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Gary's Garden Blog

Gary Garner



Garden news, thoughts, tips, musings, rumors, gossip and occasional good advice
from Gary Garner, the Guru of Grass.

Then and Now April 14th, 2019


Normally I write about how to grow or how to care for your plants.  Things that fall in the framework of lawn and garden problems, or how to do it ideas.  In the last few days I got to thinking about how much changes with time.  That goes for gardening as much as it does for anything else.

I grew up on a small flue cured tobacco farm in the 40’s and early 50’s.  The difference in our vegetable patch, we didn’t call it a garden, versus the way we do it today is very significant.

We had not heard of such things as raised beds, growing vegetables in containers, or square bale gardens.  We did nothing that you could compare with those ideas.

Today a typical back yard garden may be a 10’ x 10’ or if you have lots of room maybe 20’ by 30’.  Limited to this size we have to be selective in what how much of a crop we plant.  We want high yields off limited space.  When I was growing up we just planted as much as we had time or the desire to plant.  We pretty much raised all the vegetables we ate year-around.  I can’t remember Mom going to the store and buying vegetables summer or winter.

She canned tomatoes, lima beans, corn, squash and succotash (corn and lima beans canned together) as well as making several kinds of pickles.  She also worked a full-time job, outside the home.

Dad’s answer to insects and wild animals was to grow enough for the varmints and us.  The sweet corn patch was 10 to 20 rows 50 to 100 feet long.  The worms ate some, the ‘coons ate some, the groundhogs ate some and we ate or canned the rest.  Note we didn’t grow a garden it was a vegetable patch.  It only became a garden after I became a sophisticated city slicker.

When the groundhogs attacked the garden, the solution was to sit out near the garden after dark with a shotgun and after 2 or 3 nights the problem was solved.  Deer were not a problem.  Believe it or not, I grew up in the country and never saw a deer until I moved to the city.  If you wanted to deer hunt you drove about 30 miles up to the river.  The deer population at that time in Virginia was less than 20 per cent of what it is today.

Today we grow 8 to 10 tomatoes on stakes and have enough to feed our family and some to give away.  Dad planted 100 to 200 plants of tomatoes and didn’t know what a stake was.  They fell over on the ground and again we shared with the rabbits, ‘coons, bugs and neighbors and still had more than we knew what to do with.

During the summer Mom would say I need corn, tomatoes, cukes, etc for supper.  I grabbed a bucket, I didn’t how ask how much or how soon, went to the garden and in a little while they were on the table for supper.

We ate breakfast, dinner and supper.  I never had lunch until after I became a city slicker.  Personally, I prefer dinner in the middle of the day over lunch.

If Mom was ready to can we picked several buckets of whatever vegetable was ready to harvest.  She the fired up the wood stove and went to work.  I hate to guess what the temperature was in the kitchen in the summer when she got the stove going.  In the summer she canned several hundred quarts of vegetables.

Note, I keep talked about canning, and the wood stove.  At that time electric lines had not been run through the country.  So, there was no freezer, no electricity, and no air conditioning.  I also, found out after I became a city slicker how much I had suffered and thought I was having a good time.

By the way, we grew butterbeans (today they are lima beans), we grew snaps (today they are green beans), and as awful as it sounds sometimes they were “taters” and “maters” I know none of you have ever heard of those.

None of the vegetables were hybrid so we saved most of our own seed to plant next year.  I thought the vegetables had more taste than the hybrids but that may have been a notion.  Sometimes, I think a lot of the old ways are better than the new.  In any event, that’s what it was like to garden in the 40’s and 50’s.

Give me some feedback and let me know if you would like more, occasionally, of how it was back then.

Best Garden Choices April 9th, 2019


Every spring there seems to be more information available on how to garden.  Articles abound on the best practices to grow almost every vegetable and herb known to man.  How to plant, when to plant, how to water, how much to water, fertilizing when and how, it goes on and on.  Read and study all the articles and you will be so confused you won’t know what to do.

I have advised through the years gardening is not rocket science.  All of the things suggested work for somebody and none of them work for somebody else. I use all of them for suggestions but none of them for hard and fast rules.

My thought is that if you try to follow any of them by the numbers you are not likely to be satisfied with the results.  Any of the ideas posted have to be adopted to fit your situation.  Gardening whether flowers or vegetables, trees or shrubs, or lawn is mostly common sense.

These thoughts were brought on by an article I saw in a magazine about growing flowers and vegetables in containers.  If you followed the outline in the magazine article growing a few containers would cost a significant amount of money and be more work than growing a large in the ground garden.  It does not have to be that difficult.

Today you see articles on plain old in the ground gardens and beds.  You then see square foot gardening, raised bed gardening, container gardening and square bale straw gardens.  Which is the best, for you?  They all have pros and cons.

There are several things to consider.  Do you want a garden that looks pretty, or do you want a garden that produces a good crop?  There are people that consider looks more important than harvest.  How much time do you have to spend in the garden.  How much money do you want to spend. What are you going to do with it after you grow it?  All of these things should enter into the decision of how you will grow as well as what you will grow.

A couple of stories that happened in our store will give you an idea of where this is going.

A customer came in the store and bought one, six inch pot tomato plant for $3.99.  He then proceeded to buy a bag of potting soil, some fertilizer and a pot to grow the tomato in along with a cage to hold the tomato upright.  When the order was totaled up he had spent $139 to grow one tomato plant.

Another customer came in and built three raised beds.  I don’t know the cost of the lumber and hardware for the beds he had built.  He then proceeded to buy plants and material to fill the beds.  Growing media, fertilizer etc. to the tune of almost $1500.00.  He planted and had a beautiful garden, but he watered almost daily, fertilized at least weekly and grew large beautiful plants.  He was in the store every few days with pictures his garden was great, but he didn’t have any blooms or fruit.  We tried to explain he was over watering and fertilizing and the plants were so busy growing they didn’t have time to bloom.  The book said water and fertilize on a certain schedule so that’s what he kept on doing.

Since he didn’t get any results with raised beds he tried hydroponic gardens the next year, spent even more money with the same results.  The third year he decided he had enough gardening.  To the best of my knowledge as many beautiful tomato plants as he grew he never got a tomato.

Which method you use depends on your circumstances.  If mobility is a problem, then raised beds make sense.  If space is a problem, then containers will likely be best for you.  If space is limited, then square foot gardens may be the best solution.  Just remember that one large tomato may take up nine to twelve square feet.  A hill of squash may cover six or more square feet.

Straw bales may work but it’s not as simple as buying a bale of straw not hay and laying it on the ground. It has to turned correctly, seasoned, watered often, limed and fertilized in order to produce a crop.

I have found nothing as productive as growing in plain old red clay with a little 10-10-10 fertilizer.  The garden will probably be as ugly as sin, the tomato plants may be diseased and look awful, but you will have more produce than you know what to do with.

My son grows the worst looking garden I have ever seen.  Old red clay, he never waters, uses little fertilizer and harvests more vegetables than any garden I know of.  Believe me he grows for yield not looks.

All of the choices can work but give some thought to which suits your needs.  Don’t believe all you read or see on the internet.  In the end it comes down to learning what works best for you.  You are going to have some failures.  Suck it up and try again.

Saving Your Own Seed April 5th, 2019



I know many people like to save their seed from one year to the next as both a way to save money and have the vegetables they like.  In some cases, this works fine, and in some cases, it does not work well.

There are actually three kinds of seed, hybrid seed, open-pollinated seed and heirloom seed.  Let’s take a look at which ones you can save and successfully start and grow the same crop next year.

HEIRLOOM VARIETIES—as a general rule of thumb these will be 50+ years old or older.  They are open-pollinated varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation.  In the early 1900s plant breeders tried to develop new open-pollinated varieties that were more genetically stable.  The idea being to produce more uniform produce.  Heirloom varieties today are open-pollinated varieties that predate the open-pollinated breeding work.

Heirloom varieties preserve biodiversity.  This is important both to human health and the health of the planet. Over hybridizing causes genetic defects and may lead to a variety becoming extinct.

Heirlooms adapt to local soils and climates more readily because they haven’t been trained to become fussy. They usually have much better flavor than the hybrids and are very inexpensive to reproduce.  Just save the seed and replant next year.  You always get the same variety.

Heirlooms will likely not produce as large yields, may not grow as fast or as large, thick and tall as hybrids.

OPEN-POLLINATED SEED—in contrast open-pollinated seeds are accidents of nature.  They occur by accidents of nature such as human touch/transfer, insects, wind, birds and many other natural means.

If you save the seed and plant them next year you will have somewhat the same plant.  If they did well in your garden this year they will likely do well next year.

Open-pollinated plants do offer some problems although they have little effect on home gardeners.  The plants may mature more sporadically than hybrids. They may produce colors that varies slightly from one plant to the next.

HYBRID SEED—are created when two different varieties of tree or plant are deliberately cross-pollinated to create a single new variety.  The new variety should contain the best characteristics of each parent plant.  These are usually the seed you see in the little packs at local stores.  They are usually F1 seed.  This simply means they are the product of a first generation cross between two varieties.

Hybrid seed from future generations F2 and after will not produce true to parent.  Planting a seed from a hybrid is totally unpredictable.  The plant you get will likely be nothing like the plant it was harvested from.  It may be sterile, it will be less vigorous than the previous generation and the yield will usually be about half of the previous crop.  You cannot save hybrid seed.  You must buy new seed each year in order to get the same variety.

The most positive description of hybrid seed is uniformity.  When you plant hybrid seed you can expect what is described on the seed pack to be what to be what you get.  The description on the seed package for color and size will be identical for every plant. The produce will mature in a given number of days and that’s it.  If a farmer plants a 94 day corn, in 94 days every plant in the field will be almost exactly the same height, have two ears of corn and the plant shuts down.  It has now done what the seed was programed to do. These are usually the produce you see in supermarkets.  Commercial growers rely on hybrids because they offer few surprises.

As in many things the choice is yours.  While the heirlooms offer great taste generally the hybrids will be easier to grow and produce a larger crop.  We like to do some of both, but we lean toward hybrids.


If your group or local club is looking for a speaker for the spring I still have some open dates.  Fees start at $50 plus expenses.  I may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 434-941-1701.




Organic versus is not as simple or as easy as many people think.  Clearing out chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides from the garage or tool shed does not make what you grow organic nor does it necessarily make it healthy.

I thought I might put together a little information about organic gardening that you might not know.  It could save you money, toil and trouble.

  1. Organic gardening costs more than traditional gardening. I think that myth starts with the price of organic produce versus regular produce.  An organic garden should cost no more than a conventional garden.  You may get some what less yield in an organic garden and you may have to put in more time in the garden.  Commercial products become more expensive all the time mostly due to governmental regulations. A commercial pesticide may require more testing and government oversight that a new medicine.
  2. Lower N-P-K numbers on organics does not necessarily mean more should be applied. Organic fertilizers are made from different materials than synthetic fertilizers.  Organics are meant to be used more sparingly.  For example, if you apply to much nitrogen you get lots of leaf/green growth and not much fruit.  Plants don’t grow and bloom and fruit at the same time.  We had customers coming in the store bragging about how their tomatoes were growing but they were not blooming or setting fruit.  We would find out they were fertilizing weekly and watering every other day.  The plants were so busy growing they didn’t have time to bloom or set fruit.  Both or organic and regular fertilizers are tested for the right amounts to apply for a particular crop.  READ AND FOLLOW THE LABEL.
  3. Tilling the soil every year improves the soil. Farmers have found out in recent years that this may do more damage to soil health than good.  You can save a lot of back aches, gas, etc. by doing away with this practice.  No till practices allow beneficial microorganisms and fungi to colonize in your soil.  In turn they feed your soil and plants.  Let it be.
  4. Composted manure is good for your garden. This is true only if it comes from an organic farm.  Farmers may use persistent herbicides to control weeds.  Some of these herbicides can go through the animal, without harm I may add, and into its manure.
  5. A cold hardy plant will eventually adapt to a warmer growing zone. Not true and neither will a warm season plant adapt to a colder growing zone.  Choose plants that are right for your growing zone.
  6. Organic pesticides are non-toxic. Not necessarily true.  While they may not contain synthetic chemicals, they can still be toxic.  Pyrethrum, for example. Is made from mums.  To many people they are a skin irritant.  Sprays made with nicotine, warfarin, and rotenone may all be harmful to pets and humans.  Many organic pesticides and repellants may be harmful to bees.  You should read and abide by the label on an organic product just as you would on a chemical pesticide.
  7. An organic label means its organic. Just because its grown without pesticides does not make it organic.  USDA standards have to be met.  This demands that an item is “protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.”  It will also carry the USDA ORGANIC seal.  Any food labeled organic must be GMO free.

Just a few tips to help you get what you think you are getting.  I think common sense will be all that’s in most instances.  As I have said before I am not an organic or GMO advocate.  I leave that decision up to the individual.  There is a lot of information out there on both subjects some accurate, some not so accurate and some blatant falsehood, in my opinion.


If you need a speaker for your club or group, this spring I am available.  Fee is $50 plus expenses.  I may be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 434-941-1701.

Soil pH - March 26th, 2019


Soil pH simply refers to the measured level of acidity or alkalinity in your soil.  The pH level tells you if you need lime, or if you have applied to much lime.

The pH scale is set at a scale of 1.0 to 14.0 with the neutral point being 7.0.  If the pH is higher than 7.0 then the soil is considered to be alkaline.  If it is lower than 7.0 it is acidic.

Knowing the pH of your soil is very important because various plants grow best at different levels of ph.  For example, most lawn grasses perform best with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0, while azaleas and dogwood like a pH in the range of 5.0 to no more than 6.0.  When liming your lawn, you always want to try and keep the lime in the grass and out of your beds and away from tree roots if possible.

The soil pH greatly affects how much use your plants get out of the nutrients you apply.  If the pH of your lawn is low say 5.5 the plant cannot absorb the fertilizer into the roots.  You would only get usage of a portion of the fertilizer.

For a nice lawn I want my lawn pH to be somewhere between 6.0 and 7.0, no higher.  For my shrub and tree borders I try to keep the pH in the vicinity of 5.0 and 6.0.  For vegetable gardens 6.0 seems to work pretty well.

Ideally the soil pH should be tested about every four years.  You can buy testers at most hardware stores or garden centers.  They are not perfect, but they give you enough information to keep your lawn in good shape.  The lab tests that you pay for are not perfect either.  I could tell a few stories about lab tests but maybe not here and not in print.

Short of testing the soil there are some eye tests that work pretty well.  If your lawn is off color, especially in the spring, you may need lime.  If weeds are growing better than your grass, you may need lime.  Weeds like a lower pH than does grass.  If broom straw appears in your lawn you need lime.

In our red clay soils an application of 15 to 20 pounds of lime per 1000 sq. ft. of lawn area per year would probably keep your lawn in good shape.   If the pH is over 7.0 there are products you can buy, ask at your local hardware or garden center, to lower the pH.  Let me add to that in 40 years of dealing with lawns in Central Virginia I don’t ever remember seeing a lawn that was over limed.  That would be hard to do with our clay soils.

Last but not least, if you need a speaker for your club or group this spring I am available.  Fees start at $50 plus expenses.  I may be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 434-941-1701 for spring scheduling.

Rose Planting Time (Maybe) - February 27th




Many stores in the area either have roses in stock or will have them in stock soon.  Some box stores have had roses on display for several roses.  Stores that have rose inventory naturally say go ahead and plant.  Roses in pots ready to plant or bareroot roses not showing new growth are fine to plant now.  If the plant is showing tender new growth you had better think twice before planting.

If the plant has new growth beginning to show even a light frost will burn and kill that new growth and likely damage the plant. A cool wind will also damage or kill the new growth and may burn the tips of limbs.

Personally, I would not plant a rose that was showing new growth before I was sure there would not be a late frost.  This means I would not plant before very late April or early May.  Mother Nature can be fickle in central Virginia.

Now, on the other hand, if there was a particular variety or pretty rose that I wanted I would buy it early and bring it home and keep it protected until I thought it was safe to plant out.  The best plants sell out early.

There are a number of things to consider when buying a rose.  Do you want a climber, fragrance, lots of bloom, bloom size or a compact plant?  Here is a list of the different roses and some basic differences to help you choose the type that fits your garden needs.

CLIMBERS: Vigorous, sprawling plants that are usually supported by an arbor, fence or trellis in order to remain upright.

FLORIBUNDAS: Free-bloomers that flower heavily.  Flowers usually appear in large clusters.  One of the best roses for landscaping.

GRANDIFLORAS: Vigorous bushes that produce large nicely formed flowers usually in clusters rather than one to a stem.  ‘Queen Elizabeth’ is a classic example.

HYBRID TEA: The most popular type of rose bush.  Produces beautiful long-stemmed flowers that are ideal for cutting.

MINATURE: Small in leaf and stature.  Big in the amount of bloom.  May grow anywhere from 4 to 36 inches high but make great landscape plants.  They are great in edgings or in containers.

OLD GARDEN AND SPECIES ROSES (ANTIQUE ROSES): A huge group of roses that vary in plant habit and flower type.  Many of them bloom only once a year.  Many have fragrant and/or uniquely formed flowers.

POLYANTHAS: Small, compact shrubs producing large clusters of flowers.  Good landscape plants.

By picking the right plant for your location and need you should get many years of enjoyment out of your rose.  Plant in a sunny location in well drained soil, water though the first growing season, add a little fertilizer and your plant should be happy.

As always if you need help or have questions and the personnel at the store where you are buying cant answer your questions satisfactorily, BUY SOMEWHERE ELSE.

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