The 9 Secrets to Gardening That Nobody Tells You

1. Plants die and it’s not always your fault

I always thought it was my fault plants die. I started gardening back in College, not extensively, but more like buying one of those “gardening packets” from Barns and Noble kids section, and wanting to grow elephant ears. I really hope I am not the only adult who did that. Some of those sprouted and I was watching them so closely everyday that they might have just died from over-exposure of my burning-eye-contact, as if I could see them growing visibly by staring at them. Well, they didn’t survive.

Then I moved on to planting roses in the front garden for my host family, without knowing there are many kinds of roses, and the long-stemed red roses sold in a bouquet is probably one of the hardest things to grow. Also, I bought them from Walmart, not the best source for plants as they may have transported a long way, from somewhere else where the climate is totally different. Well, surprisingly, out of the three, one of them still survived until my host family sold the house last year. 

Since then, I moved to California, and killed many more succulents. I blamed myself for them as people told me “succulents were the easiest to take care of.” Well that is another lie (see point #9). 

Eventually I moved to Arkansas, and planted an orchard, started my vegetable/herb garden and grew garlic, kale, tomatoes, carrots this year. I realized that plants die sometimes, and it’s not really your fault. It could be many things that kill the plant: pests (like aphids, these green little tiny devils, caterpelers, bright colored and with horns), fungi (like fire blight, what a horendous name!), rodents (those squirrels who ate my sunflowers), drought (sometimes no matter how much you water, it’s not gonna save the plants), soil (bad soil could make it hard or almost impossible to grow), temperature (too high, too low, too humid). 

All of that to say, it’s not you! Sometimes it’s simply not the right environment for the plant. I used to beat myself up for it as if it’s my fault. Now I take the Darwin approach – stay back and observe, may the strongest plant survive. I don’t stress about watering my plants in the morning anymore. Surprisingly, gardening became more enjoyable because everything that actually survives and produces are cherry on top. 

2. Plant a lot of backup seedlings

Now that we got the biggest one out of the way, the rest are how to deal with the fact that not all plants will survive. The easiest solution is to plant a lot of seeds. This is why one plant/flower produces SO MANY seeds. Because they know nature works in a way not every single seed would survive and sprout. So now, I sow multiple seeds in one pod, and I sow more than what I would transplant into the garden. This way, I have some “spares” if something doesn’t turn out. If certain seedlings are weaker, I can swap it out with a stronger plant as well. 

3. Buy from a local/semi-local seed company

Don’t buy seeds from Walmart, Home Depot, or worse, Barns and Noble. Try to find a seed store that’s local (as in either the seed is from this local farm, or they obtained their seeds from somewhere that’s in the region). This will give you the highest chance of these seeds sprouting in your region (zone) AND survive. I buy seeds from Southern Exposure, and I look for the little sun icon to make sure that it’s especially well-suited to the South East region. For example, citrus trees, something that grows well in California is never going to survive in Arkansas.

I also bought a pack of carrot seeds from Home Depot once at the beginning of my gardening journey, and none of them sprouted. So, I thought carrots were hard to grow. This year, I decided to give it another shot, and bought seeds from Southern Exposure, they sprouted beautifully and this year I have tons of carrots to eat. It makes me wonder how long ago those Home Depot seeds were collected & kept in the store? Seeds do expire (die) after a while – they are less viable year after year. If you haven’t had success with a specific plant, try another source of seeds from a local company.

I also bought two paw paw trees from our local Arkansas orchard: Ames Orchard & Nursery last year and they’ve been surviving so far even though I haven’t babied them much. Having plants that are regional/local to your area would increase their survival and decrease the time spent tending to them. 

4. Spiders and snakes are your friends!

Yellow Garden Spider, we named “Aragog.” There is another orb weaver spider that comes out at night and we call her “Charlotte”

Well, maybe not the ones you hug and cuddle with. But they keep the pests away. I have learned to speak with them like we are in the same platoon fighting the war against pests that invade my garden.

I got this big gal (see left) earlier in the summer (and she used to be a smaller gal until she caught a giant caterpillar and divoured it in a week). I looked up this type of spiders online and found they are not venomous. They are surely scary looking though!

I also found a garden snake a couple of times chilling underneath cardboards. I am not sure if it’s the same snake, but I call it “Nagini” 🙂 I find giving them names make me less afraid of them, and I realize they are important guests of my garden eco system!

5. Plan Plant Planogram

I learned from one of the gardeners either from youtube or spotify podcasts that they draw out their garden in advance, and plan out where all the crops would go, when they would be replaced by the next season crops. I started doing it this year, and it has greatly helped me realize that I need to lower my expectation of how many plants can be planted in one place. It also allowed me to have some room for their growth. 

6. Be a laidback gardener

I used to stress out about my garden when I go on vacations. I feel anxious because I feel like everything would die and I would have come back to a dead backyard. It turns out plants are quite resilient. Sometimes, I even luck out on having more yields because I let the plants be. This year, I had to leave the house from May to August, and did not spend as much time tending to my garden. It definitely became a little unwielding when I came back, but it was not as bad as I imagined in my head. I still enjoyed plenty of harvests, including 5 lbs of garlic, with almost no effort at all. So why stress? Gardening is supposed to be fun and relaxing.

7. Experiment with homemade compost

Good soil is expensive, yet good soil is one of the biggest factor of successful gardening. The best way I’ve learned is to make homemade compost (whether with a tumbler, bokashi, or have a 3ft cube yard waste pile)

8. Collect seeds, even if it’s not heirloom

Heirloom – plants that are heirloom, meaning the seeds they produce will grow the same plant/fruit, are considered more desirable in the gardening community because you are saving tons of money every year by collecting your own seeds instead of buying new ones. However, for a beginner gardener like me, I haven’t kept track of things that are heirloom. Even with seeds that are not heirloom, it would be fun to plant and see what would grow! 

Collecting seeds are great fun as I started to learn what each plant seeds look like as well. For example, I would’ve never knew calendula seeds were this jagged horseshoe shaped alien looking parts of the flower.

9. Succulents aren’t that “easy” depending on where you live

I now have grown a lot of vegetables out of seeds but I still struggle keeping succulents alive. The other day I inherited a bucket of succulents from my friend who’s neglected them for 3+ months and some of them were on the brink of death while others thrived. It occurred to me that a lot of the big box stores combine different types of plants together such as aloe that needs a decent amount of water with other succulents who only needs water once every month or so. No wonder some of them died while others thrived in the neglect. 

What are some of the less-talked about gardening knowledge you’ve learned?

3 Things I Learned from Starting My Own Garden

1. Temperature is key to seed germination, but good seeds are also the key.

When I first started gardening, I’d feel very discouraged after sowing 2-3 seeds of one plant and it never came up. I bought a heat mat, and babied the seedlings so much. I thought there couldn’t possibly be more that I can do.

Seeds have a life, just like all living things, even though it’s not moving. Some seeds are bad, and some seeds never germinate (i.e. from hybrid plants). Sometimes saving the seeds you bought more than 2 years before decreases the germination rate drastically as well. It’s not your fault if you did everything right but the seeds don’t sprout.

The key to battling seed germination disappointment is to:

  1. sow a shit load of seeds. You will be so happy something has sprouted and forget about the ones that didn’t.
  2. buy variety of seeds (different vegetable seeds, herb seeds, flower seeds, and different varieties of the same plant also helps). 
  3. buy potted plants and don’t have to worry about seedlings! Although this route is a little more expensive. I bought 3 tomato plants from Sam’s this year because I did not germinate my seeds in time to grow. Totally worth every dollar I spent.

2. Don’t follow the rules. Experiment and fail fast.

Some people argue one should prune tomatoes, others argue not. Some people put down cardboard to kill weeds, others use fabric weed barrier. Each group is strong believers of their methods and points out the other method’s flaws. It’s hard to decide who to listen to when you start gardening. Looking back, I would take everything with a grain of salt, and experiment with your own environment. 

One of the things I enjoy watching / learning the most from gardeners all over the world is to see them experiment with different soil type, different seeds, different time to sow seeds, sowing multiple seeds in one place, dig vs. no dig in the garden, burying fish heads in the ground, etc. 

3. Stick your fingers in the mud and get dirty!

This was probably the hardest thing for me to learn. I am a bit of a neat freak. Ever since I was little, I like things organized, neat, clean, and tidy. To get my hands dirty and use my hands to dig, plant, and pull out weeds was a challenge. I used to wear a pair of gloves to go out into the garden and found that to be soothing as I have a barrier between me and the dirt. Recently I have watched many experienced gardeners use their hands in the garden, whether to pull weed, or making a hole to sow seeds, or harvest. I thought I’d give it a shot. It was hard to adapt to at first but as time went on, I felt a lot more connected with the garden and plants. I know some people even went a step further and talk to their plants. I am not quite there yet but I do feel like my plants like me more now that I tend to them everyday!

Mistakes I’ve made during my short period of gardening:

  • Trying to transplant seedlings by yanking them out of the soil instead of flipping the pot upside down and dump them out in order to not disturb the root, or accidentally break the stem
  • I tried cutting the leaves on leeks I grew, thinking they are like Bak Choi and will keep growing new leaves from within. This is probably not the best way to eat leeks. Eventually it just dies and stops producing more inner leaves.
  • I tried planting a sprouted sweet potato, and it was dug up by some rodent and eaten. Should have checked on this sweet potato every once in a while, and probably not a good idea to throw it in the garden in the dead of winter hoping it would grow some sweet potatoes.
  • I was very “stingy” using the seeds like they are precious commodity. The germination rate would never be 100%. I don’t know why I was hoping each seed would grow up like Jack and the Beanstalk. Now I multisow my seeds after stumbling upon Charles Dowding’s youtube channel.
  • I tried using the soil I have in the backyard without mulch or compost, thinking that all soil are the same (I also didn’t think I need to buy “expensive dirt” from Home Depot). Composted soil makes life SO MUCH easier. Currently, I am using cow manure and leaving it in the garden for a couple of days for the worms to compost it a little for me. I also use the potting soil from Miracle Grow with the cow manure. In the future, I’d like to buy compost in bulk from my local soil company.
  • I tried only grow only one thing at a time, being the perfectionist I am. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t grow more stuff in the same period of time! Plants die; there are weaker ones, ones more susceptible to disease and fungi. Sometimes it’s just pure luck when the raccoon decides to visit at night and stamp on the seedling and killing it.
  • I tried germinating seeds from pure vermiculite. It works on some seeds but not others. I think because vermiculite does not hold water as well as compost, smaller seedlings struggle to stay moist and dies after germination. I now mix compost with vermiculite to germinate seeds.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from starting your own garden in this pandemic?


May Garden Update, Food Forest, and more

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a month since I started randomly planting things. Here’s what I planted in mid April.

The chamomile didn’t make it. I am not sure how to take care of them after they sprouted. They all seem to die just a few days after sprouting. So that’s something to learn next time. If you have any suggestions, please comment below or send me a note!

The sprouting potato from Walmart is doing amazing in the garden. This is a potato that we had in the pantry for weeks and forgotten to eat it. So it sprouted in the pantry. I dug a hole in the front of the garden bed thinking it would probably be dug up by squirrels and eaten (like the sweet potatoes I tried to plant last year). Surprisingly, the potato is growing REALLY WELL. 

I planted these leeks into the ground after harvesting just the leaves a couple of times, realizing that’s not how you harvest leeks. I am waiting for them to flower and go to seed, and replant them again in the summer.

The tomatoes I got are from Sam’s Club. They were grown plants (about 2 inches with flowers) and I planted them in around end of April. There are three kinds I tried: Husky cherry red hybrid tomatoes, Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes, and Heatmaster hybrid tomatoes.

Hybrid tomatoes’ seeds will not germinate next year so they are just going to end after this year’s harvest. I am hoping the Cherokee tomatoes grow well, and I can collect some seeds from this plant for next year. I learned about determinate/indeterminate tomatoes just this morning, and how to prune them. Here’s one of my favorite gardening guy talking about setting fruit with tomato plants to make sure you get the tomatoes!

The sunflowers are growing really well so far. I germinated them around the same time with the zucchinis and they’ve grown a lot more than the zucchini. They are also seeds from my friend who grew them locally. So I hope they will do better in this soil than others. They tend to have long stems shooting up when they are young, so transplanting is slighting hard. I killed all of them last year because I accidentally snapped these stems (they are so tender!). This year, I waited a lot longer for the stem to firm before moving them anywhere which seem to have helped.

(Almost) Zero Waste Gardening Progress

I am a bit of a black thumb when it comes to keeping plants alive. I am genuinely surprised I was able to keep my dog alive for this long. 

Here are some of my gardening this year and tips to battling the black thumb!

1. Use the waste to create new life

My “Infirmary” in the kitchen.

  1. Eggshell seedling tray: Since learning this trick of making eggshells as seedlings, it’s such a brilliant idea instead of buying those cardboard paper seed starter trays. Eggshells are free, easy to come by. I have tried cracking the egg carefully on one end and preserving most of the shell, and found that really unnecessary. Cracking the egg in the middle like usual gives you enough shells to make two seedling pots! I usually poke a hole with the chopstick (from the INSIDE guys, don’t be an idiot like me trying to crack an empty shell end from the outside. It doesn’t work, folks!). I find it also easier to transport these seedlings to pots, and the eggs decompose way faster than the cardboard boxes for the roots to extend into the bigger pots.
  2. Vermiculite: I usually fill these egg shells with vermiculite I bought from Home Depot. Vermiculite itself encourages root growth, so it’s fantastic for seed starting and propagating. Since it’s so expensive, I try to only use it when necessary. Seeds usually sprout religiously around 70-75 degrees (unless you’ve roasted your sunflower seeds…then you should just eat them).
  3. Seeding pads: If the temperature outside is still too cold, you could try this $10 heating pad, which I have found to be very useful! You can also use this heating pad to make mead in the winter.

I just read online that my chamomile seedlings are too bunched up together, and I need to thin them out. I just gave them a little trim this morning, let’s see if they will survive the seedling stage this year.

2. Regrow your vegetables

Before I met Mr. CodeJunkie, I have never eaten leeks before. The leeks in America is so big it looks alien to me. It looks like a giant version of the green onions which didn’t sound appetizing at all. Mr. CodeJunkie loves it; and once I’ve tried it, I realized that it’s surprisingly refreshing. Now we eat a lot of leeks when we cook twice-cooked pork (a Chinese dish from my hometown Sichuan). One day Mr. CodeJunkie asked if we could grow leeks with the stem we have leftover, and we tried it. The leeks we bought from Walmart seems to be extremely eager to not be completely eaten. You can almost see the growth overnight. Now we just put the leftover leeks into some water, wait for it to root, then plot it down into soil. They seem to be loving it.

I also grow green onions in these pots too, considering they look so similar. The newly grown leaves taste so much better and fresher than store bought that now I am considering having an herb garden collection!

3. Compost

I have watched a lot of composting videos about the brown and green ratio, vermicomposting (with worms; this guy from the youtube is so excited about worms…), pile composting in the backyard, etc. The most clean and no-brainer I’ve found is the Trench Composting method. It basically means you dig a hole and bury your kitchen waste. I don’t necessarily dig holes in the yard. I have a raised garden bed and use one of them as my composting area, where I dig and bury the kitchen waste

If you live in apartments, then you might like this vermicomposting indoors. I wish I had the organization to be able to do this, and not have a dog that eats almost everything who will certainly want to personally investigate this worm bin.

What are some ways you find helpful to reduce waste and/or grow new things?