Here we go again…

Are  you sick of my posts about gardening? If so, just hit delete today, because it’s really all that’s on my mind during these long days of spring. I’ve got lots more good topics for transitioning lined up for the near future, some I can barely wait to share with you, but today, it’s all about gardening.

Before we get started on this though, a little personal history and philosophy might be in order. I’m a Tennessee Master Gardener and the coordinator of my city’s largest (to date) and oldest community garden, but I’m hoping that (at least!) a dozen more communal gardens will be surpassing our size in the near future. I feel that growing food is a life skill like no other. Gardening can offer resilience in the face of adversity, whether that’s due to climate change, skyrocketing food prices, personal money hardships, or food sensitivities. It builds self-sufficiency, enhances my sense of empowerment, and oh yeah, provides me with great-tasting and healthy food. My garden offers me a respite from a life filled with the blur of technology, stress and diversions and actually serves as my personal sanctuary when I go to kneel at its’ weedy altar. Oh yeah, did I mention it provides me with great-tasting food?

This post is simply my way of sharing some of what I’ve learned over the years with other gardeners that might be struggling to get their own pots and plots in good shape right now. There are lots of good gardening advice online, so if I don’t cover your question in this short post, you can find the answer somewhere on the world-wide web or in a good gardening book at the library. Or post your questions in the comments section at the end, maybe I’ll have an answer.

Q: How far apart should I plant my (fill in the blank)?

A: If you have rich soil that has adequate amounts of a plant’s needed nutrients, count on them growing well. Read that as large. Space accordingly. A big ole’ heirloom tomato plant that’s growing in a well-maintained raised bed that’s filled with rich homemade compost and lots of organic matter can easily grow to 3′ wide and 6′ tall! If your soil isn’t so good, it won’t grow that large and  you might get by with spacing them 18″ apart. I’ve seen gardeners that plant tomatoes and peppers 3-4″ apart! I apologize for the quality of this bad picture, but I want you to look closely at this: there are twelve, count them, TWELVE tomato plants in that little bitty bed!


The spacing in my cabbage patch shown below is good on the left side with four plants, but too close on the right, which has five plants and shows the fourth one almost lost! These were ‘early’ small cabbages. Had they been a later, heavier variety, I would’ve only planted one row of them down the middle.


Tomatoes and squash like a lot of air circulation, as that keeps many of the diseases that they’re susceptible to at bay.  Try to visualize a full-grown August tomato plant when considering how far apart to set them out. However, if we’re talking about carrots, go with 1″ apart thinning to 2″ when they’re up and recognizable. Squash on the other hand need 2-3′ all around to produce well.  These next two pics show how much room I give them. Both beds will be completely covered soon with the zucchini and yellow squash vines! You’ve got to visualize how big the mature plants will be!




Like carrots, green beans and peas are planted closely, about 2″ apart, again, depending on the variety you’re planting. Read the back of the seed package if all else fails. If your seeds are old, plant thicker than normal, and if they all come up, just thin to an appropriate distance apart. In the pic below, the beans were planted 2″ apart, but birds and rabbits have done a pretty good job of ‘thinning’ for me.


The sugar snap peas below were planted very closely around the edges of a square bed and as  you can see are flowering well now. I set the tomato cage in the center for the peas to be supported by, knowing that by the time the tomato needs the space, the peas will be history. Once the tomato fills the cage and is growing well, I’ll plant basil around the edges where the peas were…these three are good companion plants because the tomatoes need a lot of nitrogen and the peas are ‘nitrogen-fixing’ plants, which means they can literally pull it from the air and store it in the soil for use by the next crop. Basil and tomatoes are not only compatible when eaten together, the sharp smell of basil deters pests from the tomatoes when they’re grown together. How cool is THAT?



Q: Why are my young plants turning purple?

A: Did you plant the purple variety?  Likely because your soil is low in phosphorus or because the soil temp is still too cool.

Q: Why are my plants turning yellow?

A: It’s usually caused by a nitrogen deficiency. Fish Emulsion is a good organic source of nitrogen. While young plants are growing feed every week, moving to every two weeks later in the season.

Q: Why do I have huge green plants but no broccoli heads?

A: Too much nitrogen is generally the cause of overgrowth with no fruit set.

Q: Nothing seems to be doing well this year

A: A simple test kit can go a long way towards helping you decide what your garden soil needs or doesn’t. Even though they’re inexpensive, share the cost with a friend or neighbor or two. You generally only need to test once or twice to determine your soil’s Ph and then again after making any needed adjustments, but the kits have enough solution to do it over and over. If  your Ph isn’t in the correct range no matter how rich your soil is, the plant roots won’t be able to draw the nutrients from that soil to help them thrive.

As I’ve written all of this I realize that gardening is kind of like beekeeping… ask 10 people how to do something and you’ll get 10 different answers but maybe this will be of some help to you dear readers. I believe that growing and eating locally grown foods, in season, is the single best thing one can do to improve their health, their personal economy, and the environment. Plant something, ok?


I’ve finally completed this year’s requirements for my Master Gardener certification, and if I can stick with it, in two more years I’ll be eligible for lifetime status. I’m far more impressed with the honeybees lifetime commitment to making honey. The worker bees only live an average of a few weeks in the summer, because they literally ‘work themselves to death’ flying from morning til nightfall gathering pollen and nectar and doing their share to keep the hive alive. The hours that I put into the Master Gardener program pale in comparison. Look at that honey on my pantry shelf-it really is liquid gold-and I try not to waste a single drop. The young couple that bought our old house this summer wanted my hives as part of the deal, so I’m grateful the ‘girls’ got to stay in their old digs, but I miss them a lot. Anyone wanting a hand with extracting their honey, or with helping prepare their hives for winter in exchange for a bit of honey?  As a gardener and a slightly crunchy environmentalist, I always like helping our pollinators! Plus, such an exchange of labor for gold would be a su-weet deal for both of us! Let me know if you’re interested…

Speaking of a sweet deal: One Acre Cafe is coming to downtown Johnson City! This is a newly formed non-profit program whose mission is to address the issues of food insecurity experienced daily by an estimated 20 percent of East Tennessee residents by providing sufficient, safe and nutritious meals in an environment where all members of the community can “eat what they want and pay what they can.”  Let me repeat that: “eat what they want and pay what they can.Pay.It.Forward. in action.

Like the new Farm Cafe that recently began operations in nearby in Boone, N.C.,  the new One Acre Cafe will focus on three key elements, job training, volunteerism and community cooperation.

Diners could be me or anyone who comes in to see what’s up in this community or it could be an individual who cannot afford a meal at all but can work one hour at the cafe  in exchange for their meal, according to a recent article in the Johnson City Press.

To eliminate food waste, the cafe will offer meals in three proportions, at prices ranging from $5 to $10 that those who can afford to pay will know is going to positively impact the life of someone less fortunate.

Everyone will be welcome to eat at the cafe regardless of their ability to pay and will be given an opportunity to gain job skills and experience in food service and restaurant management.

Read more: http://johnsoncitypress.com/News/article.php?id=101850#ixzz26I6ixMao
This new program has a booth at the newly begun Farmer’s Market held each Thursday on the ETSU campus, and they have a Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/One-Acre-Cafe/360162437380893 This is EXACTLY the kind of community and resilience building that’s needed to help us as we transition to a lower energy world in which we face continuing economic uncertainties, Peak Everything, as well as rising fuel and food prices. Everybody eats: su-weet!
Although not officially a US TRANSITION TOWN (*yet) we seem to be on the right track here in our little corner of NE Tennessee towards becoming one. I’ll be writing more about that next week, but for now my focus will be on the  Rhythm and Roots Festival being held this weekend in Bristol. The old time band that I play bass for, The Roan Mountain Moonshiners, is playing there Saturday at 1:30 and Sunday at 4:30. I hope you’ll come out and hear our homegrown, mountain music and say hello. A full weekend ticket is only $50 through tomorrow- su-weet!

Carver Peace Gardens accepting applications

You may already know that I started a community garden in Johnson City five years ago. The Carver Peace Gardens, as they are named, are located at 322 W Watauga Ave, on the Carver Recreation Center’s parkland. I was just naive enough at the time to think that this would be pretty easy to do. Had I known then, what I know now, I’m not so sure I would’ve taken a project of this magnitude on.  Tennessee Master Gardeners must contribute 25 hours a year to maintain their certification, and I was frustrated that the long list of approved projects that were available to graduates of the program didn’t include any vegetable gardens. We Master Gardeners must log all our service hours each year and submit them to the state. Last year I topped over 100 hours working solely on this garden. But it’s work that I love. Mostly. Because it is on city property there are sometimes frustrating delays and rules.  Because I am dealing with the public in general, there are various personalities to be dealt with, as well as issues of trust, time and money constraints, theft and vandalism, peacemaking, communication, planning, fund raising and last but not least, GARDENING issues! But here’s the thing: 5 years in, I’m finally beginning to feel that I am part of a lasting community. I’m experiencing the power of many and that keeps me going when the going gets tough.

Tomorrow night (Tuesday, April 10th) there’s a meeting between this year’s new crop of gardeners and the newly formed (thank God!) steering committee. I know I’m a bit late with this information but I thought I had an equal number of available plots and applicants, but it turns out there is still one plot available. If you know anyone that wants to have a 15’x20′ plot in the Peace Gardens this year, please tell them to try to attend this very important meeting at 6:30 PM. We’ll be in the library located just inside the front doors of the Carver Rec Center. It shouldn’t take over an hour, we’ll have extra applications on hand, and if accepted, there will be a $15 plot rental fee-cash or check. Tools, water  and gardening classes are provided, sometimes we have plants and seeds to offer too. But as important as the food is, and trust me, I KNOW how important that is, the environment that exists there amongst the gardeners offers as much nourishment as the actual soil does! There’s sharing and caring that goes on daily. In no time at you will know everyone’s name, their kids’ names and that of their dogs too. You’ll be able to share produce and recipes, tips and ideas, all while making a huge step in providing healthier food for your table.  At the same time you’ll be able to lower your food bills, your carbon footprint and your blood pressure. Community gardening is the best way I know of to improve your family’s and our community’s resilience in these uncertain times. Learning to grow food is a ‘life skill’ if there ever was one! Care to join us?

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