Where Do We Find The Motivation?

I forget all about the sweatin’ and the diggin’
Every time I go out and pick me a big one

  • From the song “Home Grown Tomatoes” by Guy Clark

Gardening is hard work. Turning over the soil, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, taking it all apart in the fall – all of this labor has the potential to make your body sweat and your muscles ache. So why do we do it? Where do we find the motivation? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but here’s what motivates me.

I am motivated by being out in the fresh air and sunshine and getting some exercise that doesn’t require me to pay exorbitant health club fees. I am motivated by the awe and wonder of putting a tiny seed into the ground and watching it grow into a beautiful plant that delights the eye and provides foliage and fruit that nourishes the body. I am motivated by knowing that I’ll be eating produce that hasn’t been contaminated by harmful chemicals or fresh animal manure (e.g. poop on tap) from a nearby animal farm. I am motivated by seeing the delight in a fellow gardener’s eyes when I share some gardening wisdom that helps him or her to grow more and better vegetables.

But most of all, I’m motivated by knowing that all of that labor will soon result in fruits and vegetables that are sweet, crunchy, fresh, flavorful, and nutrient-rich in ways that store-purchased fruits and vegetables can only dream about.

How about you? What’s your motivation for gardening?


It Doesn’t Have To Be Elaborate

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”

Henry David Thoreau – Walden

Henry David Thoreau learned from his time living in a cabin near Walden Pond the value of living an uncomplicated life. We dwellers in the twenty-first century can learn a lot from these wise words from Mr. Thoreau.

It’s also a lesson that is worthwhile to us gardeners as well. A huge backyard garden teaming with ten varieties of tomatoes, a plethora of beans, ten other kinds of vegetables and herbs, and an entrance framed by a trellis overgrown with roses is a beautiful sight to behold. But many of us don’t have the space to plant such a garden, nor the time to take care of it.

Gardens do not exist only in large spaces and they do not all team with twelve different kinds of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It is possible to simplify our vegetable gardens. You can grow a small raised bed just off your patio and fill it with lettuce, a few pepper plants, and a cucumber on a trellis. This is a garden. A few tomato plants in containers on your patio – this is also a garden. Some greens in bottles on the balcony of an apartment in the city? This too is a garden. Some tomatillos in a small raised bed? This is a garden; no ifs, ands, or buts about it. At a motel I once stayed, out in the back, I saw some used tires filled with soil which had vegetables plants growing in them. Yes, this is indeed a garden. So if you desire to have a garden, but think that the lack of a big back yard is hindering you, take heart. You don’t need a big backyard. You can grow a garden almost anywhere. Do what you can, and don’t worry about what you can’t. Take a lesson from Henry David Thoreau and simplify, simplify, simplify. Even better, take a lesson from Ralph Waldo Emmerson, who told Thoreau that one simplify would have sufficed.

From Black to Green

Whenever I talk to people and mention that I’m a gardener and a garden coach, I often hear, “Oh I wish I could grow a garden, but I kill every plant I touch. I have a black thumb.” Well, that may be true today, but I’m here to tell you that a black thumb is not a permanent condition with no cure. It is possible to turn a nighttime thumb into a greentime thumb.

Well, for starters, have you considered that maybe you’ve been going about it the wrong way? Perhaps you’ve been growing the wrong kind of plants for your particular garden. For example, do your tomatoes always succumb to diseases like verticillium wilt or late blight? Then perhaps instead of growing an open-pollinated cultivar of tomato, you should instead grow a hybrid tomato that has been bred to resist those diseases. Or maybe you should grow something other than tomatoes which is not susceptible to any of those aforementioned diseases.

Have you been trying to start seeds in your house using soil from your garden and placing the pots, seed starters, or whatever you use near a sunny window? Bzzzzzz! Wrong techniques! Seeds should never be started in soil from your garden, because garden soil can be hard, blocky, and full of weed seeds and disease organisms that can kill developing seedlings. Start your seeds in a good starter mix instead. Oh yes, and that sunny window? Not sunny enough. The glass will absorb ninety percent of the sun’s foot-candle power leaving you with only ten percent of the light energy that the plant needs to grow. And seedlings that receive insufficient light will grow thin, weak, and leggy, and be less able to withstand outside conditions when transplanted into your garden. Instead, grow your seedlings under a good grow light. Keep the light close to the seedlings when they are small, and move it up as they get bigger. This will give you strong and stocky plants that withstand outside conditions and grow vigorously and productively.

There are many ways to go wrong when attempting to grow a garden, but there is a solution to every problem. Your thumb does not have to stay black forever. With a little detective work, a little research, and a willingness to try new things, even the blackest thumb can be turned to the brightest green. And if you find that you need the help of a coach to solve your garden woes, I know just the person – hint, hint!

The Coagulation Situation

The process of making cheese is quite simple. Take some milk, separate the solid portion from the liquid portion, compress then age the solids, and ta-da! You have cheese.

But now comes the tricky part. Just how do we separate out those milk solids? The answer – use a coagulation agent.

A coagulation agent is any substance that, when added to milk, causes the calcium to unite with the casein (milk protein) to create calcium caseinate, an insoluble solid, better known as curd. The curd is then separated from the liquid portion of the milk, better known as whey. The curd is then compressed and aged to create the wonderful food we know as cheese.

But what kinds of substances exist that coagulates milk in this manner. There are several.

Bacteria – will chew up the milk sugar (lactose), convert it to lactic acid, and expel it back into the milk. This lowers the pH of the milk (makes it more acidic) and creates the right conditions for the calcium to unite with the casein.

Acid –Instead of waiting for the bacteria to create acid, you could instead add some of your own. Acids used to coagulate milk include citric, acetic, and tartaric.

Rennet – the most common coagulation substance used to make cheese. Rennet is a combination of enzymes – pepsin, lipase, and chymosin, the latter being the key component. Rennet comes from the stomachs of ruminant animals – usually slaughtered cows.

Other substances – several different substances have milk-coagulating abilities. These include vegetable rennets (derived from the Rhizomucor miehei mold), thistle (first used by the Romans), and chymosin (the main component of rennet created by laboratory fermentation)

Various combinations of the above – for some cheeses, you have to first add the bacteria and give it time to lower the pH of the milk. This will prepare the milk for coagulation and multiply the coagulation effects of rennet or other coagulation substances. However you do it, if you want the affectation of coagulation, you will need to use one or more of the above if you want to make cheese.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

“You’ve got to start from scratch, work your way on up
Every old hound dog once was a pup”

            – from the song “One Step At a Time”, written by Hugh Ashley and sung by Brenda Lee

So you’ve decided that this is the year you’re going to plant a garden. Congratulations! Gardening is a wonderful pastime that yields incredible rewards to those who undertake it. Fresh air, sunshine, exercise, and, of course, fresh, flavorful, mouth-watering fruits and vegetables.

“I’m excited,” you say. “I’m going to tear up my entire backyard and turn it into a fresh fruit and vegetable-lovers paradise!” Slow down, tiger. You’re trying to do too much too soon. And don’t you dare utter that stupid phrase “go big or go home.” First of all, you’re already home. Second, odds are excellent that if you try to do too much too soon, you’re going to end up losing a lot of money with nothing but a backyard full of dirt and weeds to show for it. Go big or go home? More like go big and go broke. Or go big and go down to defeat.

No. If you are completely new to gardening, you want to start slowly and aim for small victories. Start with a tomato plant in a container. A small 25 square foot backyard in-ground garden or raised bed where you plant some lettuce, some beans, and maybe a tomato plant or two. Something that’s easy to care for.

Your initial efforts may not be very successful. That’s quite all right. Did you successfully ride a bicycle on your first attempt? I imagine not. You probably fell off your first few times and gave yourself plenty of cuts and scrapes. But did you give up? Once again, I imagine not. You picked yourself up, got back on the bike and tried again. And again. And again. And then, one day, you got on the bike, and rode it like a motocross champion.

It’s the same way with gardening. Your initial efforts may not yield very much – perhaps a few beans and a tomato. But if you got something – anything at all, you can revel in this small success, and gain the confidence to try again. Perhaps the second time, you harvest more. And after several more attempts you wind up harvesting great bucketfuls of fruits and vegetables. And this success gives you a feeling of confidence that, yes, you can do this. And now you are ready to build on this success. So you double the size of your garden or add another raised bed. And now you’re smokin’! You’re hauling in great bushels of tomatoes, squash, beans, and anything else you’ve planted. You’re now a successful gardener who is the envy of all his or her neighbors!

This, my friends, is the way to become a successful gardener! Not go big or go home. Start small and grow big! Or, to once again quote Hugh Ashley and Brenda Lee…

“One sure way to get all you need
Is to start out slow and pick up speed
One step at a time, boy-oy
Just one step at a time.”

Variety Is The Spice Of Your Garden

On many occasions, when people talk to me about their gardens, they will often ask me about why a certain vegetable crop they planted failed to perform as expected. Perhaps their tomato plants produced little or no fruit, or their cucumbers had a white powdery growth, or their beans failed to grow at all. When I’m asked why they didn’t do well or what they did wrong, I’ll often as them what cultivar or variety they planted. And nine times out of ten, the answer I get is some variation of, “Oh I don’t know what variety they were; they were just tomato plants I bought at Wal-Mart.” And therein lies the problem, or at least a good portion of the problem.

Allow me to ask a question. When you need to purchase personal transportation, do you go out and buy “a car?” When you need a reliable communication device, do you purchase “a cell phone?” When you need a machine to automatically clean your dishes, do you buy “a dishwasher?” The answer to all three questions is no. You don’t buy a car; you buy a Ford or a Toyota. You don’t buy a cell phone; you purchase an iPhone or an Android. And you don’t shell out your hard earned money for a dishwasher; you buy a Maytag or a Whirlpool. And furthermore, you carefully research your purchases before you dole out your dollars to make sure you are getting something that has all the features you need with a quality that will last at a price you can afford. And why? So that you can be assured that you can drive safely, communicate effectively, and get your dishes sparkling clean. Now if you’re going to go through all this trouble with machines, wouldn’t you want to put at least this much effort into the food you grow and eat?

Tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and other garden vegetables all have what are known as cultivars. These are different genetic versions of the same plant. These different genetic variations result in different colors, shapes, sizes, hardiness, flavor, and disease resistance within the same type of plant.

For example, a Sweet 100 is a small cherry tomato, while a Big Zac is large, meaty Beefsteak tomato. A Thumbelina is a small, round, yellow carrot, while a Purple Dragon is a large, long, purple carrot. A Thumbelina and a Purple Dragon are both a carrot, yet they’re quite different from one another.

So why does this matter? Because just as you want to choose a brand of car that’s suits your lifestyle and driving habits and preferences, you want to choose cultivars of garden vegetables that will have the color and flavor that best delights your eye and tickles your taste buds, resistance to specific diseases (if you’ve had past problems with those diseases), and overall, the greatest chance of success in your garden.

Have your tomatoes produced poorly due to late blight? Then you’ll want to plant a cultivar such as Defiant, which is specifically bred to resist late blight. Do you want to grow a drought-resistant flour corn? Hopi Blue will meet your needs. Do you have hard blocky soil? Planting a standard carrot will result in forked, misshapen roots. Thumbelina carrots produce small, orange, almost round roots that are perfect for firmer soils.

The point of all of this is that if you want a garden that yields large amounts of tasty, mouth-watering vegetables, you’ll have to do a little more than throw some seeds into the dirt, water them, and hope for the best. You’ve got to put as much thought and care into buying your seeds and plants as you would into buying a car or a dishwasher. You’ve got to decide what vegetables you want to plant and then find the cultivars of those vegetables that have the traits that will best meet your wants and needs. Doing this will most definitely improve your odds of having a successful, high-yielding garden.

Goals Not Resolutions

2021 has officially passed into history and 2022 now begins. Now is the time we all make bold resolutions about all of the wonderful things we’re going to be, do, and acquire. Then three months later (or sooner) we put them aside to be forgotten. Then, come December 31st, we remember those broken resolutions, hate ourselves for not executing them, and vow to do better next year. Then we make a new set of resolutions — which we once again break like fine china in the hands of a klutz.

Let’s face it. Bold behavior-changing declarations rarely are realized as planned. Human beings simply do not turn on a dime and become new people with all bad habits replaced by good ones. In addition, the mundane aspects of life (e.g. family, career, chores, etc.) all seem to take precedence. In the end our bold resolutions simply crumble to dust.

Rather than setting resolutions, may I suggest that you set goals instead? Statements of what you want to accomplish, when you expect to accomplish it, and a plan for how you’re going to do it are far more effective than brash statements of instant behavior change. And goals can also be somewhat flexible. If you are following your carefully thought-out plan and you still don’t quite accomplish what you set out to do by your deadline, then you are perfectly free to review, re-assess, and decide to either extend the deadline or drop the goal entirely.

Goals can be both short and long term. The beginning of a new year is a perfect time to look over your life, take pride in what you’ve already accomplished, decide what you would like to do in three months, six months, one year, five years, and ten years, and develop sound plans for achieving them. So ditch the resolutions and go for the goals instead. You’ll find that you’ll be making much more progress this way than with a vague declaration.

Have an Herbal Halloween

Here we are in October, the month of Halloween! When we think of Halloween, we think of scary characters like ghosts, witches, and vampires. We think of carving jack o’lanterns and placing them on our front porches. Pumpkin spice is everywhere and in everything. But did you know that there are herbs, many of which you might grow in your garden, that are associated with Halloween? As you know, Halloween evolved from many ancient festivals and rituals, and the herbs, many of which were associated with harvest and magic, were used in these activities.

Artemisia (Mugwort) – used to protect against evil spirits. This herb was also said to play a role in dreaming and divination. If you wanted to cast demons out of a possessed person, then you definitely wanted to wear a sachet of mugwort to protect yourself. And come Halloween, it might even keep the little miscreants from egging your house.

Chamomile – To repel magic or psychic attacks, sprinkle or plant chamomile around your house. Still single and not having much luck attracting the right partner? Make yourself a garland of chamomile; it will attract suitors. It also attracts good luck, so maybe the suitor will be rich.

Rosemary – want to keep that spouse or significant other from straying? Then rosemary is what you want. This herb was used to cast spells to ensure fidelity. Also, a rosemary bundle was supposed to keep negative energy and evil people from entering your house. So if you want to avoid family conflict on Thanksgiving, hang some rosemary over your door. Then those troublesome relatives will disinvite themselves, and peace will reign over the dinner table!

Sage – People talk about receiving sage advice, and why not? Sage is associated with wisdom, protection, purification, and immortality. An old legend states that carrying around a sage leaf will attract money – which you can then use to purchase more seeds, plants, and gardening supplies!

St. John’s Wort – an herb with strong medicinal value, it also plays a role in repelling bad luck and evil spirits, and, in combination with other powerful herbs, it was packed in amulets and talismans for protection. And, to prevent fevers and promote good luck, wear a sprig of St. John’s Wort around your neck.

So if this celebration of scary creatures is leaving you feeling a little creeped out, then a few of these powerful herbs hung around your door, scattered around your yard, or worn on your person should put your mind at ease that these evil creatures won’t be able to get anywhere near you. And while you’re at it, remember to hang a garlic braid on your front door. Garlic keeps the vampires away. Heck, garlic keeps everybody away!

A Tall Glass of Garden Harvest

Every year, when late summer is at its peak, and autumn begins to peer around the corner, we are faced with an important question – what am I going to do with all of my excess garden harvest? And usually we answer that question by sharing with our families, friends, and neighbors, donating to a food bank, and making all sorts of culinary delights. However, what do we do when family, friends, and neighbors start barring the door when they see us coming with more zucchini, when the food banks are unable to take any more, and when we’ve had our fill of salads and zucchini bread? Well, I’d like to suggest another option of which you may not thought. How about creating beverages out of your garden harvest. What kinds of beverages? Allow me to elaborate.

Juices and non-alcoholic ciders– this is somewhat obvious, but also fairly easy to create. Juices can be extracted from your garden vegetables either by cooking the juices in filtered water, then straining out the fibrous plant material (juices), or by cold-pressing the vegetables in a screw-driven press (cider). Your juices and ciders will taste fresh, and best of all, you can serve them to your family with confidence, knowing that there are no potentially harmful preservatives.

Alcoholic ciders – this involves taking the juice you’ve extracted from your garden fruits and vegetables and putting it through a fermentation process. It requires an initial expense of equipment and ingredients, but it can be done, and it doesn’t require years of experience. You can purchase cider-making kits online that not only have all the equipment and ingredients in one package, but also come with detailed instructions.

Wine – what, you say? Wine? But isn’t wine made from grapes? Well yes, but not exclusively so. In ancient times, growing grapes was considered a luxury. But that didn’t stop those of lesser means from making wine. They simply made it from whatever they were growing in their gardens – herbs, garden fruits and vegetables, potatoes, berries, etc. How about a tomato wine? Or a crabapple wine? Or a mint wine? Don’t knock it ‘til you try it!

Syrup – can be made in small quantities, can be made easily and quickly. They don’t require processing in a water bath or pressure canner, and have a fairly long shelf life.

Tea – why shell out big bucks for exotic teas made from foreign herbs and flowers when you can make your own tea from your own garden harvest for pennies? Take the money that you would normally spend on that exotic oolong tea and instead invest it in fertilizer, soil, and seeds, and grow your own bee balm, chamomile, red clover, mint, lemon balm, and many other plants, and create your own brand of tea. No muss, no fuss, great taste, potential health benefits, no unpronounceable additives, more money left over in your pocket – what’s not to love?

Making your own refreshing beverages from your garden fruits and vegetables adds many more options for how to use up that excess harvest. So give it a try!

Believing in a Brighter Future

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow – Audrey Hepburn

One could be forgiven if they were to feel as though our world today is drenched in a coating of sheer madness — an insanity that coats our planet like caramel on an apple. Conflicts ranging from minor skirmishes to outright wars across the globe. Deep divisions, both political and philosophical within our own nation. Wildfires, mudslides, hurricanes, and other severe weather events destroying property and lives. And of course, let’s not forget a newly resurgent COVID-19 pandemic creating mass sickness and death among the human population. I’m sure there are days when many of us feel like crawling under our beds and not wanting to come out. So how does one live a good life in a world drenched in insanity?

First of all, a little perspective. To some degree or another, our world has always been drenched in insanity, because human beings are an insane people. We hate someone because their skin is a different color than ours, or the deity that they pray to is different than ours. A group of people will terrorize and make war on another group of people for some of those same aforementioned reasons. We want more things than anyone else, so we lie, cheat, steal, and murder to accomplish this. And worst of all, we’ve decided that we human beings are more important than any other living creatures, so we cruelly exploit this planet’s resources for our own gain and to the detriment of all other life. This is the way of humans, and this has been the way of humans since time immemorial.

Yet it is still possible to find gold even within a world of dirt. While it is true that the mass population of human beings are insane, it is also true that there are those individuals who manage to live in a world coated in madness who manage to resist getting that coating on themselves. Many of them are enshrined in the pages of history, but there are many more whom the world at large does not know about. These are people who manage to carve out their own life of peace and happiness among the craziness. They create organizations and foundations dedicated to the betterment of others. They actively work to slow or stop the exploitation of our planet’s resources and reverse some of the damage that has been done. They put effort into reducing the hatred between people and creating peace where there was once war. You can also find them in their own nations, cities, towns, and neighborhoods doing simple things like taking an elderly neighbor shopping, volunteering in their children’s schools, picking up litter, etc. – the list goes on and on.

And they plant gardens (you knew that was coming, right?). When you’re a gardener, madness is not part of your world. You don’t have time for such luxuries. As a gardener you are constantly creating new life. You know that the seeds you plant today will sprout into beautiful plants tomorrow. Plants that provide color to delight the senses. Plants that provide nutritious food to feed you, your family, your neighbors, and your friends. Plants that provide fiber for making cloth that can be turned into wearable garments. Plants that provide nourishment and shelter for the other inhabitants of planet Earth. As a gardener, you carve out a little piece of joy and happiness where there was once only sadness and despair. And when you share your garden bounty with others, or help those others plant their own gardens, you increase the size of that piece of joy and happiness, and you further reduce the sadness and despair. No, gardening will not solve all the world’s problems. The world will continue to be coated in madness until we humans find better ways to live that don’t hurt other humans or the planet on which we depend upon for survival. But for you, the individual that wants to find some light among this darkness, planting a garden will go a long way towards keeping the sticky tar of madness from sticking to you.