Planning Your Garden – Garbage in Garbage out! Part 3: But what am I doing wrong?

Plant-diseases - Salix

Plant-diseases – Salix (Photo credit: Wikipedia)









So, how do you figure out what is going on in a garden that is not performing as well as you would like it to? First, try to be objective about your garden. Ask yourself these questions and see if anything stands out.

  1. Are you using good quality seeds?
  2. Are you choosing plant varieties that are suited to your climate?
  3. Are you planting the same thing in the same spot every year?
  4. Have you tested your soil to see if it is missing nutrients?
  5. Have you checked the pH of your soil?
  6. Have you added any organic materials recently?
  7. Is your drainage good enough?
  8. Are you watering often enough, or deeply enough?
  9. Are your problems caused by disease?
  10. Are you cleaning up the garden completely (preferably in the fall so that pests can’t overwinter) – all the annual plants, all the leaves at least once a year and burning or removing any diseased plants?
  11. If you are composting garden debris, is your compost pile getting hot enough to kill pests and diseases?
  12. Are the leaves of your plants showing any signs of disease or nutritional deficiencies?
  13. If you are a smoker are you washing your hands after smoking to prevent any of the tobacco born diseases from entering your garden?
  14. Are you using proper sanitation in your garden? Do you pick vegetables while the leaves of your plants are damp or wet? Do you harvest from diseased plants last so that you do not spread diseases to the remainder of your garden?
  15. Do you wash your hands and forearms well after you harvest from diseased plants?

If none of these questions make you say “well, maybe I should…” then you need to do some research. I recommend going to one of the gardening websites and working through some of the how-to articles and videos. Sometimes you have just missed something, or forgotten something. There are websites that have all sorts of information about growing vegetables and fruits. Here is a link to the Vegetable Growing page at Johnny’s. It includes articles, and videos about all sorts of relevant topics.

The UC Davis Agriculture and Natural Resources Catalog gives you access to a combination of paid for and free resources. You can download an amazing collection of free articles. I have also invested in a couple of good quality books on pests and plant diseases. The faster that I can identify a problem, the faster I can fix or control it.

The National Gardening Association has a significant Pest and Disease Guide available online. Articles with pictures and lots of how-to videos.

Your local county extension office may also have resources to help you. Many areas have Master Gardener Programs that provide resources to the general public.

Good Luck with your gardening endeavors! Gardens can be an amazing source of joy and frustration at the same time.


Planning Your Garden – Garbage in Garbage out! Part 3: Deciphering the seed catalogs

A few people have asked me how I find out so much about the seeds that I plant. Simple. I read the seed catalogs. One of the reasons that I am so fond of companies like Johnny’s Select Seeds is that their catalogs (and website) are a wealth of knowledge. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that I am looking for a new bush bean. I go to the section of the catalog on bush beans, where I will find a general statement about Phaseolus vulgaris, the bush bean. There will be general information there on planting the seeds. How warm should the soil be? How far apart should the seeds be planted? How far apart should the rows be? What diseases are they susceptible to? What insects are they susceptible to? What sort of crop rotation is recommended? Then each variety of bean is listed. If you are online, all of this information is also available – just click on the variety that you are interested in and then “more information”. The individual varieties will have information on disease resistance, days to maturity or bloom, and any other details specific to that variety.

Some seed catalogs, both online and paper, will make suggestions about which varieties to choose, based on your zip code. This worked very well for me in Massachusetts, but it is often a total fail for where I live in AZ. It is usually five to ten degrees warmer in the summer and 10 degrees colder in the winter at my garden location than at the closest weather station. Most of the suggestion systems do not take into consideration the changes in elevation. I am 1,500 feet higher than the town south of me, and 1,500 feet lower than the town east of me. Having been out to the weather station, I would guess that we are about 800 feet higher than the station. That can make a big difference in your weather patterns.

I planned to give you a list of reliable seed companies that do not sell GMO seeds and are privately owned. And then I found this article about exactly who does own the seed companies. The author is not correct in his statement that all the seeds are the same, but buying seeds is not as simple as it used to be. I buy most of my seeds from Johnny’s because I am comfortable with their guarantees.


Burpee – They carry a wide variety of seeds and plants.

Johnny’s Select Seeds is an employee owned company based in Maine.

Lehman’s – Lehman’s now carries heritage seeds that are used by the Amish. ( A dangerous site for people who like independent living products.)

Seed Savers Exchange – A non-profit organization specializing in selling heirloom seeds.

Sustainable Seed Company – A family owned company specializing in organic heritage seeds.

Territorial Seed – A family owned company in Oregon.

Planning Your Garden – Garbage in Garbage out! Part 2: Picking our seed varieties

So this week we are going to talk about picking our seed varieties. Before we get into those details though, I would like to make a point about seeds.

Do I save seeds? Yes, from heirloom plants that breed true with very little variation. My Violas, Hollyhocks, California Poppies, Calendulas, Coreopsis, Marigolds, and Bachelor Buttons are all from saved seeds. I carefully harvest, or distribute, these seeds after every growing season, and store the harvested seeds in well marked plastic prescription bottles.

In addition to my flowers I also have a selection of perennial herbs that come back by themselves every year, and occasionally need to be beat into submission so that they do not take over the world.

I am not currently saving vegetable seeds, with the exception of teppary beans, peas, beets and parsnips. Why? It takes more effort than I currently have time for. I know how, but right now purchasing quality seeds is just easier for me.

So back to choosing seeds. I recommend purchasing your seeds from a reputable seed company. While I have occasionally had good luck buying no-name brand seeds at a home improvement store (that is where my California Poppies came from) most of my seeds come from just a couple of major seed suppliers – Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Totally Tomatoes. Why? Excellent quality seeds with very high rates of propagation. That means that if I plant 20 seeds I will usually get 18 plants (and sometimes 20!). I start most of my seedlings on a rather tight timetable because of my regular business events, so having to replant can be a problem for me.

These two companies are obviously not the only seed companies out there. There are lots of reputable companies, many of which specialize in seeds designed for specific areas of the country. When I lived in Massachusetts I also bought seeds from Shephard’s Seeds (which no longer exists), Burpee, and others. I had a very fertile garden there, full of humus and very productive with very little help. When I moved to northern Arizona I found that I needed to be much pickier about my seeds and what varieties I planted. I live at 5270 feet above sea level and our weather and soil conditions are extreme.

Before I go any further I should mention that I have a garden diary. Every year, for over twenty years, I have kept a record of what was happening in my garden. I record the seed varieties that I am using, what company they came from, when I started them, how they were started (flats, plug flats, biodegradable pots, plastic pots, or in the garden), what sort of results I got, how and when the plants were posted, what amendments were added to the soil, any unusual extremes of weather, insect pests or diseases, and what sort of production I got from the plants. Having this information allows me to remember exactly what worked well, and what didn’t. I don’t have to guess which seeds worked for me, I know what varieties were the best.

Next week: Part 3 Deciphering the seed catalogs