How Do I Know What to Grow?

Autumn might seem like an odd time to start thinking about a new garden. Although we aren’t even halfway through October, my friend in Colorado told me they saw their first snow last week.

Even if you’re lucky enough, like me, to live in a subtropical climate where the growing season more or less doesn’t stop, autumn is an excellent time to start planning next year’s garden. Depending on your weather, you might still be able to clear ground and start a brand new plot by making a lasagna garden – basically, layering browns and greens (say, cardboard and grass clippings) that will not only block the weeds, but will compost into rich food for your new baby plants.

But how do you even decide what to grow? Even when limited by the selections of local stores, there are still racks upon racks of little green producers competing for your attention, leaves waving in the breeze and blooming appealingly.

Start with a book.

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The first time my mom visited my new house, she bought me a great gardening book. It’s called Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana and is divided up into types of plants (shrubs, trees, herbs, vegetables, etc.). Basically, within each section, two pages are devoted to each month. You’d be surprised how much information they can pack into those two pages.

This book guides readers beyond just plant selection, including what should be transplanted vs sown as a seed, when certain plants should be trimmed back, and what pests a gardener might expect to see (and how to deal with them).

Month-by-Month is as close as I get to a gardening bible. There are a ton of really excellent gardening books out there, but if you don’t know where to start, I’d recommend finding a book in this series. A quick search shows me editions for most southern states, a few that cover regions, and some that cover multiple states.

Check out free resources.

Of course, check out your library to see which books they carry!

But aside from books, there are many free resources to help guide your plant planning. One of my favorites is the local agricultural extension service. Almost every state has one through partnerships with universities. My local service is supported by Louisiana Statement University, and they provide publications and guides on their website. I don’t even have to leave the comfort of my couch to learn about gardening in my region!

Talk to people.

If you’re someone who’d rather leave the comfort of your couch (which is good, since you’ll need to do that in order to plant your garden anyway…), another free resource is the knowledge in many of your fellow citizens.

  • Ask around your neighborhood to see what other’s are growing (or more importantly, what they’ve had success with or not).
  • Talk to employees at your local plant nursery. Trying to do the same at a big chain like Lowes or Home Depot will probably be hit or miss, but if that’s all you have, it doesn’t hurt to see what they know. This one might not be free; I’m never able to leave a nursery without buying something. Also, it’s a nice gesture when someone has taken time to share his or her knowledge with you.
  • Seek out clubs and organizations. Here’s a list from the American Horitcultural Society. In my city, various organizations hold free or cheap workshops every other weekend.

Happy gardening! (Or happy garden-planning!)

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Choosing the Right Gardening Gloves

In the past few years, I’ve blasted through too many pairs of gloves. I use them for a combination of building (holding splintery wood) and gardening (digging, weeding), and I’ve come to really value a good glove. That said, some projects are fine for cheapos.

You can pick up gloves every where from dollar stores to Etsy. Most of mine have come in the form of gifts or last-minute purchases at a home improvement store. I actually hate buying gloves because so many pairs have let me down.

Sometimes gloves can feel like a waste of money, but if you do any kind of work with wood, stone, concrete, dirt, or plants, you really need to protect your hands. Gloves don’t just keep your nails clean; they’ll shield you from splinters, spiders, and other nasties hiding in your project. And if your yard is like mine, they’ll also protect you from a seemingly endless supply of broken glass in the ground (it’s like my yard used to be a dumping ground for old windows. Sheesh!).

Below are the gloves I have in my current rotation, cheapest to most expensive. After that, I’ll go over the things to look for in a good gardening gloves.

The Cheap Glove

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If I’m totally honest, I don’t remember how much I paid for these gloves because don’t remember where I bought them (possibly Big Lots?). They’re thin leather, which is pretty good for durability. However, despite some use, they’re pretty stiff and not at all tailored to my hands. The bulky/stuff fingers make fine work difficult.

They aren’t padded enough to be good for rub prevention (like in using a shovel). I mostly use these for light-duty work where I just need so type of barrier between my hands and the object – carrying a few concrete blocks, dragging downed tree limbs, etc. As these were cheap (or maybe free), they are also my go-to gloves for messy work, like mucking out the chicken coop.

The Mid-Grade Workhorse

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After my last everyday pair of gloves suffered blowouts in the fingertips, I sprung for a slightly more expensive pair at Lowes. You can find them here.

These actually fit me and the fingers have a lot of flex, so I use them for the majority of my work in the garden. The leather on the palms and fingers adds some durability and a little bit of padding, so they’re also what I use when handling tools and rough material that requires dexterity.

The Specialized Glove

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I received these last year for Christmas. They have the totally awesome name of “gauntlet gloves,” so I feel a bit like a knight when wearing them. They’re made of “supple goat leather,” so they were super soft and flexible right out of the bag. These gloves are so nice that I was reluctant to use them for a long time (though you can see I’ve clearly gotten over that).

The main downside to these is they still turn my hands and lower arms kiiiinda orange. Also, I can’t really use these during the summer because that leather just traps the heat in my arms. However, they are really nice for clearing out dense patches of weeds or dealing with bushes – anything that might otherwise scratch up my arms. Truth to told, I wouldn’t have bought these for myself, but I’m glad to have them.

What to Look for in a Glove

Of course, different tasks have different requirements, but in the list below, I’m thinking about one glove that would suit a multitude of applications.

Leather

It’s what all three pairs of my gloves share. I’ve had many, many gloves, and I don’t toss things until they’re destroyed. My canvas gloves and nitrile-dipped gloves have all experienced blowouts in the fingers. Leather is the reason the gloves in my list above have stuck around. At a minimum, you’ll want your palms, fingers, and fingertips covered. I haven’t tested any faux leather gloves, so I’m not sure how those hold up.

Breath-ability

My all-leather gloves tend to make my hands sweaty. Although leather breathes, it doesn’t do so as well as other materials. That’s why I like the cotton backs of my workhorse gloves. One downside of those, though, is the thinner material is a weak point and also an area where wetness can get into the glove. Breath-ability in a glove is important not just for comfort, but also to prevent bacteria growth and to keep your hand from slipping around.

Fit

Again, fit is where having those partially cotton gloves comes in handy. I find that it’s more difficult to get a close fit on all-leather gloves because the material is thicker. However, a more expensive pair of all-leather gloves made of more supple leather might be able to achieve the same result. Also look for some elastic or a strap around the wrist area so the gloves don’t fly off when you’re shooing chickens out of the garden.

Padding

If this is a glove you’re using for both building and gardening, you’ll want at least a little bit of padding to prevent blisters. At a minimum, look for padding along the base of your fingers and thumb. If you don’t need much, a double-layer of leather might do the job. If you’re planning on using these gloves for a lot of digging, tilling, etc., look for ones designed specifically with padded areas.

What I Won’t Buy

(for my own regular use, anyway)

Canvas

Canvas is attractive because it’s inexpensive, free of animal products, and seems sturdy. However, I’ve quickly ripped through almost any canvas glove I’ve ever bought. They get wet and slightly used, and suddenly they’re tearing like tissue paper.

Touchscreen Pads

Since the fingertips can be a weak point anyway, I want something super tough covering my fingers. That usually means they’ll be unwieldy to use in screen navigation. Besides, if I’m covered in dirt, I don’t really want to pull out my phone anyway. Touchscreen fingertip pads, in my opinion, are an unnecessary feature of a gardening glove.

Nitrile

Nitrile-dipped gloves grabbed my attention at first because, like canvas, they’re on the cheaper side and seem durable. However, I’ve found that they just don’t hold up for long. After a season coated in garden mud, my fingers poked through the nitrile. They also don’t hold up around sharp objects – nails, etc. – in construction. These are probably find for folks doing light gardening, but I need something tougher for a multi-use glove.

The Bottom Line:

A bad glove is at the very least a hassle and may give you blisters. However, choosing a poor glove may also result in more serious injury if the material isn’t enough to protect your hands from shards, splinters, and other hazards present in your yard or workspace.

I’ve found that good gloves start at around $20. As of this posting, my Mid-Grade Workhorse pair run $21.98. I’ve been using them all year and they’ll probably carry me through the winter, depending on what projects are in my future. For my next pair, I plan to shop around and spend up to $40. Hopefully I can find a pair locally!

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Plant Spotlight: Marigolds

Ah, the humble marigold. With barely a thought, I always seem to pick up some marigolds whenever I’m starting a new garden.

These sweet flowers are basic yet hardy and cheerful. They’re one of the staples of my front yard garden, where I’ve focused on pink, yellow, and orange. I rely on gaura for the much of the pink in my yard, and the marigolds really pack the orange punch.

As a reminder, I live in zone 9b, so your experiences may differ from mine.

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Marigolds are hardy in zones 2-11. Holy cow, that’s a huge spread! They also tolerate almost any kind of soil and bloom from spring through autumn.

Mums are sometimes considered the fall flower, but in warmer climates like mine, it can be difficult to keep mums alive through October. The marigold is an excellent substitute that provides the rich orange blooms many of long for when autumn arrives.

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Marigolds also look super charming with white picket fences (though I should really work on deadheading, yeesh).

The main three species of marigold are African, French, and signet. The ones I’ve seen most often in stores near me are the French variety, which range from 6 inches to 2 feet tall.

I have to admit, one of the main reasons I have so many marigolds in my front yard (a few dozen) is my local home improvement store had a ton of them on the clearance racks – $1 or less for 6 plants. Much of my front yard garden was built from those clearance racks, actually, and I filled in the rest with seeds and a few bulbs. A beautiful garden doesn’t have to be an expensive one!

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This is a small portion of the clearance plants I collected as I built the garden.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is clearance plants tend to look a little rough. The marigolds I picked up sometimes only had 5 out of the pack of 6 plants still alive. But under the right conditions (in my yard, that means blazing subtropical sun and twice-a-day watering in the summer via soaker hose), they’ll become lush little bushes of color.

Highlights:

  • Flower colors can range from yellow to maroon.
  • In warm regions, they can live year-round. In colder, if the deadheads drop to the ground, they can self-seed.
  • Hardy.
  • To prevent rot on flowers and powdery mildew on leaves, water from below

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The Fall Vegetable Garden

We’re in October, you guys! This is my favorite month for a number of reasons. Halloween means costumes, my birthday means cake (I’m a funfetti gal, through and through), and autumn really kicks into gear!

October’s a time of change. Holiday decor starts to make an appearance. Leaves begin to change. Here in New Orleans, the weather finally cools off enough that festival season roars to life.

That said, our high temperatures are still in the 80s (Fahrenheit), so the weather doesn’t exactly feel like the North Carolina autumns with which I grew up.

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If I lived further north, I probably would’ve planted my fall garden a few weeks ago. However, one of the lovely aspects of living in a subtropical climate is our winters are very mild. We might see one or two days with a hard freeze, but those typically aren’t until around February. This weather means that I can plant a bit later because the winter growing season is either long or doesn’t end at all.

What am I going to plant?

Well, one plant is already in the ground and has been all summer. My monster eggplant is huge and still producing, so it’ll stay in place until it starts to die back. This is the first time I’ve had such success with eggplant; I’ve planted it once or twice before, but they typically fail before reaching waist height.

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The eggplant currently stretches across the entry gate and beyond the boundaries of the garden. I cut it back a little bit so that I could put two-foot-tall poultry fencing at the top of the wooden fence (my younger chickens kept hopping in the garden and scratching around). Eggplants tend to max out at four feet tall. I’m five feet and change, and this beast is taller than me.

Anyway, enough with the monster eggplant. (can you tell I’m proud?)

As I’ve grown more confident with growing, I’ve experimented more with growing from seed. Doing this has a few benefits:

  • Plants are cheaper. I get most of my seeds from eBay and spend $1-3 dollars on a packet.
  • Unusual varieties are easier to find in seed form.
  • Seeds can be bought in advance and planted at your/the weather’s convenience (as opposed to a plant in a plastic carton, which should find a home in the ground or a pot quite soon after purchase).

Of course, many root vegetables like carrots need to be planted from seed anyway. Transplanting them, even as seedlings, can permanently damage the root.

As to the middle point in the list above, I’m not going too terribly crazy this year. This is the first time I’m doing everything from seed, so I’m sticking to more common standards.

Sweet Yellow Spanish Onion

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Gurney’s

Days to maturity (from seed): 110-115

Size at maturity: 4-6 inch diameter; up to 1 lb in weight

I’ve grown over types of onions before – usually as transplants or seedlings. This will be my first try at growing them from seed!

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Carrot Rainbow Mix

Days to maturity: 70-80 days, some varieties up to 120 days

Size at maturity: typically 6-8 inches long, but it can vary

Carrots are one of my go-to winter veggies because they’re easy and dependable. My one mistake is leaving them in the ground too long and allowing them to rot. The mix I’m planting this year includes “Atomic Red, Bambino Orange, Cosmic Purple, Lunar White, and Solar Yellow.”

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Heirloom Lettuce Mix

Days to maturity: 45-70

Size at maturity: varies

This mix includes Lolla Rossa, Rouge D’Hiver, Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, and Italienisher.

Snowball Cauliflower

Days to maturity: 70-80

Size at maturity: head is 6-8 inches across, weighs 3-5 lbs

I’ve tried to grow cauliflower from a transplant before, but I wasn’t successful due to pests. I’ll have to keep an eye out this year!

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Calabrese Broccoli

Days to maturity: 60-90 days

Size at maturity: head is 5-8 inches across

This is an “heirloom favorite.” Although I didn’t intentionally select heirloom varieties of plants, the idea of heading in that direction appeals to me. Growing heirloom varieties of plants has a romantic connection to the past – but I’ll only keep trying them if they produce.

There will be herbs too.

I don’t plan to plant any new herbs, but the ones I started in the spring and summer are still going strong. At the base of the eggplant, I have chives. In pots, I also grow rosemary, basil, thyme, and parsley. (I was going for the ol’ “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” combo, but I’ve never had success with sage in Louisiana.)

Basil usually dies back in the winter, but the others should keep on trucking, so long as we don’t get a hard freeze.

To be honest, one of the reasons I look forward to autumn and winter is to get a break from the voracious growth of summer. All my gardens in the front and back yard are a lot to tend for one person. Between the daily bright sun and the “wet season” with regular afternoon rain, the weeds tend to go wild.

I’m ready for things to quiet down a bit.

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Wherever or Whatever Your Home, Plant a Garden

Scroll through the gardening subreddit, and you’ll see a variety of gardens. Some users own vast spans of land in lush, green countryside. Others live in the desert or at the base of rocky mountains. More than a few post photos of tiny gardens along windowsills in offices or a collection of pots along a balcony.

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I’ve been spoiled. For almost all of my life, I’ve had ground in which to dig. There were a few exceptions – my college dorm and the apartment in which I resided in Pittsburgh – but for the most part, gardening for me was as simple as choosing a spot with good sun, digging a hole, and tucking in a pansy or a tomato plant.

People are drawn to nature. Studies have shown that being around plants calms us, increases our concentration, decreases our stress, and fosters our compassion for others. Caring for something living makes us feel more alive and connected to the world. My friends who have houseplants speak of forgetting to water them in the same guilt-ridden tone as if they’d forgotten to give their dog breakfast. Most plants, however, have the benefit of not needing attention more than once a day, if that.

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Let’s break this down even further. Whether it’s one ficus or an acre of sunflowers, caring for plants calls us to act (consciously or not) in several ways that can positively extend through the rest our lives:

Responsibility

Someone or something depends on us, and we are important to them or it. Without us, that person or thing will wither. At the end of the day, we all need to feel needed.

Compassion

By embracing responsibility for something even as small as a plant, we practice compassion. Like my friends who forgot to water their houseplant a few paragraphs above, by physically caring for something, we also learn to emotionally care for that thing.

Mindfulness

One of the ways gardens calm us is by encouraging a state of mindfulness, which roots us in the present. Gardening revives the senses and surrounds us with sensations – a prickly leaf, the refreshing scent of lemon grass, dew drops shining in the sun. Working with plants forces us to be slow and attentive.

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Fortunately, even just looking at nature or going for a walk can provide some of the same calming, de-stressing power of gardening. Even the photos in this post should give you a little boost – searching for them gave me one! But there’s really nothing like the hands-on work of caring for your own plants.

When I lived in that apartment in Pittsburgh, I felt chained in. I really missed having a little bit of yard in which to dig around. And I’m kicking myself now because I barely made any attempt at a patio garden. I figured it wouldn’t work because I only knew how to grow things in the ground. But since I’ve lived in my house, I’ve grown things in raised and ground-level beds, in pots and troughs and hay baskets, in cheap plastic cups and specialized water-retaining planters. In doing so, I’ve come to realize that the set-up tends to be the same, no matter where you grow:

1. Study Your Location

How much space do you have? Is there full sun? Shade? Sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon? Is the soil soggy or sandy? Is it a place where squirrels like to dig? Or do you have pets that will want to nibble on the plant? At the very least, you’ll need to know space, light, water, and “predators.”

2. Know Your Resources

If you only have one store nearby that sells plants, it can be frustrating to build a huge list of amazing plants based off of internet research, and then arrive at the store to find nothing like what you hoped. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some idea of what’s in stock nearby. Of course, you can order plants online, but like anything else, if you’re just getting started, it’s a good idea to see the plants first-hand. Home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot will have a selection, but I also see plants outside grocery stores and pet stores. Farmers markets can also be a good source, particularly because they’ll probably have plants that grow well locally and are in-season.

3. Bigger Can Be Better

For folks just entering the garden game, stick to mature plants. Seedlings and seeds might be cheaper, but it’s really frustrating to nurture a seed only for it to die because you watered it a little too much. Mature plants are a lot more forgiving and you need fewer resources. It’s totally find to stick to them forever, but for the serious gardener, growing things from seed can be a fun and gratifying challenge. Keep in mind that depending on what you’re growing, seeds might require additional equipment – a humidity cover, seedling soil, etc.

4. Protect Your Plant

Protection means everything from mulching to fencing to hanging an indoor plant out of a curious cat’s reach. Unfortunately, sometimes you aren’t aware of dangers to your plant until after it’s in the ground (and you suddenly discover that squirrels just love to dig in that patch of earth to bury their nuts). But hey, you’re checking on it regularly anyway, right? So you’ll be able to adapt and help that plant thrive.

Much of the rest is just knowing your plant. Succulents needs much less water than bushy flowers with thin leaves. Butterfly bush roots will rot in boggy soil. The first year may be a rough one, but the second year will be easier.

You’ll learn and a little bud of pride will bloom in your heart.

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