Why Planting a First Garden can be Scary

"Planting Ocimum basilicum? Always pinch your basil before it goes to flower."

“Planting Ocimum basilicum? Always pinch your basil back before the plant goes to flower.”

If you follow recipes to the letter, measure every ingredient precisely, fret if you accidentally use 1/32nd of an ounce of flour more than the instructions call for – you may want to skip this post. It may drive you bat-guano crazy.

But if you’re the person to whom a ‘pinch of salt’ means ‘grab the salt shaker, throw it at the bowl, and hope some salt gets inside’ – this post is for you, adventurer.

Planting a First Garden? Or thinking about it..?

Some people plant their first garden like they raise their first baby. With precision, trepidation and panic.

  • The exact temperature and composition of soil calculated and documented
  • Specific amounts of water distributed at exactly the right time of day
  • Copious notes on feeding, checking, moving, resting
  • Contact information posted on the refrigerator at all times – “If you see signs of sprouting, call me. I don’t care if I’m in a board meeting or in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on a life raft. CALL ME!!”
  • Light and heat measured and charted on perfectly executed spreadsheets, printed and inserted into the garden’s journal, updated hourly.

We new gardeners come unhinged if someone walks too heavily past the spot where the baby garden sleeps – quietly (so as not to wake the wee seedlings) – SHH! You’ll wake the Ocimum basilicum!!

We obsessively scrapbook each millimeter of progress.

And we can drive the rest of the world up the wall as we delve into the alchemy of how a garden grows.

Planting the Second Garden is Less Traumatic

By the time the second garden comes around, reality starts to set in. Our garden-planting shoulders are loosened. Hovering over the seed incubation trays with a sunlight calculator, while informative (and still fun), does not consume every waking hour.

We start to (*gasp*) reuse potting soil.

Our plant markers no longer need to be carefully printed calligraphic masterpieces. We discover that a magic marker-written length of painter’s tape atop a recycled bamboo skewer works pretty darned well.

We begin to buy into the process of gardening. That a garden is more of a journey than a destination.

We start to ‘get’ that things like germination time, watering needs, sunlight preferences are not set in stone but reside within a rhythm that does not warrant panic over lack of overnight growth, or fretful trips to Wikipedia every time a marker gets misplaced.

And as we settle in, our gardens grow with more confidence and less worry. After all, if we’re not freaking out, neither will that philodendron.

With this settling in comes membership in a vast and solid society of Those Who Garden. Welcome to the club.

So Get to the Point, Garden Lass…

The point is simple: If you’re just starting out, first garden and all, or thinking of a first garden, or petrified of the thought of starting your first garden: Breathe in, exhale, and dive in.

Don’t stress out — this garden isn’t your first born infant. No need to drive yourself (and everyone around you) crazy.

Start with what you see. You already have a sense of what’s growing where you live. If you look around your local landscape and see 999,999 acres of sunflowers and one lonely palm tree… start with sunflowers.

By doing this look-around before you start planting anything, you’ll be sure that the odds will be ever in your favor (to butcher a quote from The Hunger Games).

To your garden success!
Casey – the Garden Lass

How not to grow potatoes at home

If I could get these spuds to stand up, would it be a Food Pyramid?

Here is how old wives’ tales get started, often stretching back a few centuries to a time before modern technology like air conditioning, in-home refrigeration, and GPS navigation.

One time, back in the 1100s, a potato crop probably failed to take hold  – and the failure was blamed on heresy, witchcraft, or sorcery. Nowadays, a similar failure is blamed on growth inhibitors, soil imbalances, or terminator genes.

Were my best intentions foiled?

After pinning my sprouted fingerling (the “rescue spud”) onto toothpicks, carefully transplanting its fragile form into successively larger pots, attempting to nurse it back to health after the move from the kitchen to the sunny dining room nearly slaughtered it…

NOW I hear that it may not be wise, recommended, or even “possible” to grow potatoes out of the potatoes found in the grocery store.

Source vs Source: Both Wrong?

According to some sources over at Yahoo,  “growth inhibitor” is applied to commercially available potatoes to keep them from sprouting in storage.

According to some OTHER sources found at the Homesteading Today forum, this whole “growth inhibitor” tale is a load of compost – and a potato that has sprouting eyes is going to grow.

One or the other is probably wrong. One is misguided and doesn’t believe in growth inhibitors. One is misguided and doesn’t believe that store-bought taters will grow more taters.

Nothing Planted, Nothing Gained

Here’s one thing I know for a fact: If I don’t plant potatoes, no potatoes will grow.

If I do plant potatoes and they don’t grow, the reason is very likely not growth inhibitors, terminator genes, heresy, witchcraft, or sorcery. The odds are more likely in favor of overwatering.

The Potato How-To

Not a happy potato camper

It’s not a no-planting day, but given the changes in the potato plant (and my curiosity), it feels like a good day to perform a how-to study on the potato.

It’s in terrible shape, my potato plant – or is that potato vine? Granted, I stuck it in a jar to start, then stuck it into a small pot, then stuck that into a big pot, with no ceremony or research on how to actually grow the thing. So, like the runt of the litter, it didn’t really get a fighting chance to start out.

Here’s what happened:

Two inches, approximately 1.25 ounces

Phase 1 – Original Potato Selection:

Potato is picked for size and number of eyes. Too big and it won’t fit in the top of the jar, which leaves out russets and decent size baking potatoes. A red potato, on the other hand, might work.

Here, the role of Original Potato (aka rescue spud) is being played by a similar sized fingerling from a gourmet fingerling package.

The date of the original incident is March 15th – indeed, the Ides of March. Et tu, Tuberius?

The potato measures approximately 2″, weighs slightly more than 1.25 ounces, has five eyes from which grow three purplish leafy appendages, dark tan to light brown complexion.

At this point, the potato is known as a Sprouting Tuber, in what is considered to be the first of six stages to its life cycle. This is also known as Growth Stage 1. The full six stages are:

  • Sprouting Tuber – Growth Stage 1
  • Vegetative – Growth Stage 2
  • Tuber Initiation – Growth Stage 3
  • Developing Tuber – Growth Stage 4
  • Mature Tuber – Growth Stage 5 (harvest)
  • Dormant Tuber – not a growth stage


“Toothpick suspension” phase

Phase 2 – Toothpick Suspension:

In order to encourage survival, Original Potato was placed in a glass jar, suspended by three average size toothpicks. Nothing much happened until water was added, in Phase 2a – Water Addition Phase.

According to scientific sources, the potato hasn’t left Sprouting Tuber Growth Stage 1 yet. At this point, nothing is going to happen growth-wise except for the knocking off of several bits of eye growth. If too many of those get knocked off, you’re better off picking another spud.

Water Addition Phase

Phase 2a – Water Addition:

Water is added up to the neck of the jar, which immerses the lower quarter of the potato. For now, that’s it. For Original Potato, I squirted four drops of Miracle Gro into a pint of warm water, and used that water to top off the jar water as needed over the course of a few weeks.

Windowsill next to ceramic cat

 Phase 3 – Permanent Residence:

The most auspicious potato-growing windowsill in the house is the one that I previously thought is facing north. It’s actually east-northeast or something, so that it’s getting some very nice morning sunlight. I placed the spud stand-in near the ceramic Mexican cat to demonstrate location for this reconstruction. It’s still March 15th.

Transplant victim

 Phase 4 – To The Dirt Phase:

April 13th – After nearly a month on the windowsill partially immersed in increasingly-murky water + Miracle Gro, a few roots had appeared and what could conceivably eventually become a potato showed up. At this point, Original Potato got stuck into a 5″ self-watering pot, buried up to its nose in potting soil. This made it VERY happy.

Happy happy Original Potato

 Phase 5 – More Dirt:

April 27th – So happy, in fact, that 14 days later, it outgrew its 5″ pot and desperately needed room to grow. So it got put into a bigger pot. And grew like mad s’more.

According to the experts, this is Vegetative – Growth Stage 2. Plenty of stems, leaves, branches, roots. This stage should last from 30 to 70 days depending on soil temperature, planting date, age of the original tuber.

Unhappy or just catching its next stage?

 Phase 6 – Precursor to the Great Potato Famine

OK, maybe not that severe. However, the plant is not doing “well” when compared to other plants of its age.

At first I thought I had done something wrong, like burned its roots with fertilizer or overwatered or underwatered. But then I found this explanation of the growth stages of the potato from tuber to harvest, and I believe Original Potato is entering its Growth Stage 3 – Tuber Initiation.

In order to determine exactly what stage Original Potato (aka rescue spud) is in, I’d have to dig it up to see what’s beneath the surface of the dirt. Unfortunately, whatever stage it’s at would be its last stage, since I don’t know how to put it back in its pot with potatoes already growing.

Instead, I’m bookmarking this highly detailed site by GeoChemBio.com which demonstrates the morphology of the potato plant – look near the bottom in the Appendix, for “Morphological and molecular characterization of a spontaneously tuberizing potato mutant; an insight into the regulatory mechanisms of tuber induction.” (Fischer L, Lipavska H, Hausman JF, Opatrny Z.)


I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand 1/10th of what they’re saying. But better to watch their pictures than dig up my one and only Original Potato plant to see how it’s doing!

The Garlic How-To

Garlic for optimists

One of the advantages of having “Do No Planting” days dictated by the Moon – I’ve automatically got time to do other things in support of the garden, like research what things look like while they grow, and learning how to tell when they’re done.

Since I have a lot of garlic with green showing aboveground, I figure that’s the best place to start.

Planting the Garlic:

Get seeds and sets to plant from local outlets like farmers’ markets and online shops, or grab a few cloves from garlic you buy at the grocery store.

Ideally, garlic gets planted in the Fall before first frost. Stick a clove of garlic in well-draining soil, about an inch deep and five inches apart, in an area that gets full sun. The root edge should go down (the pointy bit is where the stem comes out – so point that up). As soon as they show a bit of green, put down a layer of straw mulch.  Some sources I looked at said to plant with the bulbous side down.

At four weeks into Spring, you’ll see shoots. Pull back the mulch and fertilize with a good mixed fish emulsion. Check moisture down to two inches, and water only if dry that far down.

Planted 4/24 but big head start, this is the one Chatterbox attacked

If you were to dig up a clove, you’ll see a bunch of stringy roots about four inches long and a bit tangled. From what I can tell, you’d see about an inch of root growth per week. Once you see green above the soil line, you can expect to see about a half inch of growth per day.

As you get growth , if you want to pull off and preserve the topsets for next year’s planting, do so when the plant has matured. However, if you want to cook with the scapes, harvest those when they’re between four and five inches long. At that length they’re delicious; much bigger and not so much.

Harvesting the Garlic:

When the lower leaves are browned and the upper leaves are green, it’s time to harvest. Grab a digging fork and GENTLY loosen the soil and lift the bulbs. Bring up the entire plant, and leave that attached as you place carefully into flats.

Curing the Garlic:

Lay the whole plants out to dry in a single layer. Once the outer skin is papery, brush off the dirt (don’t rinse), and snip the roots off.


Store between 60 and 70 degrees F, but avoid cold storage as you will get sprouting. Store open, not enclosed in bags. Make sure it’s light but not bright – cool but not cold.

In Conclusion:

It takes a bit to get the hang of the growing cycle, and resist the temptation to wash these guys right out of the ground. If you cure and store your garlic properly, you’ll have enough to last you well through to the next growing season.