how we garden today: a conversation with joe lamp’l
‘MY HOW TIMES have changed,” I write in the beginning of my new-old book, “A Way to Garden,” out April 30, 2019 in revamped form a shocking 21 years after its first edition. New plants, new techniques, new knowledge, plus lots of evolving science to guide today’s gardeners, too.
My friend Joe Lamp’l, host of the Emmy-winning PBS show “Growing a Greener World,” has been teaching people to garden through the media for those same 20 years. We got into a chat the other day about some of the changes in that time span—about things we still do the same way and what we do differently—and wanted to let you in on the conversation.
Things like using peat moss (which we no longer do), or how we clean up these days to start and end the season (not so perfectly as before). How big a hole we dig for a shrub (not so big as before), and how we mulch, and why. And this: It turns out we both have the same horticultural “flaw” we wish we’d outgrow, but cannot seem to. Oops. More on that below.
Besides his TV show, Joe Lamp’l creates the joegardener.com website and companion podcast, has a big Facebook group and a new online organic gardening course called Organic Gardening Academy. Like me, he has been an organic gardener from the start of his backyard adventures.
- And note: This segment is a companion to a conversation we began on Joe’s podcast, if you want to check that out, too.
Read along as you listen to the April 29, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
how we garden today: updated techniques, with joe lamp’l
Margaret Roach: I’m a little freaked out at spring, Joe. You know. [Laughter.] I see on all your media, I see like 473,000 seedlings [a tiny section of them at Joe’s, above], so you must be a little freaked out, too. You’re propagating like mad, huh?
Joe Lamp’l: [Laughter.] I am. But kind of like you, after a while, it gets to be kind of old hat. I still get excited and a little bit nervous, too. But I always admire you on those days that you have those open garden tours and you have thousands of people coming through.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Hundreds.
Joe: But the day before, you’re as cool as a cucumber. And I just don’t know how you do that.
Margaret: Oh, it’s my meds. [Laughter.] No, no, no, no. I shouldn’t be funny about that. But no, it’s not. So we should start by saying that this show is kind of a companion show to “Part 1,” which runs this week on your Joe Gardener podcast. And they may want to listen to yours first because we did them 1,2 you know; we did yours first. And I think you’re celebrating sort of a anniversary recently of that podcast, right? Aren’t you?
Joe: Uh-huh. We hit the big 100 so …
Margaret: A hundred episodes. Yes.
Joe: A hundred episodes. That’s right. They say if you can survive seven in the podcast world, you’re something. And you and I have certainly rounded that number several times over.
Margaret: Oh, totally. Good!
Joe: Yes. But I love it though. I love it. And you have, you probably are the most frequent guest, simply because I love having conversations with you, and this one is as good as any.
Margaret: As I said in the intro, we want to kind of … you and I ended up having this conversation before we ended up taping your show and then doing this, and we wanted to let people in on it because a lot has changed.
And so you know, last year … so a year and a half or so ago when I was finishing redoing the “A Way to Garden” book from 21 years prior, you were also… and we were on the phone sometimes and emailing each other sometimes … you were creating your online Organic Gardening Academy curriculum. So in a sense we were both picking our brains, going through our archives, both literal and mental archives, trying to figure out what makes the cut, right?
Joe: Oh yes, absolutely. There is so much information, and as long as we’ve been gardening, that’s a lot of information.
Joe: And then how do you cull it down to hold people’s attention and keep it relevant, and kind of eliminate or cull the things that just no longer have that sort of significance or importance anymore. It’s a challenge.
Margaret: Right. And clearly, 20 years ago or whatever, some of your earliest stories or whether whatever medium they were in and mine as well—I mean, I wouldn’t give that recommendation anymore that I might have given, or the expert I was interviewing might have given then. Because we just didn’t know things we know now.
Joe: That is so true with technology and just the different ways that we’ve been able to study things. There are so many things. I started making a list, Margaret, knowing that we would be chatting about some of these things, and the list grew long quickly of those things that we do now that we did then that we don’t do now, or know better at least, anyway.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Right. And so for instance, what’s on that list?
Joe: Well, you know, and here’s the thing, I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes, because as you said, we’ve been organic gardeners since the beginning.
Joe: But I do have a sense, and hopefully you concur on this, that we talk a lot more these days about soil building. It used to be: feed the plant—what could you throw on that plant at that feed the plant.
Joe: Did we ever really talk about feeding the soil so the soil can feed the plant? Maybe we did, I just don’t remember. But I do know now, maybe it’s because you and I talk about it so much, but I hear it all the time and I’m glad for that.
Margaret: Yes. And I think some of the old magazines, you know, the Rodale type, you know, always spoke to that, and organic farming always spoke to that. But in gardening, in horticulture or whatever it was like, “Oh, look at this gorgeous new plant I can get,” and, “Should I give it some you-know-what blue liquid?”
Margaret: And that was what it was about. It was about miracles, quote unquote. [Laughter.]
Joe: Well, yes, and you know what I do like though is that because in this online Gardening Academy that we’ve formed, we’re really targeting a younger and up and coming gardener who really needs to sort of be guided or have somebody to kind of take them by the hand and show them the ropes in the way that you and I would perceive it to be the right way.
But intuitively, or at least their sense these days is not to see what they can do to feed the plant. They’re already kind of dialed in at least to knowing more of an ethical or sustainable or a lighter-footprint way of doing it. And I love that that just seems to be the norm rather than the exception these days. [Above, Joe’s raised-bed vegetable garden.]
Margaret: In the same way that people are shopping differently for food, or a lot of people are. There’s more like, where did it come from? How is it grown?
Joe Lamp’l: Yup.
Margaret: Does it contain this or that? So, yes. And I think that’s the connection between that, as you say, the word “sustainable” is become more of a word, where I don’t think that was something that a lot of us talked about earlier on.
So yes, so there we were. I’m writing a book and you’re making a curriculum and we’re sort of like, “Hey, what’s the best way to teach people (fill in the blank)?” Because again, over the years you’ve interviewed for the TV show and for other media—you’ve interviewed many, many experts along the way on sometimes the same subject, maybe three different people, five years apart each one or whatever. And so have I, right?
So it’s like, well, what is the best way to do … and I don’t know what topic we should start with, but there certainly are a lot of “My, how times have changed” revelations. I mean, yes.
Joe: Margaret, do you remember how when we used to plant a tree or a shrub or put something in the ground, and how we’d just talk about amending just the planting hole and make it as nice and comfy as you could?
Joe: Remember that?
Margaret: And we would get peat moss. When was the last time you bought a bale of peat moss?
Joe: It’s been almost since the beginning, but I remember in the beginning and that seemed to be all I ever bought because that’s all anybody ever talked about that we should use.
Margaret: Correct. And now we know it’s not a sustainable resource. We want to use the minimum amount that we can of it. It may be in some of our germinating or potting mediums that we buy bagged or whatever. But we don’t want to use it as a soil amendment because again, it’s not sustainable and it’s not the best thing, anyway.
So we learned about composting instead for example. And also we learned about, hey, don’t give that tree or shrub that you’re planting a 5-foot-wide hole if it’s in a 5-gallon pot. Like don’t make some crater and fill it with all this good stuff. Right? Let it go into the native soil, right?
Joe: Yes, exactly. Just backfill, break up the clumps and backfill with the native soil. Or alternatively, you could amend it out to beyond what the roots would eventually get to, if you really want to go crazy with it and put some good stuff in there. But I don’t know anybody quite energetic enough to do that.
Margaret: Right. Maybe it’s just that we’re getting older.
Margaret: You’re not as old as I am but … I mean I was thinking about something else has changed, just because right now I’m doing it, the spring cleanup. And you know, even my spring cleanup is different in the sense that only a few years ago I learned from some people at Cornell, at their former project called the Habitat Network, that all of these wonderful beneficial creatures that are going to help feed birds, baby birds, or are going to help do pest-control duty like spiders for instance, or certain kinds of caterpillars. They’re all in the leaf litter or the debris on the floor of the garden, right? [More on that here.]
Joe: Right. Yes.
Margaret: Do you know that’s where they are like, a lot of them are tucked in for the winter. And if you clean up too soon in the spring, before they have a span of maybe four or five, whatever, 50-plus-degree days and you go with your leaf vacuum, which is a scary thing anyway, or even a rake, and you disturb that, you kill off a lot of those good helper creatures that are so needed in the environment. I didn’t know I was doing something un-habitat-like, you know what I mean, by cleaning up too early in spring? I didn’t know.
Joe: Well, and as a tidy gardener myself, and I used to give presentations like this about the things I do to create a healthy garden. In my presentations, I always showed a really tidy picture in the fall where everything all deadheaded and everything was … nothing in the way, no debris, no nothing.
Oh, I was so disgusted when I went through my slides and I saw that that was still in some of my presentations. And I quickly made some changes because we now know better, that that’s not what you do. A tidy garden is not necessarily a healthy garden.
Margaret: Right, and messy, and similarly to what I’m saying, don’t clean up too soon in the spring. Give them a chance to wake up and get out of there, out of that leaf litter. Also let a lot of your leaves fall. I don’t let them fall and stay piled up in places where maybe I have March and April bulbs coming up, for instance, because it mats them down. But especially in the outer areas of the garden, I’ve let lots of areas go unraked in the fall because all these good creatures are in there. So it’s kind of different.
Joe: Yes. And I can attest to the life in your garden is amazing because you allow it to be so. You don’t micromanage it, and it shows. It’s beautiful.
Margaret: Have you changed aesthetic things? Are you in the same house? You’re in Atlanta we should say to people. I should have said that.
Joe: I am.
Margaret: And are you in the same house as you were like 20-ish years ago?
Joe: No, I’m not. I’m in a the one, two … I’m in my third cycle of houses in 20 years. But I’ve been here on this farm for seven years.
Joe: And heavily native, but not all native, but definitely, you know, that’s one of the things that’s changed, is looking for plants that serve more than one purpose, rather than maybe just aesthetic as we used to buy it so often.
Joe: Now as you, Margaret, you’re a great example of this. You talk about how the birds taught you to garden.
Joe: And so a lot of your landscape is related to what feeds the birds. And I’m the same way now, and I know that across the country and beyond, we’re talking more about that as far as the plant choices that we make. And that is certainly the case with me. And so I’m not as tidy as I used to be for sure, but by design.
Margaret: Right. And it’s not outdoor decorating, that’s not the goal here. Right?
Margaret: It’s not outdoor decorating. It’s really building communities and sustaining habitat. And yes, we want the showy, beautiful plants that have multi-season interest because we want to encourage ourselves to keep on going. And there’s a little reward in the ornamental, beautiful things. But we also want to be thinking about the bigger picture. And I think that’s come home a lot in recent years for all of us. [Below, black swallowtail caterpillar at Margaret’s.]
Joe: Yes, it has. And you know, Doug Tallamy, like Doug Tallamy and “Bringing Nature Home” and others are talking about this, and I too have always … You and I have a thing about nature, and I think we have this real appreciation for it and the respect for it. We want to do what we can to help it. But I probably thought about that … oh, I know I thought a lot about that back in the day, but nothing like I think about today. Like I think every time I do something in the garden: What sort of impact is this going to have or how can I help more? That maybe is even the bigger question.
Margaret: So the dominoes.
Margaret: When you trip one does the next one fall, and what is it and what’s its impact? Yes, seeing a chain of events, a food chain and the life cycle, it’s really… to me that’s the best part. But I didn’t necessarily understand that when I began gardening 40 years ago or when I got my place 30 something years ago. Obviously, I didn’t know that stuff.
Joe: And can I give you a specific example of that? On a podcast a while back, I interviewed Dr. Stephen Kress with the Audubon Society. We were talking about the use of pesticides, and I was asking a question about what sort of impact does backyard-garden pesticides have on birds, for example? Out of curiosity I wanted to know. And he said, the conservative estimate is that at least 7 million backyard songbirds die each year just by eating insects that had been killed through backyard pesticides.
Joe: And that was a conservative number, because you go online and look at that number and some people added another zero to that at least. And it’s scary either way.
Margaret: Right. So again, things we didn’t know. It’s not that everybody used to line up at the garden center to buy pesticides because they wanted to hurt birds …
Margaret: … or insects, and you know what I mean? They thought they were supposed to do, as we were just talking about, obsessive garden sanitation. They thought they were supposed to have everything perfect. Right?
Margaret: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
Margaret: Do you mulch the same or differently? Do you use, do you buy mulch? Do you make- Anything different about like some mulching or whatever?
Joe: Well, you know, I’ve always been a mulch lover.
Joe: I don’t know if you knew that, but I always have and I appreciate all the things it does. But for me now I’m good with free arborist wood chips because I that I’m keeping them from being disposed elsewhere and who knows whether that’s going to a landfill or whatever. But I just know how good they can be as they break down. And that is an interesting question because … well, I’ll get to that in a second.
My favorite mulch is just using nature’s gift every fall of shredded leaves. I take the leaves and I shred them up and I corral them and then I put them in my vegetable garden. And to me, there’s just nothing better than the feel of shredded leaf mulch going around your plants, and then knowing it’s going to break down and improve the soil.
Joe: So that’s my mulch thing. But the other thing about things that have changed regarding mulch, do you remember Margaret, how often we used to hear about nitrogen depletion and not to use fresh wood chips around any plants.
Margaret: Yes. “It robs nitrogen from the soil.” That was the quote, right?
Joe: Yes. Which if you mix it into the soil as it’s breaking down, it can pull nitrogen from the soil.
Margaret: Right. Right.
Joe: But that part never got told. It was just, “Don’t use it anywhere if it’s fresh.” But Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott and others have done studies about this as well. And the only nitrogen that’s being drawn up is within 1/16th of an inch of fresh arborist wood chips at the freshest point. So the risk of it actually pulling from the root zone when it’s used as mulch is nil. So go forth and use fresh arborist wood chips as mulch.
Margaret: Right. And I love the shredded leaves as well. And the one thing I’ll say about that, and it’s sort of “my how times have changed” yet again, I don’t shred them in the fall because of what I said before, because there’s all these little creatures. So I’m letting some of them lie in the outer areas and so forth where I can. So there’s sort of, you know, they’re decaying a little bit in place.
Joe: Oh, yes.
Margaret: And I’m picking those up, more of them than I used to, in the spring and doing that once everybody’s kind of flown the coop, you know? Yes.
Joe: And ironically, I let my leaves lie. I don’t even use my leaves. I let them, like you, stay in the woods. I’m collecting my neighbor’s leaves that are sat out at the curb.
Margaret: I know.
Margaret: Yes. No, no, it’s true. It’s really true. Because many people don’t understand this and they still see it as debris, yard waste.
Joe: Yes. I know.
Margaret: Biggest mistakes? Any big mistakes to confess? [Laughter.]
Joe: Well, I embrace all mistakes, and I think I’ve shared my biggest mistake before: It was just using composted horse manure that had persistent herbicides in it.
Margaret: Oh, right. “Killer compost.”
Joe: Killer compost. As much as I’ve warned people not to do that, there was a time where I was trying to fill my garden beds and I had this big mountain of not fresh, very aged, composted horse manure, because we have horses. But I just, I didn’t allow myself to think that I could possibly have that in my composted horse manure. And I did. And I didn’t do the bio-assay test first, which I should have. Like I tell everybody else to do. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Joe: Yes. And then it went into the soil and ruined my soil for four years. So that was a big mistake. But I learned and here’s the thing, I shared my mistake publicly and let everybody know. And so I hopefully helped other people avoid the same mistake that I made.
Margaret: Yes. And then what we’ll do is, now that you brought that up, that’s a good one, I’ll link to our conversation about that, where you give a lot of information about it, so people can understand how to source some of the materials they do need to buy, and so forth, and about manure and whatever.
Margaret: Yes. I mean, are there any bad habits that you’re still trying to break or that you’ve just made peace with and figured, hey, I’m always going to have this bad habit? I mean, I’m asking you all these cranky questions.
Joe: [Laughter.] So that’s the same as usual with us, Margaret. But that’s fine with me. I admit to being a plantaholic.
Margaret: Oh, O.K.
Joe: So I have a hard time controlling myself. But the problem is I get them home and I still have a fair amount of places to plant, but I don’t get around to putting them into the ground. So the Part 2 of that is paralysis by analysis. I get the plant, bring it home. I’m not really worried about where I’m going to plant it; I figure I’ll find a place. But the problem is I overthink it for too long, and a year or two will go by and that plant is still in its container because I just couldn’t bring myself to find the perfect place, which is so bad.
Margaret: Right. So the poor thing is suffering, huh?
Joe: Yes. What about you? Can I ask you that? What is your-
Margaret: Yes, but on that subject, it’s a good year if I only have a couple of pots sitting in the driveway still in their nursery pots. Right? And one thing I have started doing with those is in the vegetable garden—which up here in the North is empty from October or whatever until, except for where the garlic is planted, until the next spring—I heel them in. I’ll take them out of their pots and plunge the root masses so that they’re not so constricted.
Margaret: And I know it’s extra work, but that’s what I do just, and it seems to keep them in better condition. It means transplanting twice, but that’s what I do anyway.
What’s my worst? I will say that the shopping without knowing where the plant is going. And the really best gardeners I know, especially the best design type people I know, never, ever, ever do that.
Margaret: They just … I mean, they might buy one thing, but they don’t just wander around and come home with a car load of stuff and think it’s going to make a garden. They do plan. So I would say that’s probably my weakness also. If I go to an unusual plant nursery, a place that has special things, I’m going to want to bring them home with no idea what the heck I’m going to do with them. That is a problem. I mean, it’s fun. [Laughter.]
Joe: Well, we could have worse problems, I will say that.
Margaret: I suppose, I suppose.
Margaret: Yes. So on your list, you said you made a list, were there any other things? Were there other things that you said how it had changed a lot for you?
Joe: Well, I think when we talk about soil building, back to that for a second, I think the conversations around vermicomposting and Biochar, mycorrhizal fungi. I mean, who talked about that 20 years ago? Not many people.
Margaret: I’m sort of … whereas 20 years ago, “Worms Eat My Garbage;” what’s her name? Mary Applehof? Was that her name?
Joe: That sounds right.
Margaret: Her book was like a cult favorite, and one of my favorite things. I’m very shy about vermicomposting now because of these Asian jumping worms [above] and the possibility that the eggs or whatever they’re called of those can inadvertently be in purchased worms, you know? [More about Asian jumping worms.]
Margaret: So I’m not so … you know what I mean? That’s not such a thing I’d want to be writing about or recommending without disclaimers right now.
Joe: Well, and there you go. There’s a topic never came up before, either, but now everybody’s talking about the jumping worms and the risk of that.
Margaret: Exactly. Exactly. Right.
Joe: It’s crazy.
Margaret: We thought earthworms are good, but maybe they’re not all good, and oh boy, what does that mean? Yes.
Joe: [Laughter.] Yes, right.
Margaret: So what else was on that list of yours?
Joe: Right. Well, that some of us still have lawns out there, and I know you never do a thing to yours other than cut it once or twice a year. [Above, contrasting mown lawn and unmown islands at Margaret’s.] But you know, the bagging versus the grass-cycling. I remember back in the day when I would… I really loved my lawn and I would bag the heck out of it. But now I can’t imagine doing that, unless I took the clippings to the compost bin as a nitrogen source. But grass-cycling is such a no-brainer these days, and it makes it a lot easier. So that’s one thing.
And then just how we water in in general. Like for example, with the lawns. I mean, I remember seeing people water in the middle of the day, or at night.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Joe: Or a little bit every day, which rather than just infrequently but deeply, which we know now is a better method of doing it to promote deeper root growth and better plant health.
Joe: And then … I’m sorry I’m just going.. [Laughter.]
Margaret: No, we have another minute or so, so go for it.
Joe: Well, I just, I love the fact that technology has become friends to gardeners as well.
Joe: If you can get over the intimidation factor, and these days with the ease of use of apps, there are just so many great ways to … if you’re not a write-it-down kind of person with journaling, you don’t have to be anymore because you can keep great records and take pictures and dictate into your phone and give yourself access to information from last year or the year before or even longer through these online journaling apps on your phone.
And if you start seeds indoors these days, you’ve got lighting options that you didn’t have a couple of years ago. And just the access to information I think is just making us all better, smarter gardeners. And hey, podcasts—gardening podcasts like yours.
Margaret: Yes, I mean it never… We didn’t have that, a free thing like that that we could access. You’re right, you’re right.
Margaret: So Joe, so I’m going to remind people that this is sort of like Part 2 of a conversation that began on your show, and that it is a little bit different but very related. And I don’t think that registration is open right now for your course again, but I’m going to tell people about it and where to read up about it. Is it time yet or it’s not time yet?
Joe: Well, you know what, we’re going to open registration up for a week. When your podcast goes live, we’re going to have it open and available.
more from joe and margaret
- Listen to the other “half” of our conversation on Joe’s ‘Joe Gardener’ podcast
p.s. — the nice thing joe lamp’s said about my new-old book
I COULDN’T HELP but share what Joe said after he read an early proof of my revamped book last year, and submitted a “blurb” for the cover. Thanks, Joe, for your continuing encouragement and support.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. 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 April 29, 2019 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).