Our monthly “Things No One Tells You” series offers insider knowledge on a variety of topics you wish you knew more about. Consider this column an invitation to try a new hobby or check an item off your bucket list. And then be sure to let us know what you’d like to learn next.
This installment addresses gardening, a topic that, like bread making, enjoyed a substantial increase in public interest thanks to the pandemic. But interest does not equal success. With a few simple tips and tricks, this year’s crop can be far more prolific than that of years past. We’ve tapped into the wells of wisdom of Master Gardener Karen Pollard, who shares her insights on veggie gardening, and Niki Irving, co-owner of Flourish Flower Farm and author of Growing Flowers: Everything You Need to Know about Planting, Tending, Harvesting, and Arranging Beautiful Blooms, who gives us the dirt on growing flowers.
To get started, there are some universal gardening realities that apply to whatever you might plan to grow.
01. You may not save time by planting seedlings versus starting with seeds. Historically, I’ve bought veggie seedlings—plants that a nursery started from seed—even though buying seeds would have been much cheaper. I worried that I’d somehow kill the little seeds and have nothing at all to show for my efforts. I also mistakenly assumed that veggies would come up sooner if I started with seedlings. Not necessarily.
Karen’s take is that starting from seeds really is easy. Niki notes that buying seedlings doesn’t necessarily save lots of time or yield veggies or flower blooms faster, since those seedlings still have to establish a solid root system in your garden after being transplanted. If you do buy flowers from a big box or other store, she adds, be sure not to buy ones that are already blooming, because you’ll get less time to enjoy them!
02. Plant your garden near a water source. Plants need water, and you’ll be most likely to water appropriately if your garden is near a water hookup or at least easily reachable by hose.
03. Compost is key! You might already know not to just dig up dirt from the ground for your garden, as it's unlikely to have adequate nutrients. You’ll need potting soil, which is readily available at gardening stores and many supermarkets. In her book, Niki summarizes the benefits of enhancing potting soil with compost: “[Your garden will] hold air and water better, drain more efficiently, contain nutrients for plants to use, and have fewer insect and disease problems.”
You can buy compost at a gardening store or worm castings from a farmer’s market, but Karen notes that there are many options, like this manure share program, for obtaining compost absolutely free if you’re willing to pick it up yourself. Try Googling “free compost (your city)” or “worm castings near me” and see what comes up!
04. Not all bugs in the garden are bad. Karen shares that planting flowers and/or herbs alongside veggies attracts butterflies and good bugs that both serve as pollinators and fight bad bugs, like aphids and Japanese beetles, that can destroy your plants. She recommends growing sweet alyssum, cilantro, dill, fennel, goldenrod, asters, or milkweed. Beneficial bugs, according to Niki, include ladybugs, praying mantises, earthworms, green lacewings, and soldier beetles. Not seeing any good bugs in your area? You can buy ladybugs online!
05. Plant a cover crop in the fall to replenish the nutrients in your soil. Karen advises putting down a cover crop, meaning a plant intended to cover the soil rather than to be harvested in any way, in the fall after all your flowers or veggies have been harvested or cut down for the year. Cover crops like crimson clover replenish your garden soil with key nutrients like nitrogen that are used up over the course of the growing season.
06. Utilize succession planting. Niki encourages succession planting, which means “[planting] the same crop multiple times throughout the season, staggering the times at which you plant,” so that as one batch is dying, another is just starting. This method leads to maximum enjoyment of flowers and harvests of veggies, plus potential mitigation against some summer plant diseases that can wipe out whole crops.
07. Depending on your growing climate and intended type of plant, succession planting might mean planting in several batches a few weeks apart in the spring, or it might mean planting a fall crop and then a spring crop. You can learn more about veggie succession planting here and flower succession planting here.
Now onto some flower-specific advice: You might need to pinch! Many flowers benefit from being pinched, which Niki defines as “[snipping] out a portion of the new plant’s growth, encouraging it to branch out,” which leads to more stems and longer stems . The key is to deadhead, or cut the first stem from each plant, before it reaches its peak growth and opening. It might sound crazy to cut a bloom as it’s still growing, but Niki confirms that doing so really will result in more stems per plant. Zinnias, dahlias, marigolds, and snapdragons are examples of flowers that benefit from pinching.
And as for veggies: Try a “grow bag!” If you’re working with a small space, a small storage space (such that you don’t have lots of room to store gardening pots over the winter), or want a more portable garden that you can take with you if you were to move or take an extended vacation, Karen advises trying a grow bag. Grow bags are “soft, breathable versions of your favorite ceramic or plastic pots” that are “sewn from lightweight fabrics such as polypropylene or burlap.” Grow bags come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and Karen observes that some may even be the size of a small raised garden bed!
Now that you know a little of what the pros know, go get planting!