the year’s gardening lessons learned, with joe lamp’l


BEING AN ever-better gardener means staying open to change. As long as we’ve both been gardening, my friend Joe Lamp’l was saying to me the other day, we’re still evolving, still learning lessons every single growing season. We were comparing notes on the phone about the season we just each put to bed, Joe in Atlanta and me up north in New York State, and decided to bring you into the conversation about what 2021 taught us, and what we’ve got planned 2022, in case our aha’s can help you be a better gardener, too.

Things like how we’ve both shifted our handling of fallen leaves to support the environment, or how Joe’s growing more in straw bales and grow bags to rest his raised-bed soil and allow for crop rotations. How we’re both investigating what really works instead of peat moss, a non-renewable resource, as a medium for seed-starting. And much more.

Joe Lamp’l is the longtime creator and host of the public-television program “Growing A Greener World” and also of the “Joe Gardener Podcast”. As if he needed more to do, in recent years, he’s created something else, the Joe Gardener Online Gardening Academy, a curriculum of virtual courses on topics from seeds to tomato, pests and weeds, to soil science and lots more.

Read along as you listen to the December 20, 2021 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).

the year’s lessons, with joe lamp’l



Joe Lamp’l: Hi, Margaret. I’m doing great. How are you?

Margaret Roach: You’re just down there like kicking back, relaxing, doing nothing, right?

Joe:  [Laughter.] Funny you should say that. I just had a chat with one of my team members today and we were brainstorming about the next new thing. And it’s like we need another thing to do. No, I don’t think so.

Margaret: You and I need mental health help.

Joe: Do they know our nicknames for each other?

Margaret: Yeah. I call you CM.

Joe: For crazy man. And you are CW?

Margaret: Yes, for crazy woman. My best friend, Erica, for years says, “Oh, Margaret? No, she’s not Type A. She’s Type Triple A.”

Joe: I love that.

Margaret: So I think you, too.

Joe: I’m there. I have my hand raised to that one.

Margaret: Yeah. As I said in the introduction, we were like chatting on the phone the other day as we do pretty regularly, and comparing notes, commiserating, and whatever. One of the things that was like a highlight, that’s been a highlight in recent years, that’s definitely shifting is we’re both seeing among our readers and listeners and so forth sort of this receptivity and, in fact, excitement about ecological horticulture, about ecology and managing the garden less fastidiously, and so forth. I know you’ve been evolving and evolving and evolving how you manage your place. New stuff this year about that?

Joe: Yes. I have this little voice in my head all the time about this tape that plays back of all the new things that I am learning along with everybody else. On that note, that is something.. I think gardeners get this when they… As I say, I say today, I’m more passionate than I was about gardening yesterday, and tomorrow I’ll be more passionate than I am today. And that’s just because there is always more to learn, those aha moments in the garden, or maybe it’s learning about a new insect or a plant or some fun fact that takes my breath away. This I was thinking, too: If you add up all those days over the years of being breathless, it’s a wonder that I’m still even here. [Laughter.]

That’s how gardening does for me, and I’m sure many listeners can probably relate to that. But to your point, this year, as that little tape continues to play in my head, I’m thinking about the Doug Tallamys of the world and Rebecca McMackins, and the messaging that we’re getting more and more about it’s O.K. not to be so tidy and neat in our garden. And in fact, there’s a reason not to be. For example, the drum is beating loud this year about “leave the leaves.” We’ve been hearing that a lot from Doug Tallamy.

I’m the guy that for the past several years on Saturdays in November, I am out there in my truck picking up bagged leaves from subdivisions around my neighborhood that they’re required to get the leaves off property or out of site.

The average home has 30-something bags of leaves, and they’re just sitting there. And here’s the sad part about it: They’re going to the landfill. There’s no recycling or composting facility for that around here. They just load them up in the trucks, but the trucks can only take eight per household per pickup. That’s a big conundrum. I look at that as rescuing those leaves [laughter], liberating the leaves, and then bringing them home.

And here’s my point to all of this is in the past years, I’ve been shredding them. Selfishly what I’m doing is I’m saving the leaves from the landfill, but I’m bringing them home and I’m shredding them up, because I love my leaf mulch. By spring, I’ve got this huge stockpile of shredded leaves.

Well, now, I’m thinking about what we’ve learned in recent years about all the overwintering insects that are using those leaves, and so I don’t want to shred them anymore. I do a fair amount—I do about half of them is shredded. But for every one bag I shred, I liberate a bag. I free the leaves [laughter], as I say, out into my landscape.

When I’m picking up these bags and I happen to meet the people that live there and I’m telling them what I’m doing, I say, “Well, half these bags, I’m going to dump out that you’ve spent time bagging up. I’m going to dump them out on my landscape beds at home, my native plant areas, to free the leaves and just improve the soil and let those overwintering insects do their thing.”

It’s kind of my carbon offset to, oh gosh, recovering 100 percent of those bagged leaves from the landfill, but then allowing half the bags I collect to just be released back into the woods.

Margaret: Right, so leaf litter—the support of leaf litter—and having areas where we let the leaves lie and let leaf litter build up. As you say, let overwintering little creatures do their thing in there, and then let that go gradually at nature’s pace breakdown and create a duff layer or create natural mulch and add organic matter back to the soil.

I love leaf mulch, too. I’ve had the same kind of tension point in my head knowing what I know now from people, like you mentioned, like Rebecca and Doug and so forth. But I think that’s right to sort of halves-y thing, because it’s better than what people used to do by far, which was people burned leaves.

As you say, in your area and many other areas, they’re going in plastic bags to the landfill still. That’s not a great thing either.

This whole adding to the soil, supporting the soil, finding ways to rest our soil, because you have this well-known—people will probably recognize a picture of it, your raised-bed sort of vegetable production garden. I have a tiny little raised bed garden. Some years I feel like the soil needs a rest and I’m always looking for ways to do that. It certainly needs lots of organic matter, which we were just talking about. Do you sort of think about that, too, like other ways to either feed it, so to speak, or to rest it to let some areas go fallow, kind of?

Joe: I have no choice, because it’s in my face. What I mean by that is I’ve played with fire for too long, and I’m the one that talks to people about rotating their crops from one bed to the next to the next.

I understand all the science behind that, and yet I’m also the guy, the cobbler’s kids who don’t have shoes. I’m the one that’s like “do what I say and not what I do” sometimes, because I have this thing for tomato plants. And even though I have 16 large raised beds, I’m over planting too many of those beds year after year with solanaceous crops, specifically tomatoes. But eventually that’s going to catch up with you.

Those diseases that reside in the soil that you continue to feed and cultivate, because you keep putting back what they want, those diseases have no reason to go away or die off. Eventually, and this has happened a lot lately, I see those soil-borne disease on my plants and it’s screaming at me like, “Joe, enough is enough. Game over. You’ve got to find new places.”

I’m doing that with grow bags and straw bales, quite successfully I might add. Yeah. I mean, it’s not an option anymore. I have to.

Margaret: Right. You have to make a way to rotate “your crops.” Of course, the scientists tell us that skipping three years in a bed, if it’s the solanaceous things, for instance, a rotation is to skip three years. It’s not like just rotate it for one summer. It’s a rotation.

Joe: That’s on the fast side. Some of these soil-borne disease like verticillium and fusarium last a lot longer than that. It’s like, oh, what am I going to do now?

Margaret: Yeah. Speaking of soil, do you have Asian jumping worms in an area?

Joe: Funny you should ask, Margaret.

Margaret: O.K. It’s not that funny, but yeah, it’s kind of tragic.

Joe: No. Funny, not funny, right?

Margaret: Yeah.

Joe: I don’t know why I would think this, but I was hoping maybe that I could dodge the bullet on that one, too. Probably less than a month ago, I discovered my first one. It was undeniable. It was highly active, moving around at a rapid pace. And of course, it had that milky white band all the way around. That is the sure sign of what you’ve got. Now I’m seeing more of them.

Margaret: Right. They degrade the soil, for people who don’t know about them. They degrade the soil. They process it too fast, taking out all the organic matter. It’s a terrible environmental problem in many regions. [Photo of jumping worm above from Brad Herrick, University of Wisconsin-Madison.]

The reason I ask is because we’re talking about crop rotation and leaf litter and so on and so forth, and they gobble it up. I don’t know whether the answer is to add more organic matter or not in the face of these organic-matter-devouring monsters. That’s the subject of a lot of it are going on. I mean, I’ve been writing about them since like 2013 when I interviewed someone at Great Lakes Worm Watch, but it’s really becoming well-known now.

I actually just bought a ticket yesterday to a two-day… It’s two half days in January, a virtual conference by University of Massachusetts-Amherst with multiple scientists presenting. I’ll give the link and I’ll send you the link by email as well. It looks like a really good cast. I want to find out kind of is there any cutting-edge, any information, or any direction on, should we be adding more organic matter than ever, or should we deprive them of organic matter? Who knows? Who knows?

Joe: Oh my gosh.

Margaret: Yeah.

Joe: Such questions.

Margaret: Are we feeding the worms, or are we feeding the soil? Do you know what I mean? It’s very complicated.

Joe: [Laughter.] Oh my gosh.

Margaret: It’s very complicated.

Joe: I’m starting to stress out here.

Margaret: Yeah. One scientist said to me when I asked him that last year at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he said, “Choose your own adventure. We don’t know yet.” I want to find out what this year’s ideas are.

But anyway, on happier notes, well, not happier necessarily, but I know you take like a little sabbatical each August, and you spent some of it weeding, if I remember what we talked about on the phone then. What’s going on with that [laughter]? How’s the weeds?

Joe: I think I’m in a very small club of people that loves to weed. I love to weed.

Margaret: No, I love it too.

Joe: Yeah, I know you do. I know.

Margaret: It’s meditative. Yeah. Yeah.

Joe: It is. On my month-long sabbatical, which I have to do for mental sanity every year in August, and which is a great time to do it, the first daybreak for an hour roughly, I set my timer actually so it is an hour or longer with a podcast or too, I’m weeding, hand weeding, on my knees, down in the dirt. I love that.

But around here, I’ve got about two and a half acres of some form of cultivation with native landscape beds outside of my raised-bed garden. There’s plenty of places that need weeding. I’ll either do that with my scuffle hoe or by hand weeding. Even with mulch, it’ll get away from you. I’ve got to do that. I have no choice there, either.

Margaret: We seem to be having… Because of climate change, we’re having a longer… There’s not frost on the ground as many months as there used to be, and things are more favorable. It’s sort of a longer growing season, I guess, and more growing degree days or whatever. The woody and other perennial type things, they just seem to be romping, like those extra days each year that they’re not asleep, so to speak.

Joe: Yes.

Margaret: It’s just like, wow! Lots and lots and lots of, for us, especially the woody things I said, like bittersweet vines. It’s bad. It’s really bad. Weeding. Weeding. Weeding. Weeding.

Joe: Yes. Go ahead.

Margaret:  I was just going to say, did you grow anything new this year besides weeds [laughter]?

Joe: I’m finally adding more fruit trees outside of the vegetable garden.

Margaret: Oh!

Joe: Yes. And I continue to add to my native garden with my woodland native shrubs and so forth. I love to do that. My problem is, and Margaret, I sent you a picture while we’re were on the phone this week. As we were talking, I was looking outside of my office window. The only thing between my office and my raise bed vegetable garden is a grass pathway. There was something-point large buck staring through the glass at me. What I was telling you that for is because I would have a lot more things planted right now if I’d finally get a deer fence around this place to keep those kind of guys out of here from devouring everything I plant and then rutting my trees that I plant.

It’s one thing after another. There’s no rest for the weary around here. Try as I might, I plant a lot of things, and then I just lose as many as I plant sometimes.

Margaret: Maybe 20 years ago, I got a deer fence around the place and it was really the best money I ever spent. Because the first 10 or 15 years, I did what you’re saying, which is you’d plant things and you’d lose half of them, especially the woody stuff. It was just heartbreaking when they would decimate a woody plant. The deer fence to me is the only way to go. I mean, I’m not one for trying to control it with sprays and things like that.

Joe: Who’s got time for that? At least around here.

Margaret: It adds up. It’s not for high-deer-pressure areas, those sprays. Those are for moderate- to mild-pressure areas, not for areas where they’re bold and brazen and there’s lots of them.

Joe: It is pricey. Other people have said what you said. It’s the best investment they ever made really over time.

Margaret: Yeah. So you’re thinking about that. But did you grow any, besides putting in some fruit trees, anything new in the vegetable garden?

Joe: Yeah. Do you know I have never grown ground cherries before?

Margaret: Oh!

Joe: I finally did it. I was up at Niki Jabbour‘s place a couple years ago and she had them. She always grows them. I finally got to sample those in real time, and they’re delightful. They’re kind of a butterscotch, pineapple-y little cherry inside of a paper sack. They’re delicious, and they’re so prolific. Oh my gosh. You only need one plant, by the way, if anybody’s thinking about doing this. But that was a little novelty thing. I don’t know that I’ll do it every year or again, but that’s what comes to mind.

And then I planted okra again [flower and pod forming in photo above]. I love to eat okra, but it’s… Thankfully there are shorter varieties these days, but the classic ‘Clemson Spineless’ gets 8 feet tall. And when you put that into a bed that’s already 18 inches tall, even standing up on top of the bed, reaching up, it’s hard to harvest.

Those are the two things that come to mind that are new for me. I just tend to plant what I like, and I do it year after year. My fall garden is outrageously amazing right now, and that’s a missed opportunity. I wish more people would do a fall garden. Just because summer’s over doesn’t mean the gardening season ends.

Margaret: Right. And even up here in the North, it’s not just for Atlanta, but even up here in the North, if I sow as if it were early spring again or late winter—if I sow some flats in a protected spot of certain vegetable crops, edible crops, and even some herbs, in July and plant them out, I’m going to have stuff into October. And for you, that’s going to be even a longer season, right?

Joe: It is. A lot of the things… I start seed in the middle of summer. And on my sabbatical in August, I’m starting seeds. I do that like crazy in January and February. But then in the middle of the summer, you’re doing that and you’re thinking, “Why am I doing this?” But all you have to do is one time plant those seedlings out in late August or early September for me, and then see what happens. That’s all it takes and you are hooked. You never have to justify it again. It’s amazing.

Margaret: I grew some new annuals for ornamental purposes this year that I was glad for. Someone gave me maybe a six-pack or something of… I don’t know if you’ve ever grown it. It’s called tassel flower. It’s Emilia coccinea. It’s this very linear… I don’t know. It’s a couple or few feet tall, very linear wand-like stems. And at the top are these little orangey sort of fire-engine, orangey-red puffs. These little puffy flowers that are just so hot-colored and gorgeous. Because the stems are long and thin, they kind of move in the breeze. They kind of bounce around.

It was the most interesting thing. We have this butterfly here called the pearl crescent.

Joe: Yeah.

Margaret: It’s a small butterfly; it’s a wide-ranging one. It was like someone put out a sign and every pearl crescent in the county decided to come and visit Margaret’s Emilia. It was like a magnet. It was so interesting. I’ve seen a lot of plant-animal interactions over many years, but this was crazy. It’s gorgeous also. I mean, I love the color orange, so it’s gorgeous. Select Seeds has that one in their catalog, as do other people.

Joe: Duly noted. Nice.

Margaret: Yes. I want to ask you about seed stuff, but before we do that, so we don’t run out of time, I want to ask you about, I read about this spider from hell. It’s in your neighborhood, right? What’s the spider thing in the headlines? What is this thing?

Joe: The Joro spider. It’s, it’s a member of the golden orb-weaver genus. [Photo by Christina Butler from Wikipedia.]

Margaret: Right.

Joe: But this spider was first discovered around 2015, so roughly almost seven years ago, in the U.S. They think it hitchhiked on a shipping container from somewhere in Asia. But it is big time in Georgia here in the Northeast section, maybe 16 counties right now, but they are discovering it’s now in South Carolina and it’s rapidly expanding. But literally this year, for the first time, I went from never having seen one before to they were everywhere I went in my property, in every bed, between every tree, at head level or higher. These are 3- to 4-inch-sized spiders counting their legs, but they’re like a golden orb-weaver, but even prettier because they have red and yellow.

I mean, they’re beautiful, but they’re super scary-looking. They’re really harmless. They don’t hurt you, but you got to remind yourself of that because they are spooky-looking. But they’re everywhere. What I worry about, because I would just… I’m a live and let live guy. It really changed the way I had to garden this year, because I really couldn’t get out to do where I needed to do things because I didn’t want to disturb the webs. What’s neat about these webs is they’re three-layer. There’s the main orb, and then they have an external layer also. It’s like a three-dimensional web and there they are in the middle of it. But then they die off as winter comes. But in the process, they lay that egg sack of somewhere between 400 and 1,500 eggs.

Margaret: Oh no!

Joe: Right. All that to say is, what is next year going to be like? They were everywhere this year. Yeah.

Margaret: And it’s an invasive species, so what’s its impact going to be on the beneficial insects that it’s going to consume?

Joe:J And that’s what we’re waiting to see.

Margaret: And that’s bad news. Right.

Joe: Yeah. The only good news there is just they have discovered so far that they are feeding on adult marmorated stink bugs, unlike the other spiders.

Margaret: Oh good. They can come eat those here.

Joe: We got that going for us in the meantime.

Margaret: I wanted to… You sow so many seeds [above, part of Joe’s seed-starting area in peak production]. I don’t have any garden friends who sow more seeds than you do in late winter [laughter] and, as you said also, again, in midsummer for fall crop. And now you teach a course on the subject and so forth. What was the aha this year from the seed thing? Because I mean, I know you’re always refining your tactics. I guess, are you refining them for the course?

Joe: Always. Yeah. This is our third year of relaunching that course. It’s our most popular course by far; people love it. The community is amazing, but just empowering people to have the confidence and the knowledge to start their seeds successfully.

But it’s an evolving process, too. Over the past few years, this discussion of peat-based soil medium is a big deal. Let’s do a peat-free option and all of that. The default has been coir. As part of the course, I would try all these different coir options, which is ground-up coconut husk. But considering where it comes from, you have to take into consideration the salinity of that.

It’s high potassium content, which basically stunts the growth of the seedlings coming up and they just sit there, unless you find a way to clear out the salt.

Margaret: Desalinate. Right.

Joe: Desalinate. We’re documenting side by side trials. We’re videoing everything, and we’re trying to come up with ways for an alternative. Honest to goodness, I do love how peat moss works for seed starting. But at the same time, I want to find an alternative that’s more ecologically responsible.

Margaret: Right. Right.

Joe: That’s the struggle right now, but we’re working on it.

Margaret: That’s one of the things that you’re kind of iterating. You’re not just saying, “Go get this other thing.” You’re actually hands-on trying it, knowing what you know. And again, like we said at the beginning of the program, kind of learning all the time. Even though you already know how to start seeds, you’re trying to face this new challenge.

Joe: Yes. The new techniques. Yes.

Margaret: Yeah. The whole peat thing, I mean, Monty Don and lots of high-profile garden celebrity people have made the call, and made the call more loudly recently, to not use peat because it’s not a non-renewable resource and so forth.

But we need more information, hands-on trials, and so forth, on good mixes that we can use instead. Most people are going to want a bagged thing, I don’t even know. I can read the labels and see who’s not including peat in their mixes now, but I haven’t tried those soils and some bagged potting soils stink. Some are not good, right?

Joe: This is true. We trial so many of those different things. I’ll trial 20 different mediums at the same time and try to make that the only variable and make everything else a constant to isolate what’s working. It’s fascinating, but frustrating at the same time. You are so right about that. We just all need more information.

Last week on my podcast, I interviewed peat specialist Dr. Merritt Turetsky, and it was a real eye-opener. It was a fact-based, no dog in the hunt kind of thing; just laying out the facts out there. But it really does compel us to want to find alternatives if we’re concerned about carbon release and destroying ecosystems.

Margaret: Right. Now, I know we can’t sign up for the course yet. I’ll give the link to your Online Gardening Academy homepage and so forth. But is there like a list that we get it on so that we can be alerted when courses come—when they are in our sales period? Is that obvious on the page if I send people over there?

Joe: Well, if you send people to, they’ll get notified on the launches, because our launches are only for a week long, because I walk through the course with them. I’m mentoring them as they go. We just can’t make it an evergreen course, but those are starting in January. The Master Seed Starting starts at the end of January.

Margaret: Oh, cool. Oh, perfect timing. Okay. Well, good. Well, Joe, thank you for sort of looking back at the year and looking ahead at the next one together, CM down there in Atlanta.

Joe: You got it, CW.

Margaret: Holiday love from CW. Yeah. I’ll talk to you soon.

Joe: Back at you. O.K. Thanks.

(Photos except as noted from, used with permission.)

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. 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 December 20, 2021 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).


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