Monday, April 1, 2019

Cannot Get Your Seeds Out Vegetable Gardening Special Episode!

So there comes a time when you need to let your plastic spaceships rest at port until the next game and direct your energies elsewhere. Perhaps something... peaceful.

Yes, we can use the same gif in two different articles.
I'm here to talk to you about gardening. Specifically, vegetable gardening. When I get dirty digging around in the dirt and worrying over plant life, I want something to eat when it's all said and done. Nothing wrong with those who enjoy gardening for its more aesthetic properties (flower gardening or perhaps a more generalized landscaping/outdoor decor kind of thing), but that doesn't give me good food to eat.

So why gardening?
Well, vegetable gardening has become something of a side hobby for me since my wife and I bought our house about 2 years ago. Her father does a lot of gardening (both flower gardening and vegetable gardening) and my mom was one of 8 siblings raised on a farm, so growing stuff to eat has always seemed appealing to me, I just never really had the space to do it. And then I did. It's been really nice and it's not too tough to do.

There are three main benefits to growing your own food as opposed to buying it at the grocery store:
  1. Cost. You're putting the labor into making your own food, so it's not surprising it's cheaper to grow it yourself. This is especially true of plants that keep producing fruit rather than those that are harvested in their entirety once they're ripe.
    • That said, once you factor in the costs of incidentals (water, fertilizer, mulch), required start-up materials (planter boxes, tools, trellises, stakes, etc.) and the value of your own labor (which depends a lot on how much spare time you have and how much you enjoy gardening), the cost difference may not be as much as you expected. Especially with the start-up costs, it gets more cost effective the longer you do it, basically.
  2. Taste/freshness. Produce that is raised for sale in grocery stores is basically valued for being large first and tasty second. If you're unsure of this, consider how most grocery store tomatoes are huge but their taste is watery. The same is sadly true of the tragically-misnamed Golden Delicious apple. There's also the fact that to handle transport and time spent on shelves, a lot of produce is sprayed with sealants (the waxy coating on apples you need to wash off) and can get bruised or damaged or start to wilt by the time you're buying it regardless. It's not uncommon for farms to harvest produce before it's ripe so it will ripen while it makes its way to grocery stores, but produce that ripens this way simply doesn't taste as good as produce that is allowed to ripen on the plant. 
    • Vegetables harvested right from your garden avoid a lot of these issues because you can pick them right off the plant and eat them the same day, in some cases moments later. I personally was amazed at the huge difference in taste between store-bought tomatoes and my garden tomatoes, which have a very strong flavor. The food you make with these vegetables often has a better fresher taste. When we hit late summer and I can make most of a hearty vegetable soup just from my own garden, it's a nice treat for me and my friends and family.
  3. Options. You can grow all kinds of varieties of produce you might not be able to find easily at a grocery store and getting access to them is cheap, because shipping seeds is not expensive at all. For example, last year I had a purple bell pepper plant amongst my peppers and while the flavor was just a bit different, the color was very striking:

Okay, how do I get started?

Identifying a location
The first thing you need to identify is where exactly you intend to grow your plants. If you've got a house with a decent-sized yard, great. If you've got an apartment with a balcony, that can work too (with potted plants). Most plants will want as much sun as they can get (there are some exceptions - lettuce, for example, likes a bit of shade), so you'll want somewhere out in the open, preferably without too much interference from trees or your house itself. Keep in mind where the sun will be from spring through autumn. For example, I live in Chicagoland. The sun will always be to the south of me, so if I plant crops hugging the north side of my house, they will be in shadow all the time and would need to be pretty far away from the house to get much light. On the east or west side of my house, plants would get morning or afternoon sun, but for the most part they'll be deprived of direct light most of the day. If I wanted, I could plant crops right up against the southern side of my house and they'd still get a decent amount of sun. Obviously it's better to have your plants reasonably far away from your house if possible to minimize the shade problem altogether, but keep what I said above in mind for trees on your property as well as other buildings nearby (neighbors' houses, if they're close to you and/or tall, neighbors' trees, small buildings on your property like tool sheds or whatnot).

Basic tools
At minimum you'll want a gardening spade, gardening fork, gardening clippers, basket to collect vegetables later on, and gardening gloves. A watering can is mandatory if you can't reach some of your plants with a hose. If you've got a plot that needs tilling on a large scale (like my garden), a hoe is mandatory (but wouldn't be for a small balcony garden, for example). I'd also recommend a nice hat if you'll be out in the sun a lot, and some kind of pad to kneel on will save your knees a lot of pain.

Setting up your plant fortresses
Once you've identified your location(s), you'll need to delineate the area. This can be as simple as a big pot or a preconstructed planter box if you're going smaller-scale or laying down large planks with some method of securing them to the ground to block out a garden plot if you're going larger-scale. I've got the big planks for my garden plots:
Also note some rose bushes but it's mostly vegetables. Yum.
...but I also have several smaller planters and pots too:
This is what a pretty young pumpkin plant looks like, FYI.
so whatever works for your available space is fine.

You can just dig up your yard and drop plants right in without any of the work of setting up a plant fortress but providing them an area with raised edges helps manage erosion from rain - you run the risk of water rushing across your garden washing away your topsoil if you're not careful and by keeping rain from running into and out of your garden too much, you minimize the trouble you get from erosion. On a related note, it's important to make sure that whatever system(s) you're using has some kind of drainage - if you get an awful lot of water, you don't want a lot of standing water drowning your plants, basically. With smaller planter boxes and barrels and such, some holes in the bottom of the container will let water out when your soil gets saturated. With the planks, it helps to have them on a bit of a decline so the water will naturally run down and some minor gaps on the low side between the planks will allow for the water to run off.

Dirt and mixing stuff into dirt
Once you have your "containers" established, you'll need to fill them with dirt. If you're starting from scratch, just buy gardening/potting soil and put it in when you plant (go to the next step). If you've set down planks, you'll want to top the gardening plot area inside them off a bit but there should be plenty of soil underneath them you can rotate in with the right tools as well so I'd recommend doing that if you can so you don't have loose new soil on top of hard old ground/grass. If you've already got your containers set up with soil from the previous year, you'll want to wait for a dry period once it's warm enough to rotate the soil and add in any fertilizer, compost, peat, etc. that you may want/need for the upcoming year (I won't go into it too much in this article, it depends on a lot of things but short version is fertilizer is good just don't go nuts, most places sell easy to use fertilizer for vegetable gardens so just follow their instructions). It's important to wait until the temperature has been above freezing long enough that the ground is no longer frozen and to ensure that the soil is dry enough to make tilling it easy. Trying to do this when it's wet means you're trying to move heavy mud around and it's miserable and doesn't work well, so wait until it's dry. It can take a while sometimes before you get a period where the soil is both warm and dry enough. That's okay.

Once your soil is ready, you may need to wait a while until your evening temperatures are reliably above freezing. You don't want seedlings to sprout only for them to freeze to death shortly thereafter. If you turned your preexisting soil earlier, this may involve waiting for a few weeks before actually planting anything. That's fine. For me, this means usually planting in late April. Some plants have their growing season later, so read the packaging (on seeds) before planting everything. It's fine to leave some garden space open for future plants.

If you plant and then a sudden unseasonal frost comes through, it's okay! You can insulate plants against frost with any kind of substantial sheeting (so for example old bedsheets, curtains, tarps, etc.) by draping it over them for the evening, ensuring the draped material reaches the ground (you're trying to create a little warmth pocket that freezing water vapor won't get into, basically), and then removing it once the temperature goes above freezing again. Thin plastic is not sufficient on its own for insulation. You can usually find decent insulation materials at gardening/hardware stores for cheap if you don't have any old sheeting of your own.

We've got a lot of stuff to discuss when it comes to planting, so buckle up!

Seeds versus seedlings
Many stores sell packets of seeds as well as seedlings (young plants that have already grown from a seed and need to be transplanted into your garden). Let's talk about the pros of each:

  • By far the most cost-effective, a single packet of seeds can last you for years (depending) and costs very little.
  • Variety of plants for seeds is much higher because they simply take up much less space in the store so they can stock a lot of different options.
  • Are easiest to plot out in your garden, as you already know where your plants will be growing.
  • Gets a head-start on producing fruits as they're a few weeks ahead of the seeds, basically.
There's really no right or wrong answer and different gardeners will favor different types and may use seedlings for one type of plant and seeds for another, depending. Seedlings are more beginner-friendly but they definitely cost more. If you've got the space in your basement and can get the setup for them, you have the option of growing seeds in a tray so that they're seedlings by the time late spring rolls around and get the best of both worlds, it just requires more specialized tools and inside space than I'm willing to dedicate just yet.

A piece of advice for either type is read the instructions for how much space your seeds or seedlings will need and obey it. Plants that are too close together will compete for sun and water with one another and this will at best cause them to grow smaller and weaker than they would otherwise and at worst will result in one or both of those plants dying. Plants prioritize devoting their resources to staying alive over producing fruit for the most part, so if you want tasty things to eat from your plants, you want them as big and healthy as possible.

When it comes to seeds, you will need to plant more seeds than plants you want because not all seeds will successfully sprout. This means planting extra seeds and then thinning your plants once they reach a certain size (the packaging will tell you when to do this and how far apart the survivors should be from one another). To be clear, thinning your plants means selectively removing/murdering plants you don't want to keep so the remaining plants have room to grow, so get comfortable with vegetable infanticide and make sure to pull up the whole plant, including the roots. There are two ways to do this, really: you can sow all the seeds in a row and then thin them down so the remaining plants are the right distance apart or you can put several seeds into holes set the right distance apart from one another from the get-go and then thin them down to one plant per hole when the time comes. The second method is generally easier in my experience but you need to be vigilant about thinning because multiple plants growing in the same location can cause big problems for all of them if you let them go for too long.

When it comes to seedlings, it's much easier and you get to avoid the entire thinning process but be attentive to your new transplants, as they tend to get stressed by the process. The first few days will generally be them acclimating to the new garden, so try to make it easy on them by ensuring they've got enough water and sunlight and that the soil near their transplant site isn't hard, so their roots can expand. Sometimes if you're growing seeds you'll find that for whatever reason some do not grow in a particular part of a row and you may need to take sprouted seedlings you were going to throw away while thinning and instead transplant them into the desired location. Just be careful to baby them, as they're still very young and the transplanting process is stressful to them.

Some plants zerg rush your garden
Generally, plants will let you know on their packaging if they expand like crazy but if you're unsure, just do a quick Google search. Plants like mint can start off very small but rapidly colonize everything around them. Mint is delicious and being able to add fresh mint to your tea (or other food and drink) is nice, so the easy way to manage the zerg rush problem is to make sure your zerg rush plants are grown in their own separate little planters so they run out of space and are easier to manage rather than needing to constantly fight them back from taking over an entire garden plot on their own.

Don't water it, you idiot! It'll think you want it to be there!
Some plants need extra hardware
Make sure to familiarize yourself with any special needs your plants may have. For example, tomatoes really grow best in tomato cages, which help support their limbs and keep them off the ground so they grow larger. Pepper plants like the support of being tied to a nearby stake so they don't get damaged in storms and it's less work to hold the heavy peppers before you harvest them. Cucumbers (and some kinds of beans and grapes, etc.) want a trellis to grow up. You don't necessarily need the special hardware the moment you plant that type of plant, but once it starts growing, you'll want it pretty quickly so prepare for that. The good news is most of the hardware is reusable and inexpensive, so its cost over time is negligible.

Tomatoes in a tomato cage
A jalapeno pepper plant tied to a supporting stake
Cucumber with a large trellis (it will grow enough to cover this entire thing, trust me)
Snap peas in a planter box growing up their own small trellises. Snap peas are great outdoor snacks while grilling!
Bags of mulch are cheap individually but if you have a decent-sized garden the costs can add up as you will need many bags to get good coverage (about 1-2 inches deep). That said, I'm a big fan of mulch and recommend using it when it's safe for your garden. Sprouts can push their way through light mulch but can struggle to penetrate heavier mulch so it's best to not take chances and instead wait to mulch an area until after all the plants there have sprouted and are at least 3 or 4 inches tall so they're not troubled too much by an inch or two of mulch. I usually do this in May or June.

Mulch helps you because it makes it difficult for weed seeds to get to the soil through the mulch and if they do, they can struggle to penetrate the mulch layer (as your seedlings would have earlier) and so mulch cuts down on weeds substantially, saving you a lot of time and hassle. Mulch also shields the soil from sunlight, which helps retain moisture in the ground, meaning you won't need to water your plants as frequently as you would otherwise. That said, that layer of damp mulch close to the soil is a very appealing habitat for slugs and earwigs (and other pests that like environments like that), so I generally find I need to apply pesticide (usually slug killer) about once or twice a year to keep them under control. It's a price I'm happy to pay, as mulch makes my gardening life much easier.

Care and maintenance
It will be a while before most of your plants bear any fruit, and that's fine. Keep an eye on them and check on them every few days.

If the soil is dry on top (through the mulch later on), water it (unless rain is on the way very soon). Generally, it's better for plants to get a deep watering once or twice a week than a shallow watering more regularly. Deep waterings encourage a plant's roots to dig deeper into the soil to access more moisture, which makes them sturdier and resistant to disease and pests that go after roots spread thin across the surface. Depending on your garden and free time, it might be better to simply set up a sprinkler and let it go nuts for an hour or two than to hold a hose for a long time.

Generally you should be feeding your plants additional liquid fertilizer (or pellets, or whatever you're using) once every month or two. If their leaves are starting to get yellowed, that usually means the plant needs more nutrition (unless that plant has already lived out its cycle and is dying naturally, of course).

Sometimes plants grow in very weird ways, often by deciding one particular shoot or branch should grow extremely tall/long. You need to convince that plant to stop growing stupidly by murdering the things you don't like about it. You're a big garden bully, embrace it. If you don't, you'll get an unmanageable garden of plants sending their weird outgrowths in one another's way instead of growing more evenly.

Sometimes they gotta be Left Plant before they can be Right Plant.
Diseases and pests
Generally so long as you're good about getting your plants enough sun and water, they'll stay pretty healthy, but sometimes bad things happen to good plants. In general, if you're seeing discoloration or decay of leaves and it's not yellowing due to poor fertilization, it means you've got a disease (usually fungal). Simply googling the type of plant and the symptom you're observing will tell you what to do about it.

If you're seeing holes/chunks missing in leaves or fruit, then that usually means you've got a pest that's eating your plants. In that case, put on your gardening gloves and start looking over the plant carefully to see if you can catch any troublemakers red-handed. If that's unsuccessful, dig in the mulch near the stem to see if you can find anything hiding down below. Once you've identified the type of pest, you can google what to do. If you can't (either you don't recognize it or you can't find it), basic garden pesticide will probably do the trick. Most pest-killers are applied to the base of the plant where it meets the ground/mulch and will kill pests when they try to climb the plant to eat the leaves or fruit. Make sure to read the pesticide instructions, including what you should do before eating that plant - usually you will need to be careful to clean that plant thoroughly for a period of time after applying pesticide.

The day will finally come when your plants are ready to be harvested. If they're a fruit-bearing plant like a tomato, green bean, or cucumber that keeps producing fruit until they die, this will mean harvesting the fruits. If the plant itself is the produce, such as root vegetables like onions or carrots or a leafy plant like lettuce, this means pulling out the entire plant. A few points about this topic in general:
  • Bring your basket and garden shears with you. I tend to find there's more than I expected every time I go out to harvest. For that matter, put something soft (like a towel) in your basket to minimize any bruising to the vegetables.
  • Harvest when you're supposed to. When in doubt, harvest early rather than leaving it sit there longer. Most seed packages will tell you when is right, but you can always double-check online if you're unsure. Many vegetables suffer from being left out too long, for example:
    • Cucumbers turn yellow and get bitter.
    • Herbs and lettuce 'bolt' (flower) and become bitter shortly afterwards as the plant focuses its nutrition on reproduction. Even trimming the flowers off won't reverse this.
    • Green beans get hard and their seeds get dry.
    • Tomatoes get too large and split their skins, attracting insects and rotting quickly.
  • Some vegetables can be pulled off the plant by hand (usually tomatoes and green beans) and some are best snipped off with shears (like cucumbers). When in doubt, snip. You don't want to accidentally yank pieces of your plant off as well as your prize.
  • If you're uprooting entire plants, have a plan for what to plant in their place. Rotating through different crops can work very well, and some plants can be replanted pretty much all growing season without much trouble.
    • On a related note, plan ahead. If you plant an entire row of lettuce and it all gets ripe at the same time, you probably can't eat 12 heads of lettuce in a week or two. If you plant half the row one week and then plant the other half 1-2 weeks later, you'll stagger your harvest.
  • Remember that if you're harvesting the entire plant, remove everything. Not all of the plant will be edible, of course, but leaving roots in the ground to cause you future problems doesn't help. If you've got a composter, that's a great place to put the useless parts.
  • You can harvest herbs pretty much indefinitely in bits and pieces (usually taking a few leaves here and there) until they bolt, at which point you need to harvest everything before they turn bitter and then start to die. 
    • If this leaves you with more herbs than you know what to do with, you have two options:
      1. Freeze them. Cut them up and put them into a ziploc bag, squeeze all the air out, label the bag, then put it in your freezer. You can cut off bits of the frozen herb block and drop them straight into your cooking.
      2. Dry them out. Hang them upside down (from a rafter or any kind of line or pole or hook) someplace dry and wait for them to dry up. Then you can chop them up and keep them in small bottles or baggies pretty much just like the herbs you buy at the grocery store.
Eventually all your plants will die (or at least go inert for the winter while their above-ground portions die). This will either be due to just running out their life cycle or because of an autumn frost. You can temporarily save your plants from an autumn frost (sometimes buying you a few more weeks of life as an early frost passes over) using the method I described earlier if you wish, but otherwise if you know a frost is coming you need to go harvest everything you can that's left before it hits. After that, tear out whatever plants are left that won't come back next year (so most of them, basically; I just don't want anyone tearing up their strawberries) and dispose of them and wait it out until spring returns next year.

Some plant recommendations
Generally I prefer plants that flower and produce fruits and then keep producing for some time as it's a space-efficient use of the garden and a cost-effective use of the plants. That said, the following recommendations are my garden MVPs and all fairly easy for a new gardener to get the hang of:

Give them the space they need and fertilizer and make sure they have tomato cages. They can produce like crazy, giving you lots of options for snacks, salads, soups, salsas, and pasta sauces. Different tomatoes are good for different things, so if you primarily want to make soups and sauces from them, get tomatoes that are good for that. The packaging will usually tell you what they're good for. Tomatoes keep on producing up until they die of frost.
These are my tomatoes and they're just waiting to get ripe and turn red to be eaten.

Green beans:
Bush beans grow into tiny little bushes and pole beans like to grow up poles or trellises to really perform at their fullest. Either is fine, just know what you're getting and prepare accordingly. Green beans also produce like crazy, especially for their size, and are pretty low-maintenance. Make sure to not let the bean pods themselves get too big or else they get hard and unappetizing. Green beans are great as an appetizer, especially if tossed in olive oil and spices and cooked in the oven, or as a component in casseroles and soups. Green beans keep producing until they are killed by frost.
A bunch of bush beans.

Cucumbers:Cucumbers require trellises and sometimes need a bit of "leading" to grow well, so check on them now and again and help their vines "find" links in the trellis to hold onto to grow. They're very easy to harvest because the vegetables are heavy and hang down under the trellis. I love turning them into my own custom-made pickles but others use them in a variety of salads and as a side. Cucumber plants generally live a bit over 2 months and then their leaves turn yellow and they get wiry and die. When you see them starting to shrivel up, harvest whatever cucumbers are left.

Zucchini plants grow into large snaking bushes that can produce some gigantic fruits that are good in pasta sauces and soups as they suck up the flavors of liquids they're in while keeping a bit of their own intrinsic flavor. Zucchini plants tend to die in the early- to mid-autumn but can produce a lot of zucchini vegetables in that time. Zucchini can be planted in rows or "hills." A hill is basically a mound of soil with 2-3 plants put into it in a triangular or opposite formation where the plants will then grow out from the central hill. Make sure to give zucchini all the space they ask for as they can get very large and their leaves can overshadow neighboring plants once they're full-grown.
You can see the little baby zucchinis growing from flowers by the leaf stems near the core of the plant.
There's a lot of  variety here and I generally recommend growing these in smaller planters that can be kept closer to your home where it's easy to zip out, harvest a few leaves, then head back inside to continue work on a meal. Which herbs you prefer will largely come down to the type of cuisines you like to cook.

Stupid garden statue:
Listen, every garden needs something dumb to make it your own. Embrace it.
Meet Gnome Chompski!
Otherwise, there are a lot of good options and I've grown at this point I'd say 20-30 different plants, so it comes down to what you'd like to try and what grows well in your climate. With a bit of work and a willingness to learn, you can by this summer have a bounty of very delicious vegetables grown where you live!


  1. I've tried everything....the deer get me every time. I even moved to a new house last spring, the deer got me there too. I can only grow herbs. They seemingly leave them alone. Occasionally the squirrels dig around in the herb pots. They don't seem very fond of rosemary.

    1. Deer are OP and need to be nerfed! Back when the wolves meta was stronger, we didn't have these problems so much but ever since wolves got nerfed, the deer meta has become dominant ;).

      Seriously, though, I hear good things about wire fencing and canid (wolf/coyote/dog) urine, but if you tried everything already, I imagine you have already given those a shot.

    2. I haven't tried wire fencing in the new house, but the old house had utterly relentless deer. They powered through the wire.

    3. Putting bars of soap on a stick helped my garden. The deer would sample the soap first and decide the garden didn't taste good.