Category Archives: Garden Advice

13 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Gardening

I’m a firm believer that having a good, productive garden is a lot more about hard work than having a green thumb. That being said, there are some things I’ve learned along the way that I wish someone had told me from the start.

Use supplemental light when starting seeds.

Popping your seed trays into a sunny window just won’t cut it. You’ll end up with weak, leggy seedling straining for more light. Use supplemental light and keep it a couple of inches above your plants. You don’t need fancy grow lights; old shop lights will do! Need more advice? Here are 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting Seeds

Make room for flowers.

When I started my first garden, I didn’t plant any flowers. After all, why waste space and effort on something you can’t eat? I like to think gardening has helped me grow a bit wiser, and now I always make room for at least a few. Flowers are beautiful, and they help attract beneficial insects which pollinate plants and kill pests! Plus, if you want to maximize their utility, you can plant edible flowers.

Those little tomato cages they sell at the store are useless.

Your tomatoes will outgrow and topple those dinky little wire cages, I promise. Save yourself some money and disappointment and use a different trellising method. You can use fencing to create your own larger, sturdier cages or use a tried and true method like the Florida weave. Check out our post, Vertical Gardening: The Beginner’s Guide to Trellising Plants for more ideas and advice.

There’s a difference between open-pollinated, heirloom, hybrid, and GMO.

When you’re new to gardening, all the seed-related jargon can be a bit confusing. At Southern Exposure, we carry, almost exclusively, open-pollinated varieties. Open-pollinated means that a variety will “breed true” and produce a reliable seed crop year after year so long as it isn’t crossed with another variety. At SESE, we believe that all gardeners and farmers should be able to save seed if they so desire.

At Southern Exposure, we define heirlooms as open-pollinated varieties that date to 1940 or before. These varieties have withstood the test of time and have been selected over years and years for incredible flavor, disease and drought resistance, and other helpful features.

Hybrid seeds are the careful cross between two specific varieties. This process has to be completed each year. While hybrids aren’t our favorite because they don’t allow growers to reliably save seed, having a few in your garden isn’t the end of the world either. We carry hybrid sweet corn because many market growers prefer it for its uniform size and maturity.

GMO seed is seed that has been genetically modified in a lab. The use of GMO seed in the United States is widespread among large industrial farms growing corn and soy though other crops are grown as well.

Get a soil test.

You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble by having your soil tested. You can purchase home test kits at most garden supply shops, which do a decent job. You can also send your soil in to be tested. Check with your county or state extension agency or a local college with agricultural programs. Most offer affordable, if not free, testing.

Once you’ve had your soil tested, you’ll know what amendments you need to add. Check out our post Understanding Soil Tests.

You’ll save a lot of money starting your own seeds.

Buying transplants gets expensive quickly. If you have a good-sized garden, hope to preserve food, or are growing for a family, it’s worth starting your own tomato, pepper, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and more indoors.

Always put up a garden fence.

Even if you’ve never seen so much as a squirrel in your yard, the local wildlife will find your garden. You’ll wake up one morning to what was carefully tended rows of carrots, beans, and cabbages mowed off by the local animals.

Preserving vegetables isn’t complicated or dangerous.

I was anxious that my homemade pickles could kill someone. I also worried that I would be spending hours in the kitchen over a hot stove. Thankfully, safely freezing, canning, drying, and even fermenting vegetables can all be done safely and easily. You also don’t have to can 100 pounds of tomatoes because your grandmother did (unless you want to and then go for it). You can do all kinds of preserving in small manageable batches.

If you’ve got extra produce, give it a try. You’ll find a few recipes here on the blog, or the Ball Fresh Preserving site is an excellent resource.

Buy canning supplies ahead of time.

Especially during the pandemic, canning jars and other supplies like vinegar, lids, and rings can be in short supply during the height of the season. If you’re hoping to do a lot of canning, it’s prudent to buy supplies ahead of time.

Gardening will make you a vegetable snob.

This sounds bad, but it probably isn’t. Even if you’re new to gardening, you’ve probably heard someone talk about just how amazing a homegrown, sun-ripened tomato is compared to the watery, mealy store-bought ones. What I quickly learned is that that is true with all vegetables. From beets and carrots to lettuce and collards, once you’ve had the homegrown version, what’s available at your local supermarket will never taste as good.

Perennials are your best friend.

Perennials are those plants that come back every year without you having to replant them. They’re often some of a garden’s earliest producers too. Crops like rhubarb, asparagus, and lavender are a joy to have in the garden and often require less effort once established.

You can learn a lot about what will do well in your garden and when to plant by understanding your hardiness zone.

We have a whole post about this, but basically, each area of the United States has a different hardiness zone depending on its climate. Each hardiness zone has different first and last frost dates and typical summer temperature highs and winter temperature lows. Your hardiness zone will determine what perennials you can overwinter, when you should start seeds, when you should transplant out, and when you should expect to pull your last crops before the fall frosts.

Ask the locals.

Find out what people are growing in your area and what they struggle with. If everyone on your road has excellent luck with a particular type of tomato, it can be a great starting point, even if there are other varieties you’d like to try too. Other local gardeners will be able to help make your first garden successful by recommending varieties that work well in your area.

Some of these 13 points were tough lessons for me in my first year or two of gardening. Hopefully, keeping these in mind can help you have a happy and successful season.

Growing Turmeric and Ginger

 You can pre-order spring-shipped Turmeric plants and rhizomes and Ginger plants from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

By Ann Codrington of Nisani Farm.

Nisani Farm is owned and operated by women of color across three generations. Our Belizean roots flavor the feel of the farm in such a way that you find yourself in the tropics without having to leave Southside Virginia. In this forested 50-acre farmstead there is everything from turmeric and ginger to papayas and moringa trees, from medicinal herbs and mushrooms to cut flowers and purple vegetables, from rain garden plants and orchards to bitter melons and leafy greens, and all grown with Certified Naturally Grown practices.

While we grow and make a number of things – many continuously changing through experience and experimentation – what remains consistent is a focus on growing ginger and turmeric.  Here is a peek into how we grow our turmeric!

Starting Turmeric and Ginger From Rhizomes

By far the hardest part of growing turmeric and ginger is getting rhizomes to sprout early enough in the season for them to put on good growth before late Summer.  It takes good planning, or pre-sprouted plants to get a good crop in the Fall.

Planning for the growing season actually begins on November 1st of the previous year, when we place our order for new organic seed stock from Hawaii.  Although the rhizomes won’t arrive until February, they must be secured in the fall to ensure the best selection. 

In February, while temperatures are still cold in Southside Virginia, the organically grown rhizomes (also called “seed”) arrive and are prepared for planting. We sort and prepare rhizomes in a way that is likely to prevent disease and ensure survival. Then we place the flats onto temperature-controlled heat mats in our propagation room where they will stay until they sprout. 

It can take anywhere from four to six weeks of keeping the rhizomes warm and moist before we begin to see sprouts. Once most of the rhizomes in a flat begin to sprout, we move the sprouts to a warm area in our high tunnels to continue to grow.

By April, all of the rhizomes will have sprouted.  Once the seedlings are a few inches tall, we prepare them for shipping to SESE customers.  We also give lectures to explain how to grow and use turmeric and ginger, and by May we are ready to plant our crop in Southside Virginia.

We recently added blue turmeric to our collection. It is a medicinal rhizome with camphor overtones and known for its anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties.  It is mainly used in parts of South and Southeast Asia. We’ve brewed it in teas, dried and powdered it, and put in our bath and body products.

Planting Turmeric and Ginger for the Best Possible Crop

Once the last frost has passed, it’s time to plant your seedlings.  While it is possible to grow turmeric and ginger directly in the ground, here at Nisani Farm we prefer to grow our plants in large pots.  We find that we can manage soil disease better this way by removing any plants that show signs of disease before it spreads. Also, using pots makes it easy to move the plants indoors when the weather turns cold. 

To plant your seedlings, place each one in a large pot (5 gallons or more) containing organic potting mix or compost mixed with wood chips. Cover the roots and rhizome with planting medium and press the soil down to remove air pockets near the roots. Keep moist, but not waterlogged. Although turmeric and ginger are tropical plants, they grow well in part-shade. In cooler climates, you can grow ginger and turmeric in full sun. Fertilize once a month with additional compost or other organic fertilizer. Cover rhizomes when they begin to show above the surface of the soil.

To plant in the ground, dig a hole 12 inches deep and 12 inches wide, add compost to the hole and mix with soil. Place a plant into the hole so that the soil-compost mix covers the roots and rhizome and press the soil down to remove air pockets near the roots. Water the plant but do not keep the soil waterlogged. You can plant multiple plants in trenches set 24 to 36 inches apart to allow space for hilling. Add compost to the trench, mix with soil and space plants 12 to 18 inches apart.  As plants grow, hill with compost to provide additional nutrients and to cover expanding rhizomes. 

Your plants should put on significant growth by September.  Don’t be surprised if they grow as tall as five feet or more!

The shorter days of fall signal the formation of rhizomes.  Start checking your turmeric and ginger to see if there are harvestable rhizomes in October.  You can expose the soil around the stem to see if your crop is ready.  If you have several plants, you can harvest plants over the course of fall to enjoy an extended crop.  The longer you wait to harvest, the larger your harvest will be. Just be sure to harvest your crop before the weather drops below freezing.

Harvest by digging up the plant, cutting roots off and rinsing under a water hose.  You can store your ginger in the refrigerator, or you can freeze it for use all winter.  If you don’t harvest your crop, it will naturally enter a dormancy period in the winter months. During this period, leaves will turn yellow and die. Many people store their potted plants indoors for the winter. The rhizomes that remain covered with soil and protected from freezing will resprout in the spring. Although the dormant rhizomes can survive dry conditions during dormancy, periodic watering (once a month) is recommended if the soil is bone dry.

The last frost is just a few weeks away, and before you know it, you’ll be wanting to plant your ginger and/or turmeric patch.  If you haven’t already started sprouting your ginger, we have the pre-sprouted plants you need to get growing!

Grow a Cut flower garden

Having fresh flowers on the table can help make a home feel pleasant and inviting. Store-bought flowers can be expensive, but growing your own may not be as hard as you’d think. Gardeners can grow and create their own cut flower bouquets with surprisingly little time and space.

What Types of Flowers Should I Grow?

There are many flowers that are suitable and easy to grow as cut flowers. These include:

  • Sunflowers
  • Celosia
  • Zinnias
  • Cosmos
  • Sweet Peas
  • Snapdragons
  • Tulips
  • Yarrow
  • Poppies
  • Daffodils
  • Asters
  • Amaranth
  • Bachelor’s Buttons
  • Ageratum
  • Echinacea (coneflowers)
  • Lavender
  • Sweet William

Especially if you’re new to flower gardening, we recommend growing zinnias and cosmos as they produce tons of flowers over a long season. The more you cut and deadhead, the more they produce.

Soil Preparation

Just as you need healthy soil to produce a good vegetable crop, you need healthy soil to grow quality cut flowers. Forking your flower bed, adding compost, and testing your soil before planting can help ensure that you get a great harvest.

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Plant Early & Plant Successions

Many flowers need to be started indoors weeks before your last frost. Be sure to read the growing instructions for your chosen varieties well before the season begins and stay on top of spring planting.

You can also use the fall to do some extra-early planting. Tuck in bulbs like daffodils and tulips and sow self-seeding flowers like poppies. Visit our post, Fall-Sown Flowers for Spring Blooms, for more ideas.

Throughout the beginning and middle of the summer continue sowing, if you have space. Some quick-growing flowers like zinnias can be sown every 2-3 weeks until midsummer. For more details on how to succession plant flowers, check out our post, Succession Planting Flowers.

Keep the Weeds Down

Keeping the weeds at bay, especially while plants are getting established, is essential. Plants won’t produce as many flowers if they’re competing with the weeds for nutrients and space.

Water Consistently

Consistent watering is key to good flower production. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation are an ideal low maintenance way to keep flowers watered. They’re also more efficient!

You can also mulch around flowers once they’re up. Mulch will help block weeds and keep the soil cool and moist.

Harvest & Deadhead Regularly

It may seem counter-intuitive, but for many “cut flower” varieties, the more you harvest, the more they will grow. The same goes for deadheading. Not letting flowers go to seed will encourage them to keep producing. So even if you don’t need another bouquet, cut your flowers and give them to a friend.


There are a few things you should know when harvesting cut flowers. The first is that your flowers will last the longest and look the best if you harvest them in the morning after the dew has dried, but while it’s still cool.

Always use clean cutting tools. Cut stems at a 45° angle and bring flowers into the shade as soon as possible. When arranging flowers, remove all foliage that’s below the waterline.