From the outside, gardening looks pretty tame. Plants don’t race around. They don’t seem to attack. It’s just greenery, water, and soil, right? The truth is, if you garden regularly, some amazing things are bound to happen.
It’s not just the plant oddities that appear. Many of us have come across twinned tomatoes, dancing carrots, and fasciated stems, but gardens are full of surprises. These are just a few of mine.
I never gave mold much thought before gardening, other than to make sure it never took up residence in my bathroom. I knew that mold could spread, but it never occurred to me that some molds, specifically slime molds, can move across areas intact. The dog vomit slime mold pictured below did just that. On the first day, it was a bright yellow blob above and to the left of a seashell. On the second day, my slime mold had changed color and started to engulf said seashell. I certainly didn’t expect that!
Glowing bananas and bursting stems
Because of my time in the garden, pruning and harvesting, I was able to see, firsthand, what happens to a stem when the water inside freezes.
I was surprised to learn that the sugary brown spots on ripe bananas glow when illuminated with a blacklight. You can use one of those penlights that tell you if a dollar bill is counterfeit.
Baby praying mantis, napping bees, and ambling grubs can all be surprise discoveries if you take the time to look for them.
Even watching a simple grub walking can surprise you.
I caged my fruit and nut trees to protect against bird, squirrel, and rat damage. Sometimes, small birds would still find their way into the tree cages. Once, a Cooper’s hawk managed to get in. I must assume he was trying to get at the songbird since the figs probably didn't appeal to him. I used my old wildlife rehabilitator skills to capture and release the magnificent bird properly. The songbird escaped on its own.
In the end, the closer you look, the more you see. And gardening never ceases to amaze and surprise me.
What has surprised you in the garden?
We’ve all had them. Moments when we realize that irreversible damage to a plant (or many plants) has occurred. Sometimes we can save them, and sometimes we can’t. Let’s look at some of the more common plant catastrophes and what can be done about them. Then I’ll share my plant catastrophe story. I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with fish.
Most plant catastrophes occur when plants are grown in containers, though not always. These disasters can occur suddenly or slowly over time.
Crashing to the ground
Potted plants are known to fall. A gust of wind, an exuberant pet, or a stray elbow can tip the scales of balance, sending a plant crashing to the ground. Containers are usually lost in these scenarios. Luckily, most plants can survive a fall. Discard the broken pottery, or you can save the pieces to cover the drainage hole in other containers. [Note: do not add a layer of shards, rocks, or gravel to the bottom of a planting container. This wastes space better dedicated to soil. A shard over the hole simply reduces soil loss.]
You may want to spread out a couple of sheets of newspaper before you begin. Gently collect your fallen plant and place it on the newspaper. Then you can sweep up the soil and debris, placing it on the newspaper, as well. This is an excellent opportunity to examine the roots of your fallen plant for signs of pests and disease. You may also find that your plant has become root bound. In that cases, you can either trim back the roots or provide it with a larger pot. If pests or diseases are present, you may want to shake off any soil and toss that soil in the trash. Wash the root system under running water. Remove any damaged or diseased roots before repotting. And remember, rather than tamping the soil down when planting, which only damages valuable root hairs, mud in your plant with water.
One of the most common causes of plant disasters is overwatering. It’s an honest mistake. The top of the soil looks dry. We want to care for our plants, so we water them. And then we water them again. And again. They start wilting, so we water them some more. [Plants can wilt because of too much or too little water.] What we don’t always realize is that the soil’s macropores and micropores can hold a lot of water. Those spaces are also supposed to hold air but the air is pushed out when too much water is present. Overwatering not only drowns and suffocates our plants, but it sets the stage for several fungal diseases and invites fungus gnats. More on insects below. The easiest solution to overwatering is to let plants dry out more often, provide good drainage, and invest in an inexpensive moisture meter.
On the flip side, failing to water a plant can certainly lead to disaster. Without water, plants cannot perform photosynthesis or remain upright for long. Put plant watering on a regular schedule that keeps the soil moist enough, but not too much. Again, a moisture meter is helpful. And if you know you are going to be away for a while, avoid the DIY idea of using diaper crystals to moisten your plants. It’s a bad idea. One easy self-watering idea is to place a water bottle next to the plant and lay a thin strip of cloth, paper towel, or yarn from the bottom of the water bottle to the planting soil. The soil will draw the water up the strip for as long as water is available.
Stray stink bugs and aphid clusters are common when working with plants, but sometimes they can get out of control. This is especially true for indoor plants where pests are protected from their natural predators. Here is a list of the most common indoor pest invaders and the ways to manage them.
Many insect invasions can be thwarted by placing new plants into quarantine when they first arrive.
My plant catastrophe
There was a time, many years ago, when my apartment was filled to overflowing with plants. It was lovely and I took great pride in their good health. I also had a fish tank. Every so often, I would treat my fish with brine shrimp. I would scoop the brine shrimp up with a net and deposit them in the tank. Their tiny legs would flutter in unison, caterpillar-like, as they tried escaping my fish, but they never got away.
On one occasion, I must’ve gotten a bad batch of brine shrimp. When I went to feed my fish, all the brine shrimp were dead. My young adult brain said, “Well, there are lots of nutrients in those brine shrimp, so I’ll give them to my plants.” I proceeded to pour the brine shrimp into each and every one of my beautiful, beloved plants. In a very short time, I saw firsthand what happens when you use brine (saltwater) to water your plants. Most of them died.
I didn’t know, at the time, that I could have saved more of those plants by removing them from their soil, washing the roots, and placing them into containers of fresh water. Live and learn, eh?
What’s your plant catastrophe story?
I learned my love of gardening as a child. It all started with a clear plastic cup, a black sponge, and four hard, dry corn seeds.
When I was very young, my mother bought us educational toys. Living in rural Upstate New York before laptops existed and while televisions were still rare, these toys were a real treat. In the early 1960s, children spent nearly all day, every day playing outside. The rule was, “Come home when the street lights go on.” Those were good times. But the arrival of a package from Creative Playthings was always very exciting.
A cup in a box
This particular shipment was to affect me all of my life. It was nothing more than a clear plastic cup, a black sponge that fit neatly inside the cup, four hard, dry corn kernels, and a piece of paper with instructions and a place to document what I observed. I was four years old.
The instructions told me to insert the sponge into the cup, which was easy enough. Then I was to slide the kernels of corn between the cup and the sponge, taking care to make sure that each kernel was pointing in a different direction. This was a little more difficult and required some patience on my part, but I recall feeling that it was important that I do this thing correctly. Nearly 60 years later, I can still feel and see the experience of pushing and prodding those seeds into position.
Just add water
Once my seeds were in place, all I had to do was add water and wait. Every day I checked on my seeds. Every day I checked to make sure the sponge was moist but not soggy. At first, nothing happened. I diligently noted this lack of activity on my record sheet. I’m sure I felt the same frustration and worry that I still feel at times toward slow-to-germinate seeds. But then, things started happening.
The magic of germination
My child-sized fingers knew how hard and pointy those corn seeds had been. To see tiny roots and shoots emerge was nothing less than miraculous. No matter which way the kernels had been turned, those first roots always knew to go down, while the first shoots always found a way to move upward, even if it took some twisting and turning.
Every day, I drew pictures of what my corn seeds-turned-seedlings looked like. Eventually, we planted them outside, but I don’t think they did very well. [Corn needs to be planted in clusters that allow for wind pollination.] It didn’t matter. I was hooked. It amazed me. It still does.
My first gardening experience is with me still. It taught me patience, nurturing, and good record-keeping. It left me with a sense of awe about the growing process.
What was your first gardening experience?
Why do I garden?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times. I’ve also wondered why so many people do not garden. I can’t speak to that one, but I can certainly share what I enjoy about caring for plants.
Gardening is my art
After many years in the Nevada desert at Burning Man, I have come to learn that everyone is creative. There are no exceptions. Some people are more connected to their art than others, but there are no uncreative people. Gardening gives me an outlet for my creativity.
I look at a space and see where it could be made better, more productive, or nicer to look at. Sometimes that means adding plants and other times it means taking them away. The tabula rasa of a traditional lawn provides the canvas for a massive artichoke plant that disappears each July, a slow and steady pairing of pineapple guava and dwarf pomegranate, each with their spring blossoms and fruitful harvests. A simple backyard of lawn and shrubs can be transformed into a miniature forest of fruit and nut trees, raised beds, and a surprising amount of delicious homegrown food. That is my art. Of course, plants are always growing and changing, so what worked before might not work later on. That’s okay. I believe that the transitory nature of plants is one of the appeals of gardening
In the garden, things are always changing. And sometimes, things don’t work out. Not enough sun, too much water, compacted soil, many things can go wrong but that’s okay, too. There’s always next year. And the year after that. Gardening gives me a chance to learn from my mistakes and try new things.
Gardening is good for me
Gardening is good for me physically and mentally. Working the soil improves mood. So does being outside and surrounded by nature. The bending, lifting, digging and carrying that come with gardening help me stay active and strong. I think the regular reminder of the importance of water to plant life reminds me to stay hydrated, as well. All that vitamin D is good, too, as long as I remember to wear a hat and sunscreen.
Gardening reminds me that things worth having always take time, effort, and patience. And nurturing all those plants feels good, and they never criticize or judge me.
Gardening builds community
Gifts to friends, family, and neighbors from the home garden strengthen those bonds. Talking about gardening successes and failures brings us closer together. Sharing a harvest with those less fortunate eases everyone’s burdens. We are a social, tribal species and we are at our best when we work together toward common goals. The modern world doesn’t offer as many opportunities for that sort of work. Many people spend much of each day looking at a computer screen during the day and a TV screen at night. Gardening helps us stay connected.
Gardening is good for the world
Foods shipped from around the world are costly in many ways, even when they are cheaper than locally grown produce. Plants grown for storage and shipping are often less flavorful than those grown at home. And all the fossil fuels used to ship and transport those fruits and vegetables can’t be good for the air we breathe.
Gardening puts me in control, sort of
To be honest, one of the things I love about gardening is the sense of control it gives me. I can prune a tree into any shape I want. I can plant a row of rainbow-colored flowers if I so choose. I can try every type of radish in existence if I feel so inclined. In a world that grows ever more complicated and confusing with too many features and not enough reliable functionalities, gardening provides me with a sense of being in control, even if that feeling is fleeting and mostly inaccurate.
When I garden, I eat better, sleep better, and feel better. Gardening makes me a better version of myself.
Why do you garden?
While your butternut squash may be stored for a year, strawberries seem to go bad before your very eyes. The way you store your harvest can extend its usefulness and reduce waste.
Peak of freshness
We prefer harvesting and enjoying the fruits of our labor at their peak of freshness and sweetness. This is why my little yellow cherry tomatoes and groundcherries rarely make it into the house. Of course, if we ate everything as soon as it ripened, we wouldn’t have anything left for later, and we’d probably have a stomachache.
Temperature, humidity, and time are the major factors determining freshness when it comes to fruits and vegetables. For any harvest that isn’t eaten right away, there are several things you can do to help maintain flavor and quality.
Location, location, location
Where fruits and vegetables are stored makes a big difference in how long they stay fresh. Some produce belongs on your countertop and some need a dry, cool, dark place. Other fruits and vegetables will stay their best in the crisper drawer, while others are best stored on a refrigerator shelf. We’ll get to the particulars in a moment.
Another freshness factor revolves around the packaging materials used. This has a lot to do with ethylene gas. Ethylene gas is the chemical responsible for ripening, and some fruits produce more than others, while others are very sensitive to the ethylene produced by their neighbors. Apples, bananas, celery, and onions produce a lot of ethylene gas and should be stored away from other fruits and vegetables. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots, green beans, and unripe bananas are very ethylene-sensitive and require protection. You may want to consider designating one crisper drawer for non-ethylene-sensitive produce, such as berries and citrus.
That protection normally comes in the form of plastic bags and reusable containers. One of my new faves when it comes to food storage is beeswax wraps. They are cloth dipped in beeswax. They work better than I expected, and they’re good for the environment. Other containers include paper bags and damp paper towels, depending on the crop. The best way to keep celery fresh is to wrap it in a paper towel and then aluminum foil.
Contrary to what you might expect, it is better if you do not wash produce before storing it. While you certainly want to brush off any soil or debris, it is better to hold off on washing until you are ready to use it. Any residual water sets the stage for rot, so be sure to dry anything you have to wash before storing. You can also extend the life of your cilantro and asparagus by storing them upright in the fridge with the cut ends in water. And remove carrot, radish, and other leafy tops before storing.
People used ice to keep food from going bad for a very long time. The first refrigerator was built in 1834. Crisper drawers were invented one year later. Crisper drawers work by maintaining higher humidity levels than are found in the rest of the refrigerator. Most crisper drawers have closeable vents. When the vent is shut, humidity is higher. This is ideal for your leafy greens. When that vent is open, humidity levels drop. This is better for things like apples and pears. Having the vent open also releases some of the ethylene gas that speeds ripening.
Perishable food is best stored at 37°F to 41°F (3°C to 5°C). These cooler temperatures reduce bacterial growth, thereby slowing rot and decomposition. That’s why refrigerators are such a good idea. But your fridge’s temperatures vary.
Refrigerators have a variety of temperature zones. The front of the top shelf and the meat drawer are the coldest, making them the best places for your eggs, butter, and meat. Your apples will last the longest if stored on the back of the top shelf. The back of the middle shelf is colder than the front, making it a good place for leftovers, while the front of the middle shelf is ideal for melons and beans. The back of the bottom shelf is also a good long-term storage spot, but the front of this shelf is often the warmest part of your fridge, making it ideal for corn, mushrooms, and other cold-sensitive produce. As for the door, higher means warmer, and lower means colder.
Before your harvest starts to shrivel or rot, decide which items need long-term storage. You can slice, blanch, and freeze summer squash. While it tends to break down with cooking, it still makes excellent additions to soups and stews long after the summer sun has left your garden.
Herbs can be dried. And if you end up with too many grapes, you can always hang clusters in a corner of your kitchen, or loose on a steamer until they turn into raisins. It really works.
Canning, drying, and pickling are other long-term storage options. And be sure to check with friends, neighbors, and local charities to see if they could use some of your abundant harvest.
Finally, remember the adage: when in doubt, throw it out. Or add it to the compost pile.
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.