’t plant it in the same place. It’s a good idea to rotate crops around the garden from year to year. (By the way, I’ve read that Mexicans consider the fungus a delicacy. Yuck.) The squash had powdery mildew, and you’re right– better air circulation around the plants is the most effective way to keep it at bay. But in my experience, it will happen no matter what you do. 

No need to start anything except tomatoes, peppers, eggplant inside. Your squash, corn, cukes, melons, etc. seed can be sown directly in the garden about two weeks after the last frost date. Off the top of my head I’d say that would be about May 15th or so in Kentucky. But you can check on that at the Kentucky Ag Extension web site.

Good luck, J.B.! And thanks again for the post. – Marica


I also started my first garden this year, and had a few newbie mistakes. After tilling about 1,500 sq. ft of clay soiled lawn, my first mistake was not amending the soil generously with manure and/or compost. The soil was either waterlogged (in the spring) or bone dry (in late summer). All of my plants grew stunted (one foot tall tobacco plants, beets with four small leaves, beans producing 2 pods a plant) from lack of fertilizing. What I did manage to get was due to fertilizing with urine, and allowing a short layer of bermuda grass to grow to keep in moisture. I started all the plants from seed, even the tomatoes(plant in bottom of container, add soil around stem as it grows), which netted savings and experience. The rabbits ate all of my lettuce, swiss chard, and spinach. I would make sure the fence is covered with soil/rocks on the bottom next year to keep them out. The bugs didn’t bother my plants too much (I did not use any pesticide or herbicide), though I would plant more flowers in the future to attract predators. Lastly I am practicing saving seed from all survivors to build my own seed vault. My sense of security WTSHTF revolves around having enough to eat, and even though this year or probably next I won’t reap bountiful harvest, I hope to when it really counts..

As a side note, plants I grew: Pink beans, Snap peas, Pole beans, Roma tomatoes, Hot peppers, Spanish onions, garlic, Bibb lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, parsnips, carrots, beets, cucumbers, winter squash, pumpkins, Mammoth sunflowers, sorghum, flax, sesame, grain amaranth, pearl millet. Some plants failed to set fruit/seed, so next year will have to retry. – J.M.


Here is my message for J.B:
Howdy and welcome to the garden world.

So your first year didn’t do well as your soil sucks. That’s okay, most soil in America, especially in housing subdivisions, suck. My land used to be a grass farm. Highly fertilized monoculture at it’s worst. My first garden was pretty much like yours. One big plot with poor yields. I had to add lots of amendments to raise the soil quality. My garden is now three times as large and mostly raised beds that I can walk around and tend. This year I had my best yields ever! The point is that it didn’t happen overnight. Keep it up, plan, and learn more. Read Better Homes and Gardens books. Buy the Mother Earth books and get their all issues CD-ROMs. Get the Square Foot Gardening book. Plan to do a lot of reading over the winter.

Look carefully at the big box store plants. Many are not suited for your area. I too have blue berry bushes. As this was their first year I didn’t expect many berries. I was correct. They need to grow some first. Lowe’s and home depot had several varieties. Only two varieties were compatible with my area! My citrus trees will need a couple more years of growing before I expect good yields. Lots of folks bought raspberries. They don’t grow here at all! My blackberries, of a suitable variety did great, now in their second year. Make sure that you used two different varieties of blueberries.

Your just starting on this road. Expect bumps along this road. As I said my crop was great this year. That was my first crop of the season. Here in southeast Texas we have a long growing season. My second garden of the year is a disaster. Record 100 degree + days have been a killer. If we get the promised rain soon I will start my third crop. It takes planning, experience, some luck, and the will to keep going.

This is a skill that will be with you for life. If it all goes to heck in a hand basket you will have the ability to grow your own food to survive. If it doesn’t you will have a great hobby and you will be bringing in extra produce to the envy of your friends. Maybe you will inspire them to get healthier too with the garden bug. I hate exercise machines and lifting weights. If you want me to run you better have a gun. I’ll work outside in the garden all day. Bring it on! – Sasquatch


Mr. Rawles,
I have a few suggestions for J.B. regarding his first attempt at growing a garden. I strongly suggest that rather than staking his tomatoes, he should cage them. If he uses a cage that stands 4-5 feet above the ground, his tomatoes will stay up off the ground. It is a good idea to support the cages with wooden stakes or twine tied to some tent stakes at 3 or 4 points around the cage (like the ropes around the edge of a circus tent). Otherwise, a top-heavy tomato plant or a strong thunderstorm can knock the whole thing over, which is very bad for the plant.

Those “flat little bugs” he mentioned are probably squash bugs. I have learned the hard way that those things will kill a squash plant in a matter of a few days. They will also attack other cucurbits, such as cantaloupe. They are tough to control, and you must be aggressive in finding and eliminating them if you want to get any squash before the bugs kill the plants.

The tall, lanky seedlings are caused by insufficient light. The young plants are trying desperately to reach the light because they need more, so they grow as tall as they can as fast as they can. J.B. needs more light, probably both in terms of intensity and area. A bright point source of light will still cause the plants to grow toward it. It is best to surround the seedlings with light from all directions. The lighting area should be larger than the area containing the seed trays.

One more bit of advice regarding watering: try as much as possible to avoid watering the leaves of plants, especially tomatoes. Water the ground, not the plant. This will reduce the likelihood of problems with fungus, to which tomatoes are particularly susceptible. Soaker hoses are an excellent way to accomplish this with the added bonus that you do not have to stand outside and get eaten alive by mosquitoes while you water. Just hook up the hose, turn it on, go back inside, and come back out in an hour or two to turn it off.

I hope J.B. tries his hand at gardening again next year. Once he learns the tricks and gains some experience, he will get better at it. It will always be hard work, but it is very rewarding. – N.B. in Indiana


Mr. J.B.:
Okay, you have had a rough first year.   If at First You Don’t Succeed…., Practice Makes Perfect,     A Journey of a Thousand Li Begins With a Single Step ,   Experience is the Greatest Teacher.
Now that we are done with the platitudes, let’s look at what you learned.  First,  you need to get a few books.   My first suggestion is Five Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management,by Maurice G. Kains.   This will give you a lot of knowledge in between two covers.   You will find yourself reading it again and again.  Order it right now!

Right now
you should begin making plans for next year, based on what you learned this year! Get the seeds you want, and the planting pots,  tools, and everything else you think you will need.  Stakes.  Twine.  Right now, with the summer ending, this stuff is all on sale.   Then get to work.

Let us start with the soil.   You say you have Kentucky clay.   Fine.  What you need is Sand.  That’s right, sand.   Clay is a dense soil of tiny particles, packed together.   Sand will increase the average size of the particles, and give you better drainage.   Sit down right now, and work out how big you want to make your garden next year.   I suggest you triple your current size (to 30′ x 10′ )  and work out how many yards of soil you have when you  go down 6 inches.   ( 30 x 10 x .5 ) + 150 cubic feet.  150 Cubic feet divided by 27 is about 6 cubic yards.   So, you need 6 cubic yards of Sand.  Call up a Garden supply place, and arrange to have 6 cubic yards of their lowest priced, unwashed sand, delivered to your home.    Have it delivered to your driveway, and start wheelbarrowing.  If don’t already have a wheelbarrow, then get one!  And a good, large square ended shovel for shoveling the sand.   Dump  the sand on top of the soil, and work it in with your mattock.

Oh yeah, you need a tool:   A ‘Cutter Mattock‘ (Look it up on the Internet, get a good American-made one at the hardware store.)   This will allow you to work soil three or four times as fast as a shovel.   You will be amazed at how fast a mattock goes through dirt. 

Once you have worked the sand into the clay, you will now find you have a more ‘loamy’ soil, more suited for gardening.   To this you need to add amendments.  Your lawn clippings and your kitchen waste.   You live where the leaves drop in the fall.  Try to get as many tons of leaves as you can.  Ask your  neighbors if you can rake their lawns for them.   They will love you.   Just keep piling all of the leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen waste on your garden plot.  Keep adding to it all fall and winter.   The bigger  the piles,  the better.   Let the piles stew all winter.   Keep adding kitchen scraps.   At this point, you can consider purchasing a dozen bags of Steer Manure, and adding them to the pile.  They will pay off in the long run.   

Next spring, as soon as the ground begins to thaw, start tearing down the compost piles with your mattock, and work them into the soil.   Go about 4-6 inches deep.    Start out slowly, work a few square yards a day for a few weeks.   You will avoid blisters.    And your muscles will love you.    If you want, after you have worked through all of the piles,  you could rent that Roto-Tiller for an afternoon,  and really rip it up to a depth of about 8 inches.   This may bring some more of that Kentucky clay to the surface.  Fine, just buy a few more bags of Sand, and work it in.  And, at this point, you could also work in a few bags of chemical fertilizer, just for this year only.   After this, you will be recycling everything, and it will be unnecessary.

In March is the time get a yourself a few thousand earthworms.    You can buy  about 2,000 Red Wigglers (little ones ) and 500 European Nightcrawlers ( big ones) for about $120 by mail.  Add them to the soil.   Worms will do the great job of aerating and manuring your soil.    The only problem is that they might crawl away.  So keep amending  the soil each year to encourage them to stay put.   Oh, yeah;   did I mention that that worms breed?

Now is the time for crop selection.   I’m sorry, but Sweet Corn is a bad choice.  The reason you had so many weird, mutated ears is because corn is wind pollinated, and requires a lot of corn to ensure that it gets properly pollinated.   10×10 isn’t enough.   About  1 acre is enough.  You don’t have an acre.   So don’t waste your time.

Blueberries are also  a bad choice.   They require acid soil, and are hard to grow.   Take them out, and replace them with Raspberries and Blackberries.   Plant them along your fence lines, then let them grow up along trellised vine supports, and you will have a nice, thorny fence that will keep out trespassers.    And give you nice fruit in summer.   Just keep them trimmed back in winter to keep them from taking over the universe.
You said the Zucchini did well.   All four plants.  Here is a rule of thumb:  One Zucchini plant will die,  giving  you  Zero Zucchini.  Two plants will thrive, and each one will give you a metric  ton of Zucchini.   It just works that way.   So plant three, and give them to your neighbors who let you rake their lawns.   They will love you.

And since the Zucchini did well, follow their lead!   Plant other plants similar to Zucchini.   Eggplants.  Cucumbers.   Hubbard Squash.  Acorn Squash.   Pumpkins.   And, since you live in Kentucky, watermelons!   And those Breakfast  Melons!   You  have a lot of choices, and  all of these should do well in your climate.  And give you nice things to eat in summer and autumn.    

Time for the Tomatoes.   Try different varieties.   Start with Cherry or Berry Tomatoes, and Romas.   Add a few plants of table varieties for BLTs  (Pick the smaller fruited ones.  They mature faster, and give the pests less time to damage them).      Remember:  have the stakes and the twine ready to tie them up and keep them from sagging.   You will learn how.   And learn to find the Tomato Hornworms lurking in your garden.   They strip the branches, and leave little piles of droppings on the ground.  You know what to do.

What about Peppers?  A dozen Pepper plants ( Bells, Chilis, Jalapenos, etc. )   Start out buying the plants at Wal-Mart,  and the following year, try starting some Hybrid seeds.  
And Onions.    And Garlic.   Green onions grow fast.   

Try planting some different types of Lettuce, a few Cabbages, some Radishes, perhaps some different types of Beans.  Fresh Green Beans from the garden, cooked Al-Dente, with butter and salt. Always try something new each year, and record how it did.   Each experiment will give you knowledge for the next year.

Get a head start, starting in March, by planting your seeds in small  pots.  Each pot should be about a cup in size, minimum.   Try making your own newspaper planting pots- there are web sites that tell you how.   They will disintegrate in the soil, making transplanting easier.    Try mixing your own potting soil.  You can find recipes on the Internet.   Try several recipes, marking the pots as to which type is in each pot.   The following year, use only the best recipe.  
Put 2-3 seeds in each cup, and then weed out the weaker ones after a few weeks.   Water each day as required, sunlight, you know the drill.   Study up on ‘Hardening’ seedlings.   You can learn a bunch from ‘Five Acres…’    
When you start out growing seedlings, start with ‘store-bought’  Hybrid seeds.   As you progress, try various heirloom seeds.  These will be more difficult to grow, but  will have the advantage of making  you independent  of Seed companies.

You can plant both your own seedlings, as well as the plants you get from Wal-Mart, in competition with each other.   Initially the commercial stuff will grow better.  But, gradually, as you gain more experience, you will  plant only your own seedlings.   This will save you money, but cost you in time.   But it is worth it to gain  Independence.   Each year, begin saving some of the Heirloom seeds, and planting them  the next year.   Saving  and storing seeds is an art, and you will make mistakes.  The reward will be knowing that each generation  of your garden creates the next, with your labor being the only thing needed.    You can even grow plants for your neighbors as gifts.   Your neighbors  will love you.

Plant after the last frost, and mulch with straw or grass clippings around the plants.   Water as necessary, and keep checking them for insect pests.   Watch out for snails, slugs, bugs, and caterpillars.  Be aggressive.  It is them or you.  

Buy a single hen chicken.  Every evening, go into the garden looking for tomato worms, bugs, etc.  Feed them to the chicken.   She will love you.   She will reward you with eggs and manure. 

Get a Wire Box trap, and bait it for rabbits.   If you get a jackrabbit in the trap, kill it and bury it in the garden, about a foot deep.   If you get a Cottontail,  dress it and freeze it.  Re-bait the trap.   When you have 4-to-6 Cottontails in the freezer, you have Sunday Dinner for the Family.   Check the Internet for Rabbit Recipes.  Unfortunately, the rabbits will not love you.

Enlist your children.   They will hate it at first, but when the first crops come in, they will begin to understand that food is not created at the Supermarket, and that  freshness means flavor.   They will grow  to hate ‘store-bought’  tomatoes.   And that first Blackberry Cobbler of the season: Your children will love you.

To sum it up:  You have stuck your toe into the sea of Garden-Farming.   Right now is the time to get ready for next year. This Autumn and Winter you will prepare your soil for next spring.    Next  year, you will plant Wal-Mart plants and seedlings grown from Hybrid Seeds.   You will make mistakes, and learn from them.   With each passing year, you will plant more heirlooms, and more of your own seeds, and will plant with the confidence that you know what you are doing to ensure a bountiful harvest.  

Good luck.    Just keep planting, experimenting, and learning new things.  ‘Five Acres, and Independence’! Respectfully,- P.R.W.

JWR Adds: J.B.’s article also inspired this reply, posted to another blog: How not to set up a backyard garden.