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Gandy's Garden: Lessons learned gardening in 2020

2020 has been a year filled with extremes. Meteorologist Alex Calamia shares what he learned about gardening during a pandemic.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — 2020 has been a year filled with extremes in almost every aspect of life, but for gardeners in the Midlands, it was a productive year for plants. The weather in South Carolina was about as generous as it could get. There were very few days of extreme heat and even fewer days of extreme cold. The entire summer was free of drought which was a huge savings on water. 

New things I learned

Our garden at WLTX is filled with plants all year long because we want to experiment with plants so you know what's worth trying in your home gardens. I have no formal education in plants or agriculture, so just like many home gardeners, I’m learning about the garden from experience. The weather has never caught me by surprise (WLTX has the most accurate forecast in the South Carolina Midlands!), but there are a few mistakes I made in the garden this year that I’ll never make again.

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There’s a huge difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes

Tomato fruits come in all shapes and sizes, and the same is true for the plants themselves! There are a seemingly endless number of tomato cultivars, but only two types of growth habits, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow to a mature height (which varies based on cultivar) and then produce a mass of flowers and fruit. Determinate tomato plants are great in pots (some only grow a foot tall!), require less support, and won’t get overcrowded. Indeterminate tomatoes produce flowers and fruit sporadically and continue to grow until cold weather knocks them out. Indeterminate varieties can reach huge proportions which is why they require support (after a while they practically look like vines!). I didn’t know my tomato plants growth habits ahead of time and they became a tangled mess! In 2021, I’ll plant determinate tomatoes in a separate garden bed from the indeterminate types so they all have room to breathe.

The winter garden can be just as productive as summer time!

South Carolina is no stranger to regular hard winter freezes, but there are a pretty impressive variety of plants that prefer the cool and dark days of winter over our hot and sunny summer weather. When the weather cools down in August and September, I start broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, collards, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale parsley, and cilantro. These plants grow best during milder periods in the winter, but they can survive temperatures well into the mid 20s. This all caught me by surprise, but I really didn’t expect the parsley to do so well in the winter garden because I’ve never seen them at plant nurseries during the winter time.

One plant species = Dozens of types of produce!

What if I told you pretty much every plant in my winter garden was the same species? Would you be surprised? I was! Brassica oleracea is native to the Mediterranean, but over thousands of years has been selected by growers to develop different characteristics creating amazing plants like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, and collard greens. All of these amazing greens are just variations of the same plant (brussels sprouts were selected to produce large, edible buds, kale for their succulent foliage, and broccoli and cauliflower for their edible inflorescences. (Inflorescences by the way are just a fancy name for plant structures that hold lots of flower buds. Basically the entire winter garden is Brassica Oleracea and Lactuca sativa (the botanical name for lettuce!).

Watermelon isn’t as hard to grow as it looks

I’ve always felt uneasy about trying watermelon plants. There’s something about big fruit that seems more intimidating than small and simple. I’ve never grown watermelon before because I simply didn’t have the space until this year, but I’m so glad I gave them a try. Despite all the advice online that makes these plants seem really finicky, they’re actually pretty easy. All they need is full sun, enough water at the right time, and PLENTY of space and patience. They take about 3 months to start producing, but once those fruit form you’re just a few weeks away from heavy watermelons.

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Starting some plants from seed are a waste of time

Seeds are the way to go for so many plants, especially in South Carolina where the growing season typically starts in March and warm days arrive quickly! This year I saved a ton of money starting tomatoes, basil, squash, watermelon, and squash from seed. Another huge benefit was having the opportunity to grow some incredible varieties you won’t find at local nurseries (like this delicious curvy squash that produced fruit for 9 months and grew over 50 feet long – practically into the parking lot!).

There are some plants that aren’t worth the effort from seed. Fruit trees take decades to produce fruit from seed and likely won’t produce true to seed. I’ve even found some popular summer plants like eggplant are great if they’re purchased as seedlings but way too slow to germinate from seed unless you have a grow light indoors to give them a start in the wintertime. I’d rather just spend a few extra dollars to get them as small plants in the spring and save a ton of time.

I’m looking forward to 2021 already! The garden is going to be bigger, cleaner, more productive, and more diverse than ever. It’s only December, but now is absolutely the right time to start planning. What are you going to grow in your garden?

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