IN THE GARDEN-TO-COME in the new year, I intend to do some things differently, or better, and I figure it can’t hurt to say them out loud in case my resolutions are maybe on your list, too. My friend Joe Lamp’l of joegardner.com and the accompanying Joe Gardener podcast is thinking likewise, and together we recapped our highs and lows of the year and set some of those new intentions.
Joe gardens in the Atlanta area, but has for years visited gardens around the nation as the longtime creator and host of the much-loved “Growing a Greener World” program on public television. I’ll confess that he’s also someone I treasure as a virtual colleague, someone I often email with my own Urgent Garden Questions for advice, so I’m especially glad he’s helping us get started on our 2018 paths.
Read along as you listen to the Dec. 18, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
garden recap and resolutions, with joe lamp’l
Q. Did you close up that garden down there in Atlanta or what?
A. You know, I’m looking at a rare snowfall blanketing the garden right now [top-of-page photo]. It’s melting, but on Saturday, a few days ago, we got 10 inches of snow here, which is about what we get maybe in four years.
Q. That’s kooky.
A. So it was a big deal for us to get that all in one day. Yes.
Q. That’s totally kooky; we’re having simultaneous snow kinds of things.
A. So who knew?
Q. North-and-south snow we’re having. [Laughter.]
A. Right, right.
Q. So, Joe, I’ve got to ask you: Did anything go really badly this year in the garden? [Laughter.] Have any fallen heroes or losses?
A. I do have fallen heroes, and you would have thought I would have learned this lesson maybe the first time it happened. I have this thing about thinking I’m immune to deer walking through my property… [Laughter.]
A. …which is ridiculous. I have 5 acres. I have a wooded area, a 5-acre small farm, and my garden–my food garden–is protected by a whopping high 4-foot split-rail fence. No deer ventures into that because of the configuration of the garden. The way I set up the internal beds are confusing from the outside looking in from what we understand about how deer perceive where they’re about to land.
So that was my theory then. I got kind of laughed at for putting up just a 4-foot fence, but knock on wood, my theory has held true so far. No invasions into the garden yet. That said, the surrounding perimeter, the 5 acres around it, are a playground for deer.
I’m trying to do my best to plant all these great natives. We moved here about five and a half, maybe six years ago, so it’s been an ongoing endeavor to plant wonderful native plants, and I cannot keep up with it, Margaret. I see this happen. I can’t get ahead of it, and it’s my fault. These deer, they’ve got to eat, right? So it’s up to me to exclude them, and I just haven’t gotten around to it. I can’t bring myself to put up a fence.
Q. So they still have not penetrated the split-rail raised-bed vegetable garden production area, but they’re everywhere else. [Deer damage to native oakleaf hydrangea’s at Joe’s, above.]
A. This is true.
A. So find some wood to knock on.
Q. Well, you know people get really mad at me for saying this, and I’ve said it a million times. I sprayed and sacheted—remember those hanging bags of smelly stuff?—and remote-controlled noise-deviced myself into a tizzy in the beginning of my garden career, and spread blood meal, and oh my goodness. If it smelled bad I had it goin’ on, and did all kinds of things. Scarecrows, you name it—whatever it was, I don’t even remember, for various animals.
You know what? It just didn’t work. I was a weekend gardener, and I would come back on Friday afternoon, and some massive shrub would be … half of its branches were gone, they would have just eaten it. It wasn’t that they ate the hosta, which would grow back. It was disfiguring the woody plants, right?
A. Isn’t that the case?
Q. It’s such a violation.
A. Well, you’re my role model and hero because when I come up there, and I look around your property, and I barely see that fence, I might add. I aspire to the same thing. Having a perimeter that the deer can’t get in that you really can’t see from within the garden, either.
Q. And so that’s what I always tell people who say, “What am I going to do about deer?” And I’m like, “Get a fence.” I don’t mean to be snippy, or fresh, or whatever, or rude. But I think it is, and I think it has to be 8 feet.
I mean, there are other types of fences that are lower that usually involve electrical and some kind of lure, like the so-called peanut butter fence. That uses lower electrical wire, very inexpensive to put up, and little packets of peanut butter and foil little packets that attract them. They get a little buzz on their nose, and they go away. There’s all kinds of stuff like that, but it’s still a fence, right? [Diagram from Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management. More information at that link. Plus: Various other fence possibilities.]
Q. It’s got to be executed in a way that’s permanent and is maintained properly depending what it is, and so on and so forth. I haven’t had a deer in except the day that Margaret the dodo bird went to get the tractor …
Q. … drove from the one gate, closed that gate, went down to the other end, opened the gate, went in, and went blithely about my mowing, and forgot I’d left the gate open. Suddenly, I found that some deer had followed me in.
A. Oh my goodness. They were waiting at the gate.
Q. And they didn’t even care about the tractor. They just looked at me like, “Um, excuse me. Could you get that thing out of here? It’s kind of noisy.” [Laughter.]
A. They’re so bold these days aren’t they?
Q. Terrible. So you need a deer fence, really. I mean, I think animal control is I think on everybody’s to-do list and resolution list. How are we going to protect things better? How many more years are we all going to say, “Oh, they ate all the broccoli, and cabbage, and salad?” As opposed to put up a however-many-foot fence for rabbits or woodchucks, which of course for them it would have to be underground as well. [More on smaller nuisance-wildlife control.]
A. Well, my stock answer these days when I get these questions about, “How do I keep X pest out of my garden?” It’s get a fence.
Q. It’s exclusion.
A. A physical barrier. It’s a two-word answer, physical barrier.
Q. Yes, an exclusion method as opposed to, as I said, all those things like the repellents, and all that stuff. It sort of works if you have low-pressure by a particular kind of animal occasionally. But if they just are making a beeline for your place, and they’re gnawing the same stuff, and they know it’s just the buffet…
Q. It doesn’t work. All right, so that’s on the top of your list.
Q. I think the top of my list is that I have so much compost. I make so much compost. But when I go spread it in the fall, by the next spring I get a lot of familiar seedlings, and they’re not noxious weeds. They’re like dill, and poppy seedlings—things that I have elsewhere in the garden and I’ve put the spent ones in my heap.
I’m composting passively.
A. Yes, you are, which is not a bad thing.
Q. Are you insulting me? [Laughter.]
A. No, everything about your garden I envy, so I love your long windrows [above]. We’ve even talked about them on an episode on how much we love them. But one of the consequences of passive composting is that sometimes your compost doesn’t cook down enough to kill off those seeds. In your case they’re not necessarily weed seeds, but if you define weeds as a plant out of place, they are. So that’s what’s happening.
Q. I promised myself I was going to do the homework for this and really find out how hot does it have to get for how long and so on and so forth right? And how do you make it hotter in the heap? So it’s a formula—there is sort of combustion, so to speak, is a formula with moisture, and air, and the combination of materials you use. So if I’m using too much brown, carbon-heavy material and not enough green that kind of ignites things a little bit…
A. Yes, that’s right.
Q. …and if it’s getting too dry.
Q. And if it’s too pushed down by the weight of too much material, and I haven’t flipped it. That’s another reason.
Q. So it’s sort of a formula, and actually I have been doing some homework. There is some really interesting research that’s been done, because big farms and agriculture they do compost in windrows. Like I have a big open pile—a windrow—not just a little heap.
Q. And they need to know how many weeks at what temperature do they have to keep it to kill off the weed seeds when they’re trying to reclaim a field that’s been infested. So there’s great research on some of this stuff, and a lot of times it involves the moisture because the time that the seed’s in there, the dormant seeds, are the most vulnerable to getting killed by heating up the pile is when they’re moist…
Q. …and when they’re about to germinate because of the trigger of moisture. So you want to moisten them, and then heat them, and that’s your fastest kill of your weed seeds.
A. See, you know all these things.
Q. Well, I know that, but I don’t know how to orchestrate it. I have esoteric knowledge, but I don’t have the application down, you know what I mean?
A. I do. In a lot of these windrows, these commercial operations using windrows also have a forced-air system that they actually run through the bottom of it.
Q. Oh my goodness. I’ll get that, too. [Laughter.]
A. Well, yes you could really cook it up that way.
A. The thing about a long windrow is it’s hard to get the air down into the core, and with you not really wanting or being able to do the physical labor to get into that core manually you’ve got to find another way to do that. Unless you change your system.
Q. Right, and if anyone thinks I’m sounding really a lazy slob, it’s 40 feet long and 8 feet wide and up to 9 feet tall in peak season.
Q. So it’s a lot of material.
Q. Now, is your compost cooking along well? I mean, you’re doing well in that area? No resolutions there for you? You’re all good?
A. No resolutions there. I am thrilled with my composting system [above, and in this story on his website]. It’s simple, and it’s doable.
Q. O.K. So any other high points or low points that you want to confess to?
A. Well, you know I embrace the low points. Mother Nature–I really see as my friend and my enemy at the same time, you know? I really embrace the curveballs that come at us every year, because I like to learn the cause and effect of, “Well, when she throws me this pitch, how am I gonna swing?” Right? So I embrace those tough moments in the garden, and I see what I can do with them. This year was an example of that. We had a really wet, humid, very tough year in the garden. So I try to keep ahead of it. As an organic gardener you’re always trying to be proactively ahead of the disease cycle and so forth.
Down in Atlanta area where it’s extra humid and growing tomatoes, those two don’t really like each other–humidity and tomatoes. So anyway, I try to keep up with it, but it was a disappointing year for me, and I recognize why, in spite of the fact of trying to keep up with it. Sometimes you just have to admit, not necessarily defeat, but just recognize that you can only do so much. So recognizing will give you sanity sometimes, too.
Q. I think that’s actually a good resolution because, similarly … I mean different subject but same kind of an intention … I had a bumper year of woodchucks, or groundhogs as some people call them. I’m very good with them.
A. [Laughter.] Not on purpose, right?
Q. Yes. I propagated them very efficiently. But it’s just some years a number of them will just come in. It’s just is how it is, and it happens every five years or something. Usually I’ll have one, and I’ll just dispatch it. I have a licensed, local, nuisance-wildlife handler who will move the animal to a short distance for me legally and all that kind of stuff, and I can trap. I’m a good trapper and so forth, but this was kind of silly.
This was like one would go, and one would move in the next day to the hole, and one would go. That’s just what they do. It was a bumper year in my area for woodchucks; all the trappers, the guys who do that for a living, said that. There were a lot of complaints by gardeners and so forth. Anyway, so I just realized: why was I re-sowing the same rows of things that had just been eaten to the ground until I really had a solution to that problem. Do you know what I mean? I was just banging my head against the wall, right, expecting a different result, you know?
A. Yes, yes.
Q. So it’s weird, and sometimes we just have to take a break, and say, “You know what? This isn’t working out right now. The tomatoes are getting really sickly. I’m going to pull them, and I’m gonna say, ‘O.K., I’ll buy tomatoes from my local farmer friend,’ or I’m not going to re-sow this row right now, and drive myself nuts.”
A. I think you arrive at a level of gardening maturity when you get to that point where you recognize your limitations, and you’re O.K. with it rather than trying to beat your head against the same wall over and over expecting different results. And you’re there. Good for you.
A. I’m trying to get there.
Q. I’m there. [Laughter.] Any other things that you’re thinking about—any projects? Were there any really big successes, or anything that you’re looking ahead toward doing?
A. I am. I have a few things on my bucket list, and one of them is a greenhouse. I’m not sure that I’ll get to a full-fledged greenhouse next year, just between the time on the road and the cost of doing it right. But something that I can do really inexpensively in half a Saturday is put in a misting house or misting tent [left side of photo, above], because I love to propagate plants.
They almost do it on their own if you time it properly and just set them up for success, which doesn’t take a lot. But I think the mist, especially in the spring with softwood cuttings, they need to have constant moisture or a consistent level of mist.
So these days you can get these misting nozzles in the irrigation-supply aisle at the box store, and a row of plastic, and maybe some PVC, or however you want to build the frame around it.
Q. Right, like the hoops.
A. And then a timer. Now you have your system, and you can put it on autopilot, and for all the plants I lost to the deer I’m trying to replace those in the cheapest way possible.
Q. Right, and not go and spend $59.95 per plant on a 5-gallon can of whatever at the nursery.
Q. But instead have your own liners, so to speak, to put out.
A. Yes. And have fun doing it. I am fascinated, amazed, and enjoy the heck out of propagating plants. So it’s a multiple excuse/reason that I want to do that project, but I’m going to get serious about it this year. [More from Joe on how to propagate plants from cuttings. Above and below, hydrangea cuttings are taken, then stuck in pots, with leaves trimmed back.]
Then if I have time I would love to do a pond. That’s the other envy thing I have when I go to your place.
A. It’s just drooling over your water features, and it doesn’t have to be complex, but I don’t have any water feature, other than static water in a bird bath.
Q. You know, it’s interesting. I did that, I really didn’t know anything about gardening, and I don’t even know why I did it really, to tell you the truth. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I really want to have a water garden.” It was sort of semi-conscious. I dug the first hole, the less prominent one, and it’s only 18 inches deep. I had just come to the area from New York City, where I grew up, where I’d lived the rest of my life, and I had moved a couple of hours to the north. I didn’t even know what Zone I had moved to.
Q. So I didn’t know that we get frost 4 feet in the ground where I had landed. [Laughter.]
Q. In those years we did. Now, you know, 3 feet or whatever. I didn’t make it deep enough, and so before Thanksgiving that year I had to dig a deeper one because I had bought fish, and I was so worried that I was a very bad parent, and I was going to kill my fish. So we dug a deeper hole [above, the resulting water garden, with duckweed and other floating plants on surface]. That’s how that happened—it was sort of the blind leading the blind. But it’s the best thing I ever did.
I would encourage anyone who’s thinking about their resolutions to make it one, if they can: to put a little piece of in-ground water, or a little bigger piece of water than they have now. I’ve met so many creatures because of it, and the diversity is just … If I were to compare, and put up wildlife cameras, trail cameras at my neighbor’s down the road and at my house, I bet you I have twice the bird species, twice the insect species.
Q. Literally like a large difference because of that little bit of water.
Q. And, you know, it’s not that I’m in a desert. It’s just that it’s so convenient because of it being a complex garden with lots of planting; it has lots of food. So you have food, you have water, you have nesting sites. Wow. And you get dragonflies, for instance. I didn’t have as many dragonflies, you know, I wouldn’t think, before the water.
A. Yes. Well, if I were a bird I’d want to hang out at your place for sure because you have everything there is to love, and enjoy, and to be safe.
Q. Yes, exactly. So I think water’s a good resolution. Speaking of water I have to learn to use … Lee Reich came, our friend came last year and did a drip-irrigation workshop in my garden, and the benefit to me of organizing it was that I got the drip system.
A. Yes, hello. [Laughter.]
Q. Everybody built it during the class. It was a hands-on class.
A. That’s good.
Q. I served bottled water and cookies, and basically didn’t do anything, I think, that day. It was very hot out; that’s all I remember. But at any rate, I forgot to pay attention enough to really learn exactly how everything works. So this winter I have to do a little bit of studying—and a phone call to Lee will be a good idea. Yes, so you use drip irrigation yes?
A. Oh, I absolutely do. I’m a huge fan of it, and you know, it’s very, very simple to install even though it has all these little, moving parts, or all these parts that aren’t necessarily moving. You look at all the pieces in the kit, and you think, “Oh my gosh.” But it’s really just like Legos or some other little thing that assembles in no time. It snaps in place, and these days they have all the tools right there all in one place to make it super-easy, and I’m the least talented DIY guy I think there ever was.
But I can do it in a matter of no time, and as a guy, I don’t read the instructions, and I can still do it. It’s such an efficient way to get the water where you need it without wasting it. I could talk all day about the benefits of drip irrigation. [Joe’s best watering practices.]
Q. Well, that’s another great one if people don’t have a good watering system. If they’re out there with sprinklers and so forth—which speaking of tomatoes getting diseases, a great way to add to the havoc is to spray the foliage an extra three times a week with water.
Q. So if people don’t have a good watering plan, this winter is a great time to make that resolution and figure out what they’re going to do—what they’re going to implement next year. Speaking of birds, you mentioned birds. This big flock of cedar waxwings came last week, and this happens always around this time of year. I have maybe 45 or 50 mature winterberry holly bushes.
A. Oh, I know where this is going. Yes.
Q. Massive bushes. So I heard the sounds. They make a very distinctive, high-pitched, kind of little chirping or whatever sound, and I could hear it, and I knew it was a big flock, and sure enough, there they were. They’re swooping all over the place, and they stayed for two and a half days, and they stripped every single berry off every shrub. It was hilarious, and they’re so beautiful. They’re such beautiful birds.
A. I love their mask. I love that.
Q. Yes, and those little edges of “paint,” of that yellow sort of paint that looks so beautiful on the edges of different parts of them. Anyway, so one of my resolutions is that I want to make even more stuff available. Some of the areas on my upper hillside and elsewhere at the perimeter that I’m still mowing, lo these many years later, I think I’m going do some more—like you say with small shrubs. Maybe not that I’ll propagate them, but really small-sized to just get them started. I think I’m going to add more berry- and seed-bearing native shrubs to the far reaches. To just have bigger flocks of waxwings being able to come for longer periods of time. Or not just waxwings, other birds.
A. Yes, why not? You have the beauty of the plant and the berry while you have them, but gosh if there’s ever a good way to lose them I would want to lose them to a flock or a pack of cedar waxwings.
Q. So I think that’s one thing I’m going to add, and then one thing I’m working on subtracting is some of the earliest groundcovers I planted, which have turned out to be sort of invasive, you know?
Q. One, is Lamiastrum. A couple of other things that just are too aggressive, and I have to each year now commit to removing a section of them.
Q. So that’s on my list. I just want to ask you because you just said that you’re one of the least talented DIY guys there is. See, I always think you’re like Mr. Fix-It over there.
A. Well, what you see by the time I actually put it out there makes me look that way, but through the magic of television, and what you don’t see in editing is the time it takes for me to get the project done. Let me rephrase that and say I’m probably the slowest DIY guy there is.
A. And just a quick example, I hosted a show on DIY Network for three years, and I drove the producers crazy because they’re used to working with the people that really know how to do that stuff.
Q. [Laughter.] Right.
A. I mean, and I’m a gardener. I can definitely garden, but I can’t build the arbor and the structure in the garden, like the pros can, and that used to drive them crazy. I get it right. I’m a perfectionist to my detriment probably; I’m a perfectionist. So it looks really good when it’s done, you just don’t see the part in between.
Q. Well, I want to have a whole other show, and I hoping we can do this in a couple weeks.ut I want you to give us one example now, because the reason I think of you as Mr. DIY is because you have this thing with these livestock panels, and you made these incredible tomato cages. Now that’s another great project that people could do before it’s May, and they need them, right? So tell us what that is.
A. Everybody that builds them loves them. It’s their new favorite. I built them out of necessity because I was tired of trying to support my tomatoes and not finding a good solution that I was happy with that looked good in the garden, too. Remember it’s all about looking good, as well as function, yes?
Q. [Laughter.] Right.
A. So I saw these livestock panels one day, and I said, “I’m going to do something with those because those look like they have good bones. I think I can make that work.” And I tinkered with it, and I ended up with the most, what I call, the ultimate tomato cage. If you Googled Ultimate Tomato Cage you’d see it. It’s the first thing that comes up.
Q. These are like wire panels…?
Q. Are they almost like concrete-reinforcing wire panels, with large, openings. Squares?
A. When you buy them they’re large, flat panels of openings roughly about 5×5 squares. Then you just get a $20 bolt cutter, and you cut them down easily. A big bolt cutter will easily do it, and then you just easily bend them with a little bit of leverage with a 2×4 under your foot. You can pull them up easily, and then you’ve got this permanent, L-shaped panel that makes up half the tomato cage. You put two of these L-shapes together, and it forms a square. The tomato’s inside of it. You take it down after the season. You stack them up beautifully, and you forget about them until next season. It’s wonderful. [How to make the cages, from Joe’s website.]
Q. And you have a million other things you do with these crazy livestock panels.
A. That’s true. Every time I’m out in the garden I find another application for them. Now, they’re storm protection when the wind’s blowing, and I want to lay one over some tender seedlings. It provides shelter across my plants. Who knew? But they were there, and I was there, and I said, “Hey, that’ll work,” and it did. I tested it. Yes.
Q. Now that I know that you had a show for multiple years on the DIY Network we’re definitely doing another segment just about DIY, Mr. Slow DIY Guy.
A. All right. Glad to do it.
Q. Real quick, tell me one more thing you’re going to do differently next year in the last minute.
A. I’m going to sow more seeds directly. [Above, Joe’s food garden, with its well-built raised beds.]
A. And I keep telling myself I’m going to do a better job of making good notes and documenting with pictures. How can you not do that with your phone in your pocket all the time? I wing it all the time, and I think I’m going to remember it.
Q. Taking more pictures, yes.
A. And we all know that doesn’t work.
Q. And, by the way Joe, and I’m going to nudge you next week, and you’re going to nudge me next week, we’ve got to order our seeds before the best varieties are sold out.
Q. O.K. On that note, you’re coming back in January, right?
more from joe lamp’l
- The Joe Gardener website and podcast
- “Growing a Greener World” public-television program
- Joe’s tomato cages from livestock panels
- Joe’s compost system from shipping pallets
- “Growing a Greener World” TV episodes on my garden and how I garden for the birds
- All Joe’s and my previous conversations
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. 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 Dec. 18, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).