Starting A Vegetable Garden
Almost everyone has a neighbor or relative who grows vegetables. Take advantage of this collective local knowledge to get your own garden off to a great start.
Choose varieties that are suited to your zone and taste preferences. Consider mixing in flowers such as marigolds to discourage pests and attract pollinators.
BECOMING A successful vegetable gardener involves a lot of trial and error. As the seasons pass we hopefully get better at it—harvesting not just food for the table, but food for thought too, insights gleaned along the way to guide us to improved outcomes in subsequent growing seasons.
I don’t know many more passionate vegetable gardeners than Joe Lamp’l, who has gathered what he’s learned in decades of growing his own food into a new book filled with advice for the rest of us.
Joe Lamp’l is the creator of the long-running public television program, “Growing a Greener World,” and of the popular “Joe Gardener” podcast. Now he’s also author of “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your Complete Guide to Growing an Edible Organic Garden from Seed to Harvest” (affiliate link).
It covers what he’s learned from bountiful seasons—and from some tough ones, too, along the way.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of his new book by commenting in the box farther down the page.
Read along as you listen to the Sept. 26, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
vegetable garden tips, with joe lamp’l
Margaret Roach: Hi Joe, how are you?
Joe Lamp’l: I’m doing great. It’s fall, what’s not to love about that? And I’ll be spending the rest of the day working in the garden, so it’s all good.
Margaret: Down there near Atlanta, yes?
Joe: Yes. Yes, indeed.
Margaret: And just a quick recap, how’s your year of weather been [laughter]?
Joe: Oh my gosh. I guess that’s part of the pep in my step right now is just feeling like the weather has turned a little bit and you can feel fall in the air. But that came at a big price, because this summer was the hottest that I can ever recall.
Joe: And that’s referring to my being host of three television shows over the past 20 years, where I spend every day working outside in the garden with no shade relief whatsoever. I’ve never noticed the heat like I did this year. It was really extraordinary.
Margaret: Yes, here too. Here too, here too. So, congratulations on the book. I don’t know how you sandwiched that in between everything else [laughter], because we’re both crazy as we know.
Joe: Right. Well, I’m living up to my nickname from you, Crazy Man. And that just speaks to that very much, I don’t know how I did it, either.
Margaret: I don’t know if they all know listening that you’re Crazy Man and I’m Crazy Woman, CM and CW, as we call each other.
Margaret: Yes, our terms of affection [laughter]. So with most things, like we say, “There is a better way.” Or when we’re first starting out, we probably don’t know what the better way is, and they say, “Hindsight is 2020.” Or: “If I’d known then what I know now,” which is our subject today.
And so before we start on some tips and insights, well one important one that you mention in the book, it’s not just gardening, but organic gardening that’s the message that you share in your writing and all your work. And I love how you reveal in one chapter the moment that turned you into an organic gardener, thanks to a little mishap with lawn fertilizer. Can you remind us of that? Because think it’s a good one, a good aha.
Joe: And it was a serious aha for me. So back in the day I used to be the guy that wanted the perfect lawn. And so I was wheeling out a fertilizer spreader, the hoppers, filled to the brim with a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. And I’m heading out to the backyard. And as I do, the wheel hits a root, and it turns over the cart, and all of that nitrogen fertilizer goes piling up onto the ground [laughter].
And so my only thought at that point was, “Gosh, I don’t want to waste all this fertilizer.” I need to get it all up, obviously. But I really wasn’t thinking about what I was going to see the next morning when I walked back out or looked out the window, down to that spot, where that nitrogen fertilizer had spilled.
I’d done my best job to get it all back up and recover it, but it’s impossible to get every granule. And there’s a reason why they say on the packaging spread it only this much, don’t overdo it. Less is more. But I’m the guy that’s thinking, well, more is better.
But it just was a testament when I looked down there and I saw a big black circle in my grass as if somebody had literally put a torch to it. But what that was, was just over those few hours from when it spilled to when I saw it the next morning, that nitrogen had somewhat dissolved, and it had just flat out burned the grass to a crisp. And it was literally a big black spot where I couldn’t get the remaining granules.
Margaret: Yeah, so chemicals: so you learned a little bit about chemicals right there. And then in the book, as an organic gardener, you also have a little sort of box, a little sidebar, with the headline “Warning, Organic Doesn’t Automatically Mean Safe.” And I think that’s another aha that comes with some experience, because just because this particular product has pretty pictures of butterflies and birds on the bag, and even an organic or natural label or whatever.
It doesn’t mean it can be used without harm, so that’s another thing that you’ve come to know more deeply, yes?
Joe: Yes, it is. And our mutual friend, Dr. Jeff Gilman, said it best when he said, “Snake venom is organic too, but do you really want to drink it?”
And I’m like, Wow, that really puts it into perspective. But one that many of us can relate to that are plagued with mosquitoes in the summertime, a lot of people want to deal with that locally in their own backyard or whatever, and they hire these trucks that come along and they advertise as eco-friendly.
But what you don’t know is it’s just really a pyrethrin, it can be a natural herbicide. And it’s like, well, pyrethrum that comes from the chrysanthemum daisy, that’s organic, but it’s non-selective. It doesn’t know the difference between a mosquito and a butterfly, or a lady beetle.
So when it goes and broadcasts out into the air it’s killing all of that stuff, and yet nobody seems to mention that. So we need to be mindful of the fact that just because it’s organic, doesn’t mean it knows the difference between a beneficial and a non-beneficial.
Margaret: And I have to say, I’ve been an organic gardener for decades as well. And so speaking of chemicals and fertilizers or “products,” whether organic or synthetic chemicals: I thought in the beginning of my garden career that I needed them because that’s what the books of those days said. And that’s what the TV programs and everything else said, right?
Get my NPK, get my 10, 10, 10 [laughter]. But truth be told, I don’t really recall the last time I used any except occasionally with my houseplants, maybe a liquid fertilizer, what do you call it? Seaweed emulsion or whatever. Or potted plants, like annuals in containers, because those aren’t in the ground and they’re not benefiting from the soil that I’ve built and stuff.
But you really stress feeding the soil-
Joe: I do.
Margaret: …throughout your work, including this new book.
Joe: I do. I think that I use the example sometimes if you had a dollar to spend on your garden, spend 90 cents on it in your soil, because the soil is what is going to do the best job of feeding your plants when your plants need the nutrients.
And to me, I’ve said it before, I compare eating junk food to satisfy your hunger pangs, versus eating something that’s healthy for you. That’ll do the same thing. It’ll stop the hunger pang, but it’ll also provide longer term benefits than eating a candy bar or drinking a soda.
And it’s not to say that the synthetics or the fertilizers that are manmade, there’s nothing… They work, they work great, but I’m looking for something more natural for that. And by building the soil, you’re feeding the microbes, which are then creating the nutrients that the plants need naturally.
So to me, that’s just a much better way to do it. And I have no complaints. I have a very productive, successful garden, and I don’t continue to feel the need to pump fertilizer into it, organic or synthetic.
Margaret: And here, too, people say to me all the time, if they visit, they’re like, “Oh, what do you feed the plants?” Because they see these big beds of whatever. And I’m like, “Nothing. Nothing.” [Laughter.]
But over all these years I’ve consciously… I topdress with compost, I put on a very good quality mulch that’s not too coarse, not like big bark nuggets or wood chips, because I’m doing mostly ornamental things. Mulch that degrades slowly, naturally, passively composts itself into the soil. So I have a lot of organic matter in the soil, and that’s really helpful.
Joe: Yes, and what you’re doing is you’re making deposits. I also liken it to a bank account. If we’re making withdrawals all the time, eventually our bank account is going to be empty.
So as our plants are making those nutrient withdrawals, we need to do something to replace those nutrients. But the investment comes in what you’re doing, in building the soil by returning nutrient-rich organic matter that can break down over time, and then stays chemically bound in the soil until it’s made available to the plants. And so that’s the way I look at it. [Joe in his vegetable garden, above.]
Margaret: So among some of the other things I noticed in the book that you seem to have come upon, whether slowly in a difficult way with a lot of torture [laughter] or right away easily, I’m not sure, crop rotation, that’s something that you really stress to us. And I think that’s something that a lot of us forget about, frankly.
Joe: Yeah, a lot of people forget about it or they think it’s not for them. Because we oftentimes hear crop rotation mentioned in the context of farming. But even if you’ve got two raised beds, all the more reason really you need to be thinking about moving your family of plants out of that same location that you continue to plant your tomatoes or peppers in, season after season after season.
And I raise my hand to this, because you started off this conversation by saying sometimes we know about the concept but we don’t really do anything about it, something that you said.
And I thought about crop rotation when you mentioned that, because I’ve known about crop rotation for a very long time, and yet I’m the guy that’s guilty of continuing to plant tomatoes in the same raised beds year after year after year. And for the first year or two or three, you can get away with it. You don’t notice anything really significantly happening.
But then in years four, five, and six, when you continue to get the same-looking disease that you finally realize is coming from the soil, well, the reason why it’s continues to come because you continue to provide the pathogens what they want to persist in the soil. And we’ve got to have the discipline, I think, and I’m speaking to myself as I say this [laughter], to move it out of those locations into another area.
And even if it is two beds, moving it to the second bed or one half of the second bed, and then making that your four-season rotation by just having those two halves of those two beds and just moving it around. That can make the difference. But we also have grow bags and straw bales and different opportunities to add to that space.
Margaret: Right, exactly. And I’ve seen you in pictures and on your website and things like that, and on Instagram, I’ve seen more and more evidence of not just your gorgeous vegetable garden with the wooden raised beds, but I’ve seen the appearance of more straw bales [above] and grow bags at the perimeter. And I assume that’s partly for this crop rotation potential that it offers.
Joe: That is the first and foremost reason why I’ve added a ton of grow bags lately, is to just find that new space. Because that requires new soil to go into those grow bags, and that’s clean new soil. And so I know I’m starting off, and I’ve learned over the years now that you don’t need a massive grow bag to grow out a full-size tomato plant, let alone anything smaller than that. A 7-gallon grow bag will do just fine.
And so that’s been my way because I do have those 16 large raised beds and they’ve all been overplanted with the same things over and over [laughter]. I don’t have an easy solution to fix the bed problem. I can’t dig out all the soil or just avoid planting in that long enough unless I have some other place to put those plants. And so for me grow bags has been a really great and handy solution, plus it’s given me newfound space to grow more things. Like I needed that, but still.
Margaret: Yeah, you really needed that, Joe [laughter], because you were not growing… How many tomatoes plants a year do you grow?
Joe: Sixty-something, but who’s counting?
Margaret: Yeah, there you go. One guy, 60-something tomato plants. O.K., that’s normal. So speaking of taking advantage of space, also another thing that I love that you do, and it’s in the book, in the vegetable gardening book, which is its title, is you go vertical.
Joe: Well, and this is in concert with adding those grow bags into the walkways of where I had room. And look, we’ll use the example with tomatoes still. You’re going to an indeterminate tomato, you got to find a way to support it. And so you’ve got the grow bag, but now how do you train it up?
And so I installed my proverbial livestock panels along the back of the garden, and that has been the best thing to provide that support and give me that vertical opportunity that I didn’t have before.
Margaret: So livestock panels, so people can visualize, they’re heavy-gauge wire fencing panels.
Joe: And they’re not unattractive, they have a very symmetrical look to them, with an even grid pattern. And they are 16 feet wide and about 5 feet tall. And mine are supported up on T-posts so I get the extra height. And I leave them up all year round. And now, right now I’ve planted peas and they’re growing up it. So it’s in full service year-round, and it really looks good.
Margaret: And I would imagine that it also helps in some way with pest and disease control, because more air, more light, more air movement, etc., stuff isn’t hanging on top of itself. It’s up in the air in the sun and in the light.
Joe: That is such a good point, I’m glad you brought that up. Because when you’re growing against a flat panel, you’ve got one dimension, you can’t grow all the way around. So you need to, in my case, it looks like an espalier, and it looks beautiful that way. So it’s splayed out on a flat plane, and so you’re cutting out all the outward growing branches.
But by virtue of that, now you’ve opened it up and you’ve got tons of light coming into the plant, and of course the air circulation. And my healthiest tomato plants in this case of the season were the ones against my back panel. And a testament to that is one of the only tomato plants I still have growing at this very moment—usually I pull them out at the end of July because of pests and diseases even here in the Southeast—but it is going strong. It looks like a Christmas tree out there. It is full of tomatoes, and it’s one of the ones that was espaliered on the back panel.
Margaret: So yeah, so vertical, we need to think about that sort of aha. And it’s, again, it’s not something that we all do in the beginning. It really isn’t. Maybe we get a tomato cage; that we learn about right away. It’s like, Oh, I need a stake or a cage. But it’s not quite the same degree of sophistication and innovation that what we’re talking about.
So let’s discuss a hideous topic [laughter]: pests, like deer, oh my goodness. Have you gotten better at realizing or dealing with, or whatever; any ahas there?
Joe: Yeah, I have. I live in a state of denial, and I keep thinking it’s not going to happen to me. But I live in an area that is just like a zoo for deer. They think I’m the guest here and they’re the owners of the property, and that’s only because I for 10 years have been saying I needed a deer fence.
And Margaret, this month I’m literally driving to go get… I have a friend that’s donating a deer fence to me, and I’m going to go get it. So I’m finally going to have that, so that’s the first thing. I’m no longer living in denial there, and I know I need to take action.
But the other things, the smaller things, like the moles and the voles, those are the ones that if I had to do it over again, if I knew then what I know now, let’s take the moles for example: Those are the ones that we often see in our lawn that make the mounds and the long running trails that they burrow along, and they’re eating the worms and the overwintering larvae, the beetle or whatever.
But in my case, a few years ago they found their way into my garden. We were having a particularly dry year, so the grass area outside of my garden was really dry, but somehow they stumbled upon my soil in my raised beds.
And they burrowed up into the raised beds under the wood of the raised bed. And the only way I discovered it was I was watering my raised bed one day with my watering wand, and as I stood over my bed with the wand down at the soil, the ground imploded, the soil in the bed imploded. It was like a…
Joe: Yeah, exactly. Like the ground under your feet is just disappearing. It’s going down into this cavern. And I’m like, What the heck is going on? And it didn’t take long for me to realize what had happened. Those moles had gotten in there and they were in heaven, because they had so many worms on a buffet that they could get to easily, swimming through that loose, moist soil.
And it’s because—here’s the end of the story, and I knew better—I did not put hardware cloth down at the base of my raised beds thinking, “Well, that’s never going to happen to me.” But sure as heck it did. And once it happens, they are very hard to get rid of.
And so now I’m dealing with that, and I don’t have a solution yet, but next time around, you can better believe I’m going to be using hardware cloth around the base.
Margaret: Yeah, the moles, and because they’re insectivorous, as you said, they’re eating things, they’re really beneficial and they’re good soil aerators and all that kind of good stuff.
They don’t eat your plants, but they disturb. They dislodge as you were saying. The voles are the ones that drive me completely wild, because your whole bed of sweet potatoes, every single one can be chewed upon or whatever. You go to do harvest and then it’s like, “Oh, who’s been gnawing on these?”
Joe: Yes, and step outside the vegetable garden, any plant that you love, the ones that you just planted, the ones you went to the nursery and you’re excited about, your native azalea or whatever it may be, you put them in the ground. And then for me, that was always in the fall. And by spring they would be dead, because the voles had consumed all the roots.
And again, I know what’s happening here, and in the books you see, “Make a hardware cloth box around your roots before you plant it and that’ll keep them out.” But in reality, how practical is that? But I have to say I learned about, can I say this product? Somebody made a product that is like flexible hardware cloth you can wrap around the roots.
Voleking.com I think, it’s like mesh bags, flexible mesh bags in all different sizes. So you can get 15-gallon ones down to quart size, but whatever size you need to wrap around the root ball of the plant you’re putting in the ground, this is stainless steel mesh that prevents the voles from getting to it.
So I finally tried it a year or two ago in the fall, and I can tell you this, for the first time since then I have not had a single loss to my plants or shrubs when I’ve applied this barrier around it. And it’s finally one that I can do, I don’t have to build a hardware cloth box around it.
Margaret: Good tip. So I want to really talk about one of the things that I think has been a real aha for everybody, just because of changing consciousness really about the environment. And so that fine line between keeping the garden tidy and groomed and all that kind of stuff, and making habitat, supporting wildlife. So where are you at on all that? Where are you landing on that?
Joe: Oh my gosh, yes. I’ve had to let go of my OCD-ness and my need for tidiness, but I’m so happy about it. Because in the past I was the guy, even in my prior books going back 15 years or more, I talked about tidying up the garden, putting the garden to bed. Remember that topic we always used to talk about?
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely.
Joe: A lot of that has changed. No longer am I, well not at all, getting under the layers of my perennials that are going to bed in the wintertime. And of course leaving the seedheads, but not being so worried about the duff layer underneath. Because that is, as I’ve learned over the years, a really important layer for a lot of overwintering solitary bees and wasps and insects, and that we need to provide the only place where they overwinter.
But in our need to tidy up, we’re taking that away. And that’s just one of many examples. But for a guy who loves a neat, tidy looking garden—once I knew that it was an easy decision. I had to just make myself not do it at first, but now it’s a no brainer. It’s so important.
And I love the fact that more and more people are talking about it, oftentimes in the context of ecological gardening. Things that we can do with not so much ourselves in mind, but for promoting the health of the wildlife and the beneficial insects in our gardens. And putting that ahead of what our personal desires are for whatever that may be, tidiness or whatever. [Fallen leaves, below; photo by Amy Prentice.]
Margaret: And especially when our personal desires may just be purely aesthetic as opposed to… And I think, and even people like Doug Tallamy, at University of Delaware, a big proponent of all this, of “leave the leaves,” as the new fall cleanup mandate is stated. They’re not saying, Oh, leave a foot deep of leaf litter on top of your tiny spring bulbs or something that’s not going to be able to come up because of it, they’re not saying that.
They’re saying err on the side of being more loose and natural and so forth. But yeah, of course you can still have certain little precious areas that you tease the stuff away and put it in the compost heap or whatever.
But finding a balance, I think that’s the thing, is what’s the balance that works for your garden and is mostly weighted on the side of ecology?
Joe: And you can still have an area tidiness, maybe it’s on the border of your beds, maybe you can just trim that up and clean up that area, add a little mulch there, and it makes a big difference. It looks still tidy, it shows that there’s still a caretaker there, and you are aesthetically taking care of it, but you’re exercising restraint in going all in.
Margaret: So what is the thing that you’re taking away from this season, if there is one, and maybe it’s about the weather where we began talking, into next season—that you’re going to be on red alert, looking for the aha, trying to figure out what to do better. Is there one that’s front of mind from 2022’s experience?
Joe: I think this year for myself and for a lot of the people that I’ve been talking to, with our students and so forth, is that the weather exchange was so different this year and the timing of when we used to look at the calendar—now that’s really off the table anymore.
And so I’m very much aware of being more cognizant of what’s happening with the current temperatures rather than the calendar for my planting and my harvesting. And just planning ahead for my seed starting and when I’m going to get it out in the garden. Because this year I’ve been made hyper-aware of that, so that’s definitely going to play into ongoing season starting… Even with my fall plantings this year, it’s just totally changed the way I’m thinking about things.
Margaret: So you’re not going by some old reference book, you are really watching the signals here and now in real time.
Joe: I am. I think it’s going to be a game-changer, yeah.
Margaret: Well, that’s a great one to end on. And Joe, congratulations again on the new book, “The Vegetable Gardening Book.” And I’m always glad to speak to you as you know Crazy Man.
Joe: [Laughter.] Back at you, CW.
(Photo of Joe’s garden inside the fence by Jordan Brannock Photography; other photos except as noted by Kathryn McCrary Photography. Used with permission.)
enter to win ‘the vegetable gardening book’
I‘LL BUY A COPY of “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your Complete Guide to Growing an Edible Organic Garden from Seed to Harvest” by Joe Lamp’l for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
What is your vegetable gardening aha, whether learned this year or over many years…your “If I’d known then what I know now”?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 4, 2022. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Sept. 26, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).