Ten Lessons Learned

By Kathryn Hamilton EMGV

As master gardeners, we learn things. But we don’t learn everything, and because we are human, we often forget what we learn or think we are so smart that we are smarter than what we learned. I find each growing season to be a lesson in humility, but also an opportunity to learn … sometimes it’s something I knew, sometimes it’s relearning what I’ve learned. Here are 10 things I’ve learned or relearned in 2018.

  1. You can start tomatoes too early. Last year, I started my tomato seeds on Christmas day. In a sense it was a gift to myself, but I was also determined to have the biggest, strongest tomatoes to put into my garden in May. Although I planted, and transplanted, and have a south-facing location for them, I got leggy tomatoes that didn’t necessarily grow into the big, bad boys I’d hoped for, and I didn’t really get a jump on the season.
  2. Take the time to keep track of what you’ve planted. Last year, I planted two different kinds of cucumbers. General Lee, which is recommended for the South, and Tokiwa, “Tokyo Green” which was researched by a friend of mine. By the time I had gotten my “started-too-early” plants to the garden, I’d lost the markers and decided I’d be able to tell which cuke was which. Fat chance. Too bad, because one of them produced fantastic, sweet cucumbers well into August. I’ll have to try again this year.
  3. Plants need water to thrive. My first home had a well, which continues to make me inordinately careful about how much water I use, even though today I have city water. Someplace in the middle of last summer I realized I could capture the condensation from my air conditioning unit which gave me 10 “free” gallons of water a day. (Rain water collection is not permitted here.) After watering my rose bushes, my trees, my hydrangeas, and cleaning my patio, I began to toss the excess water onto my gardenias. Although they had been planted in the right location in terms of sunlight and we had quite a bit of rain, in three years, they hadn’t really blossomed, and I didn’t have the time to figure out why. Suddenly with regular water, I had flowers. Said a friend: “They were using whatever water they had to survive, they didn’t have enough to bloom.” And he wasn’t a master gardener.
  4. It’s not necessarily wise to be greedy. I had
    small veggies tiny but tasty december 30 harvst
    Even though they were small, I chose to harvest these at the end of December rather than try my luck for “even bigger” produce. Photo Kathryn Hamilton

    four beautiful heads of red sail lettuce and refused to pick the outer leaves in quest of the biggest head I could grow. In the end all four matured at the same time and were on the verge of bolting. Yes, I had some heads to share with my neighbors, but I also missed those fresh leaves every day and was forced into several days of red leaf lettuce salad. Not necessarily a bad thing … but I could have enjoyed it all season

  5. Know when it’s time to “fold ‘em.” A plant that’s at the end of its life and is literally hanging on by a few thready stems isn’t going to produce any good fruit. Doesn’t matter that there’s an heirloom tomato “on the vine.” Still not going to taste very good.  I had a similar story with eggplants. Rather than pick them mid-sized, I pushed them to the max and had seeds.
  6. DO NOT over-plant your tomatoes. I know VERY experienced gardeners who still do this. The tomatoes will compete for food, water, and air. You are not likely to have a bumper crop.
  7. Plant your spinach in a hurricane. Spinach is one of those crops that has thwarted me at every turn. No matter what I do, I can’t get this vegetable to start from seeds. This past summer out of desperation, I threw a bunch of seeds into a planter during the hurricane. Within a handful of days (poor record-keeping again), I had spinach. At first I thought it was the wet, wet, wet conditions. But other spinach seeds sown under the same wet conditions went nowhere. I haven’t done a full set of experiments on this, but I’m thinking it’s a combination of wet and warm that helps the seeds jump start. The conundrum around starting spinach seeds in the summer is that they like cool growing weather. I’m sure we ate the spinach that sprouted … but then again, no records.
  8. Start your lettuce on sponges under lights.
    Cutting the sponges into smaller sections allows you to start a variety of seeds in a small space. Growing here: Two romaines and a red. Photo: Kathryn Hamilton


    Starting lettuce from seeds has been another stumbling block for me. One day I decided to experiment by growing them on a sponge. I put the soaked sponge in a cleaned out (10% Clorox solution) plastic domed container (you can often get them when you buy cooked chicken at the super market but be SURE to sanitize them). Under grow lights (no heat on the bottom), I’ve seen the lettuce sprout in 2 – 3 days, compared to “never” before. This lettuce is nine days old. I also buy new sponges whenever I grow lettuce. If they are thick I cut them in half lengthwise so they are not so deep. If I’m planting several varieties at once, I cut the sponges into little cubes, one for each variety. A friend, who is not a master gardener but owns a garden shop, says he mixes his seed with packaged cow manure and broadcasts it. In addition to providing nutrition, he says the cow manure also holds moisture.

  9. Pay attention to soil temperature. Even if against all conventional wisdom, you start seedlings like peas indoors, without the right soil temperature they will struggle at est. (And don’t forget to water.)
  10. If you get into a battle of wills with Mother Nature, she will likely win. I have a history of trying to grow things in the wrong spot … simply because I wanted to them to go there. Of course, I had minimal luck at best. How rewarding to know that the gardener’s mantra: “the right plant for the right spot” can be a very rewarding rule of thumb. (And don’t forget to water.)

This winter, take time to reflect on your last year of gardening and consider what changes you can make as you begin anew in 2019. Happy New Year!


Food Safety in the Garden

by Ann Barnes

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 Americans become ill from contaminated food each year. These illnesses are caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that come in contact with food or beverages. Although you may think that the greatest risk of food-borne illness is from meat products or spoiled mayonnaise left on a sunny picnic table, a number of cases have been linked to fruits and vegetables. As gardeners, we can reduce the risk of food-borne illness from produce we grow by following good sanitation practices.

If you are planning a new garden at your home or thinking of starting a community garden, you can begin preventing food-borne illness before a single seed is planted just by choosing the right site. Look up the history of your site – industrial sites have a potential for contamination. Don’t choose a site that has a history of flooding or is downhill from a potential source of contamination, such as a parking lot, animal pen, compost bin, or dumpster.

A soil test is always a good idea, both for new and existing garden locations. Knowing the results of a soil test will help you choose only the amendments you need for your garden, which will save money and reduce runoff of potentially polluting fertilizers. Always follow instructions on the labels of all fertilizers, pesticides, and soil amendments.

The ideal garden site should have a source of water nearby. Water used in food gardens should be safe to drink (potable). Clean, safe water (such as city water or well water) should be used for watering food crops as well as for hand washing. Water from rain barrels, ponds, and rivers could be contaminated with disease causing organisms, making it better suited for watering ornamental plants rather than food. If there is not a source of potable water nearby, have your non-potable water source tested for disease causing organisms regularly.

Animals in the garden can contaminate soil with their waste, so you may want to fence your garden so that pets and wildlife are less likely to enter. Using animal repellents may be necessary to deter animals that are not kept out by a fence. If you use manure as a fertilizer, make sure that edible parts of plants do not touch the soil. Straw or mulch can be used to protect plants.

Prior to harvesting, thoroughly wash hands with soap and clean water, then dry with clean disposable towels. If water is not available for washing, wear garden gloves when working and wear single-use disposable gloves while harvesting. Alcohol based hand sanitizers can reduce the risk of contaminating food at harvest, but they are not effective at killing all disease-causing organisms (for example, Norovirus). Sanitizers are not sufficient if hands are visibly dirty. The CDC recommends these guidelines to effectively wash hands:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

The tools you use to harvest should also be cleaned to reduce the risk of pathogens being spread throughout the garden. If possible, wash harvesting tools as you would wash items in your home kitchen. If kitchen facilities aren’t available, wash and sanitize tools using a bleach solution (1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water). Put harvested food into clean, sanitized containers or clean single use bags. All produce should be properly stored once harvested, and washed before eating.

With a little extra care, you can enjoy all the fresh produce your garden provides, without fear of food-borne illnesses.


Food Safety for School And Community Gardens (NC Cooperative Extension publication)




Crop Rotation

by Ann Barnes

It’s a beautiful early August day in Durham. To beat the heat, I am making a list of fall crops I want to grow and deciding where in the garden each will be planted. Earlier this year, I drew and scanned a map of the garden, which I now use to record what is planted each season and to plan for future crop rotation.


Portion of garden map, with permanent planting of strawberries labeled.
Portion of garden map, with permanent planting of strawberries labeled.

Although planning your garden ahead and rotating your crops may seem like one of those extra steps you’d like to skip, there are some good reasons why you shouldn’t.

  1. Crop rotation helps keep populations of insect pests and disease causing microorganisms (pathogens) under control. Pathogens and destructive insects tend to prefer certain plant families. Many insects and disease organisms overwinter in the ground or on dead plant material. If the same plant – or a plant from the same family – is planted in one spot year after year, populations of pests will increase over time. Problems that might have been a nuisance can become severe enough to destroy a whole crop. Rotating crops makes it more difficult for pests to build up large populations.
  2. Different types of crops have different nutritional requirements. Some plants, like tomatoes, are heavy feeders – they take more nutrients from the soil. Root vegetables such as carrots are light feeders. Planting crops with the same nutritional requirements in the same spot for too long can decrease soil quality.

For crop rotation to be effective, don’t plant crops from one plant family in the same part of your garden more often than once every three years. This is where drawing and labeling a map of your garden each season comes in handy. Below are some commonly grown crops and their plant families (from http://watauga.ces.ncsu.edu/files/library/95/crop%20rotation%20factsheet.pdf).

Sunflower family lettuces, sunflowers
Goosefoot family beets, spinach, chard, quinoa
Mustard family mustard greens, rutabaga, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, turnip, radish, watercress
Onion family garlic, shallots, leeks, onions, chives
Gourd family melons, squashes, gourds
Pea family peas, beans, jicama, peanuts
Nightshade family peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, potato
Carrot family celery, dill, chervil, fennel, carrot, parsnip, parsley
Grass family corn

Note that not all these plants should be planted now. See the following for planting times:

A sample crop rotation is included in this article: http://extension.psu.edu/pests/ipm/pestproblemsolver/house/home-garden/soil-plant-health/crop-rotation

The Getting Dirty Radio Show http://gettingdirtyradioshow.org/2015/07/31/a-second-season-sowing/ has an excellent post and recording about planting in August, including how to calculate a planting date based on information on seed packages.

Want to read more?




Educational Opportunities, Week of Oct. 13

Tuesday, October 14: Getting Dirty with Durham County Master Gardeners Radio Show  – Broadcasts Tuesdays at 2:00 pm on WCOM FM 103.5  It can be heard live or replayed any time at http://gettingdirtyradioshow.org

Saturday, October 18th, 10-11 a.m.  — Extending the growing season — presentation by Michelle Wallace,Consumer Horticulture Agent.  Life gets busy and all of us could use more time to garden.  Season extension methods can give gardeners a little extra time to grow things.  These methods help plants survive a killing frost in the fall.  They also give gardeners the ability to start their cool season vegetables in the spring earlier so you can begin harvesting produce sooner.  Come learn how easy it is to get more from your garden through Season Extension. Held at Briggs Ave. Community Garden.   Requires Registration.  Call 919-560-0525

Educational Opportunities, week of August 11, 2014

Getting Dirty with Durham County Master Gardeners Radio Show  – Broadcasts Tuesdays at 2:00 pm on WCOM 103.5  Can be heard live or replayed any time at http://gettingdirtyradioshow.org
August 12 – Now is the time to start thinking about saving seeds for next season.  The Enthusiastic Gardener, Charles Murphy, is back and in the mood to build something.  Our host, Harold Johnson, will explore gardening from the ground up with Dr. Nicolette Cagle, soil ecologist from Duke University.

Cover Crops and Crop Rotation

Saturday, Aug 16, 2014 10:00am – 11:00am 

Where: Durham County Cooperative Extension, 721 Foster Street, Durham, NC

Cover crops help improve the soil & prevent weds fro establishing in between crops. Cover crops solar charge & improve your soil. Need to give your soil a rest for the season, plant a cover crop & reap the benefits. Class is free/registration is required. 919-560-0525

Seed Harvesting and Saving Workshop

Sunday, Aug 17, 2014 3:00pm – 5:00pm 

Where: Durham County Public Library, South Regional Branch, 4505 South Alston Ave., Durham, NC

Come learn how to save & store seeds from this year’s produce for next year’s garden. Hands-on demosnstration. Presented by Sara Smith, Durham County Extension Master Gardener. Class is free. Registration is required 919-560-7410