Category Archives: Garden Advice

10 Common Garden Questions

We get a lot of gardening questions at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and we try to answer as many as possible. Unfortunately, we’re a small organization with only so much time during the day. So today, we decided to try to answer some of the common questions we get. Hopefully, you’ll find some of your questions answered:

When do I plant [insert crop here]?

Figuring out exactly when to plant your crops can be challenging, especially for new gardeners. Some crops have relatively wide planting windows, and others have narrow ones. We’re dealing with a changing climate and variable weather conditions. You also may be considering succession planting and fall crops.

While we can’t give everyone an exact answer for all their crops, we know how to get you started. First, find out what your hardiness zone is. This will give you your average last spring frost date and first fall frost date. From there, you can use our growing guides to calculate when you should plant. They include information like, “Plant four weeks before your average last first.”

Alternatively, we recommend you use our Garden Planner. It can give you personalized planting dates and help you lay out your garden. 

ground hogHow do I keep groundhogs from eating my plants?

Groundhogs can be a major problem for vegetable gardens. They love most of the same vegetables we do and have few boundaries. Unlike deer, they also tend to dig under fencing.

You can find some fencing with spikes that go down into the earth to prevent groundhogs from digging under. Some folks also find that a single low strand of electric near the bottom of their fence will deter them.

You should also be safe to grow fragrant Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, lavender, basil, thyme, and oregano outside your fencing. Some flowers, such as daffodils, delphiniums, foxgloves, and butterfly weed, are also safe.

Lastly, you can try sprays. Some gardeners find that an egg mixture sprayed on plants will deter groundhogs and other hungry wildlife. There are organic commercial sprays available as well, like Plantskydd. Most of these sprays must be applied fairly frequently and every time it rains.

Why won’t my root vegetables germinate?

There are several reasons that seeds won’t germinate, and some root crops may have more finicky seeds than vegetables like tomatoes and green beans. However, one of the most significant issues we see is consistent moisture. 

Carrots, especially, thrive when soil is kept consistently moist. One trick is to lay cardboard or boards over your rows of germinating carrots. These hold in moisture. Just be sure to check them daily after a couple of days and remove them as soon as you see the plants have sprouted.

You should also store your seeds properly and do a simple germination test for seed you saved at home or stored for multiple years.

Why won’t my root vegetable produce well?

We can’t pinpoint the issue without being there in person, but there are a few common issues with root vegetable production. One of the most straightforward issues to fix is your spacing. Ensure you are correctly thinning your root crops so they don’t compete for space, light, and nutrients.

Nutrient imbalances can also affect root crop production. Too much nitrogen can encourage crops like beets to produce a lot of beautiful foliage but little root growth. Low phosphorus levels can also decrease root production. A soil test may help you understand what is happening with your root vegetables.

Lastly, aphids and other pests can do enough damage to restrict production. Begin watching for signs of pest issues early and treat them accordingly. 

How do I keep deer out of the garden?

Unfortunately, the best way to deal with deer is usually fencing. Experts generally recommend an 8-foot-tall fence to keep out white-tailed deer. However, a visual barrier, like string lines or flags above a shorter fence, can help deter deer. 

Some folks also find that shorter electric fences are a good enough deterrent for deer. Smaller spaces are also less susceptible because deer don’t like to jump into enclosed spaces. For this reason, two rows of shorter fencing, with one a few feet inside the other, are usually adequate. 

heirloom squash southern exposure seed organic growing tipsHow do I deal with vine borers?

Vine borers are a major pest in the southeastern United States. One way to battle the borers is to choose resistant squash. Squashes in the Pepo family tend to be very susceptible to vine borers, while squashes in the Moschata family, like Tromboncino, are not as susceptible. 

Depending on where you live and how long your growing season is, you can avoid vine borers by planting your summer squash at the end of July. Adult vine borers typically lay eggs in late June or early July, so your late planting of squash won’t be mature until after vine borers are finished laying eggs.

Lastly, crop rotation can significantly impact vine borers. Once squash borers feed for 4-6 weeks, they burrow into the soil, where they spend the winter pupating. Moving your squash each season can help you avoid them.

Why do my tomatoes have blossom end rot?

Blossom end rot is a common issue in tomatoes, and we see so many folks asking for help with it on social media. Unfortunately, most of the advice we see on social media isn’t entirely reliable or helpful. We often see folks instructed to water their plants with milk or bury Epsom salts or eggshells beside them. 

As blossom end rot is caused by a calcium deficiency, it’s understandable why people would believe these may help. However, a plant with a calcium deficiency rarely means that the soil has a calcium deficiency. Usually, the plant has another issue, causing it to fail to take up enough calcium.

Plants absorb calcium through their root tips. Insufficient watering or saturated soils during fruit production can both make the plant struggle to get enough calcium, as can fertilizer burn on the root tips. Overfertilizing or excessive nitrogen can also cause an explosion of growth that the plant can’t keep up with. If it doesn’t absorb calcium fast enough to meet the growing fruit’s needs, the result is blossom end rot. 

Why don’t you carry more native varieties?

We love seeing the interest in native species and hope to sell more native seed in the future. Right now, a relatively small portion of our crops are native varieties, including herbs and flowers like skullcap, lemon bergamot, goldenseal, and butterfly weed.

However, growing native species for seed is much trickier than most vegetable crops. For starters, many of these native species thrive in growing conditions far different from those in our vegetable gardens. Think about species like goldenseal that grow in the forest shade.

Another feature that makes them tricky is their germination requirements. Many of these species need cold stratification or a period of moist cold before they will have good germination rates. This allows these species to survive in the wild, where, in this temperate climate, they would experience a moist cold period each winter. Other crops need a long period to germinate or have specific germination requirements we don’t fully understand. 

Further, many native species are perennials. Perennial plants generally require several years of growth before they begin producing a good amount of seed. Even once you get through all that, harvesting seed from native plants differs from most cultivated plants.

If you would like more native species, Prairie Moon Nursery is a good option. 

How do I tell when [insert crop here] is ripe?

Sometimes, it can be challenging to tell exactly when to harvest certain crops, especially if you’ve never grown them before. You can’t see how your potatoes look under the soil or what a melon looks like inside. So how do we know when to pick them?

It varies with each crop. Harvest information is included in all of our growing guides so you know to look for the dried tendril on a watermelon and to harvest your potatoes for storage after the plant has died back.

How often should I water my garden?

Generally speaking, most gardens require an average of 1 to 2 inches of water per week, which can come from rain or watering. Placing a few containers throughout your garden with 1 inch marked on them can help you see how much water your garden is getting while it’s raining or you’re running a sprinkler.

That said, you should always check your soil before making assumptions. In cool or very humid climates, you may need less water. You may need more in arid climates, hot periods, or with certain water-hungry crops.

When checking your soil, dig down a couple of inches. The soil may be dry on top and very wet below. You can grab a handful of soil (not just from the surface) and do a quick check. Squeeze the handful of soil and then open your hand. If the soil falls apart, it’s probably still too dry. If it mostly clumps together, you have enough moisture. If water dripped from your hand while you squeezed, you probably overwatered.

You can also invest in a moisture meter if you would like a quick and clean way to check on your soil conditions.


Hopefully, this post provided some helpful answers. We love hearing from all of our growers and encourage you to continue commenting on your garden questions on Facebook and Instagram. We look forward to helping with your garden concerns and will answer as many as we can!

9 Ideas for a Sustainable Garden

This past Monday was Earth Day. While we recognize the need for institutional change, we’re also big believers in doing what you can on an individual or community scale. Here are a few great ways that you can create a sustainable garden and make an impact in honor of Earth Day. 

Start Composting

According to the EPA, food and other organic materials comprise 51.4% of municipal solid waste in landfills. Not only does this lead to wasted space, but it also contributes to climate change. When organic waste like food scraps, coffee grounds, and grass clippings ends up in a landfill, it decays under anaerobic conditions and produces methane gas.

Composting allows these organic materials to decay in normal aerobic conditions, preventing the release of methane. It also helps build healthy soil for your garden. Get started with our beginner composting guide.

Practice Water Wise Gardening

Depending on where you live, your area may be experiencing increasing droughts. Thankfully, there are several ways to reduce your water usage in the garden. Use mulch around plants and in rows to hold in moisture. Cover crops and vining, leafy crops also shade the soil, acting as living mulch. Choose drought-tolerant plants when you can, especially if water is already an issue in your area. 

When you do water, try to use soaker hoses or drip irrigation and water in the morning or evening to mitigate loss to evaporation. Pulse irrigation is also a relatively new technique that’s showing promising results, especially for commercial growers.

Avoid Plastic

Plastic is now so prevalent in agriculture; there’s a word for it: plasticulture. We see it in home gardens, too; from the flats we start seeds in, to the black plastic mulch, and hoop house covers. While we can’t ask you to give up plastic entirely, everyone should strive to cut back.

Consider using a soil blocker or newspaper pots to start seeds. Avoid plastic mulch, opting for natural materials like wood chips, cardboard, and old leaves. Re-use existing plastic for as long as possible. When it’s time to retire the greenhouse cover, try using it to cover low tunnels.

A lacewing on a leaf (attract beneficial insects)
Lacewing (Chrysopidae spp.)

Use Integrated Pest Management

Most backyard gardeners try to avoid pesticide use, as even organic options can inadvertently affect other species. One way we can further this goal is through integrated pest management strategies. These primarily include strategies for preventing pest problems like crop rotation, trap crops, attracting beneficial insects and wildlife, and companion planting.

Donate or Giveaway Food You Can’t Use

Food waste is a massive problem in the United States. It’s estimated that 30 to 40% of food in the U.S., over 130 billion pounds, ends up in landfills each year. These statistics are even sadder when we consider that 12.8% of Americans, approximately 44.2 million individuals, lack access to an affordable, nutritious diet. 

While much of this waste occurs on a commercial scale, gardeners can ensure that the food we produce isn’t wasted. Consider donating excess produce to a food bank, giving it away to neighbors and friends, or even setting up a free stand or table.

Opt for Human-Powered Tools When Possible

We’re not telling you to ditch all of your lawn and garden equipment, but cutting back on your fuel usage is a wonderful thing. Whenever you can opt for human-powered equipment or no equipment at all.

Consider going no-till, using a reel mower or scythe for small areas, and mulching to eliminate the need for cultivation.

Minimize Fertilizer Use

Fertilizer can seem like a miracle when you see your plants thriving, but it can also have negative impacts. The production and use of fertilizer contribute to nitrous oxide emissions, which contribute to a warmer and wetter climate.

Excess fertilizer also tends to wash away, ending up in groundwater, streams, and other local water sources, where it causes toxic algae blooms. These algae blooms impact fish and other aquatic wildlife and can even make people extremely sick. 

RudbeckiaChoose Appropriate Plants

Choosing appropriate plants will look different for every garden, but we like to consider a few basic tenets when selecting plants for a sustainable garden. 

First, avoid invasive, non-native that spread aggressively. Many invasive species have been introduced incidentally, but others are spreading because gardeners continue to plant them, primarily as ornamentals. Here are a few good examples of common invasive plants and more eco-friendly alternatives:

  • Avoid Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana). Instead, try a crab apple, other fruit tree, or native dogwood. 
  • Avoid Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Try a native honeysuckle like Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).
  • Avoid Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis). Plant the native American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens).
  • Avoid Lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor). Try a native, shade-loving ground cover like Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica).

Secondly, we look for low-maintenance plants whenever possible. These are the plants that will thrive in our garden and specific climates without high inputs of water, fertilizer, or pesticides. Here in the southeastern United States, some good examples include:

  • Echinacea (coneflowers)
  • Dent Corn
  • Collards
  • Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans)
  • Pole Beans

All plants may still have occasional problems, but these plants aren’t generally taxing to tend.

Save Seed

Seed saving is one of our favorite recommendations for taking your garden to the next level. By saving your seed, you’re helping preserve genetic diversity and adapt varieties to your local climate. Check out our beginner-friendly seed-saving post. 


Implementing just a couple of changes can help you create a sustainable garden. Thankfully, many of these changes can also help increase production and reduce issues and costs associated with the garden. Happy Earth Day!

7 Tips for Growing Potatoes

Potatoes can be one of the easiest staple crops to grow, providing pounds of food for relatively little effort. Unfortunately, they can also have many problems! If you’ve struggled to grow large harvests of good-quality potatoes, you’re not alone. Thankfully, there are a few simple steps to take to have a more successful year. Here are our best tips for growing potatoes.

Always Rotate Your Potatoes & Nightshades

Unfortunately, potatoes are susceptible to a number of diseases, including the destructive pathogen Phytophthora infestans, which caused the late potato blight of the notorious potato famine.

One of the best ways to avoid this and other diseases is to always rotate your potato crops, ideally on a three to four-year rotation. This rotation should include all the other nightshades that could play host to the same diseases, including peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, okra, and eggplants. Don’t plant any of these in the same bed for three to four years.

Water Consistently While Growing Potatoes

Many folks don’t irrigate potatoes even if they water their other crops. The assumption is that potatoes are a bit tougher. While they are in some ways, inconsistent watering can lead to decreased production and serious issues like hollow heart a type of cell death inside the tuber that creates a hollow in the center.

Potatoes should receive 1 to 2 inches of water or rain per week. This is crucial while they’re flowering and forming tubers. When the potato plants start to turn yellow and die back, you can discontinue watering to allow for a drier, easier harvest.

Flowering potato plant with potato beetle larvae
Flowering potato plant with potato beetle larvae

Watch for Potato Beetles

Colorado potato beetles (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) can be a major issue for many gardeners, defoliating entire plants. Unfortunately, they’re resistant to many pesticides, both organic and conventional. The best way to deal with them is to watch for them carefully and handpick them into a bucket of soap water. You can also smash the eggs and larvae.

Check out this helpful University of Minnesota Extension article to learn how to identify them in their different life stages.

Get Your Soil Tested

 for Growing Potatoes

Potatoes aren’t super picky, but they do perform best in specific soil conditions. Light, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter is ideal. They thrive in acidic soil when the pH is 4.8 – 5.5. Potatoes are more susceptible to scab in soil with a pH of 6.0 or higher.

Potatoes also need good levels of certain nutrients. To produce well, they need decent levels of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Low potassium levels can also contribute to issues like hollow heart. Adding good quality compost to your soil can help with these things, but it’s worth getting a soil test, especially if you’ve had problems in the past. 

Hill Up Your Potatoes When the Stems Reach 6 to 8 Inches Tall

Re-burying your potato stems may seem like an odd idea, especially if you’re new to gardening, but it is crucial for good potato harvests. Potatoes produce tubers along the stem; when you hill them up so that only the top leaves stick out of the soil, new potatoes form along the stem in the new section of soil.

Hilling potatoes also helps with weed and moisture control and minimizes greening on potatoes that may have been forming near the surface. It also helps keep the soil cooler in the heat of summer.
Rows of potato plants (growing potatoes)

Plant a Late Potato Crop for Storage

If you just grow a few potatoes for fresh eating, you can plant them in early spring. Many folks choose St. Patrick’s Day as the traditional spring planting day. However, if you want good storage potatoes, planting some late potatoes is a good idea. We usually plant a second batch in June. These late potatoes may have a lower yield but store better for winter eating.

Harvest, Cure, and Store Potatoes Properly

You can gently harvest a few fresh potatoes about 2 to 3 weeks after the plants flower. However, your main harvest should come 2 to 3 weeks after the plants have died back completely. This ensures they will keep well. Then, potatoes must be adequately cured before they can go into storage.

Visit our Harvesting and Curing Potatoes post for the full process.


There are many wonderful potato varieties available for the home garden, from tried-and-true favorites like Yukon Gold to newer varieties like the beautiful Adirondack Blue. These potatoes make excellent, productive staple crops, especially if you give them a little care. Follow these seven tips for growing potatoes to have a successful harvest this season.