Gardening with Xpress: Common missteps new gardeners make in WNC

GREEN THUMB: Xpress welcomes new contributing writer and garden expert Chloe Lieberman, who will offer monthly gardening tips through September. Photo by Mason McDonald

by Chloe Lieberman 

Hi, Xpress readers, and welcome to my new monthly feature with the paper.

My name is Chloe Lieberman, and I’m an avid grower, eater and lover of garden goodness. I’ve been sowing seeds for nearly 20 years, including the last nine in Western North Carolina. I’m an instructor for the Wild Abundance Online Gardening School ( and I use practical, effective organic approaches.

Through September, I’ll be answering your gardening questions. You can email all inquiries to I look forward to hearing from you!

To start things off, I’ve selected a frequent question I’ve received over the years: “What are some common missteps people make when starting their first garden?”

Below are several things to keep in mind as you plan out your project.

Start small

What small means for you will be based on your circumstances. The goal is to choose a pace and a scale that’s doable for your energy, resources and lifestyle. It’s easy to want to grow all the things right away, but that’s also a recipe for overwhelm and disappointment. For your first year of gardening, I recommend choosing one-five of your favorite vegetables (a maximum of eight, if you’re feeling ambitious). Remember, you can always add to your plot down the line.

Pay attention to your soil

Your garden will only be as healthy as your soil. This is the plant-kingdom version of “you are what you eat.” Soil matters, since that’s where plants get their nourishment. If you have a disappointing gardening experience, chances are it’s because your loving care didn’t extend downward into the earth.

Here in the mountains, we tend to have lots of clay, medium to low organic matter and minerals, and our soils have a naturally low pH, meaning they’re slightly acidic. Most garden vegetables like a mix of sand, silt and clay (larger, medium and tiny particles), as well as high organic matter and minerals along with near neutral pH. Boosting the soil’s capacity to grow great vegetables takes time, no matter how you approach it. Generally speaking, the more amendments like compost and mineral powders you can add, the quicker the process.

A simple recipe for success is to add organic compost and/or manure, high-calcium lime (if your soil’s pH is low), a mineral amendment like Azomite, SEA-90 or kelp powder, and a concentrated source of plant macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

One very helpful step toward tending fertile soil, if you’re starting a new garden in the ground, is to get a soil test. This will give you specific baseline information to work from, like the actual pH and nutrient availability of your garden. Our local agricultural extension agencies offer soil testing for a small fee, but I prefer the more in-depth information that’s provided by mailing a soil sample to Logan Labs (

If you’re opting for a container garden, Asheville Mulch Yard has good base mixes to choose from. Even though many of them contain compost, in my experience they still require additional amendments (like those mentioned above for any garden), in order to give hungry vegetables what they need to thrive.

What’s in your backyard?

Another very important consideration is which vegetables like our conditions in WNC, generally, as well as the conditions in your yard, specifically. Trying to grow something that’s not suited to the conditions you can offer is a recipe for struggle and setbacks.

For example, since it freezes in the winter, we can’t grow lemons and other tender perennials without bringing them inside in the cold season. And, because we live in a temperate rainforest, our gardens have to contend with myriad diseases that drier places don’t worry about.

That means growing something as seemingly simple as tomatoes can be tougher here, due to all the fungal pathogens that moisture welcomes. This isn’t to say don’t grow tomatoes! Just learn the tricks to warding off blights and rots, like maximizing airflow with good support and pruning, minimizing leaf-to-soil-contact and never watering the plants themselves, just the soil at their bases.

Zooming in a little further, take note of the growing conditions in your yard and don’t try to work against limitations like limited sun or toxic plants. We are fortunate to live amid beautiful trees here, but that can also mean shady gardening. If you try to grow melons in the shade, you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, semi-shade conditions can be great for leaf crops like lettuce, kale, chard and cilantro, especially during the height of summer when the shade helps keep things cooler.

Also, look out for some of the common wild plants in our area that can be toxic to certain vegetables, notably black walnut and rhododendron. Specifically, black walnut can inhibit the growth of nightshades (in the botanical family solanaceae, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, tobacco, etc.); decomposing rhododendron leaves can inhibit seed germination.

Along with their needs for balanced soil, light and moisture, garden plants have their favored seasons; not everything that grows well here will flourish year-round. For example, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage can thrive in these mountains, but only in the cooler weather of spring and fall. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are a heat-loving crop that really doesn’t do much growing until the soil warms up in late May or early June.

It’s easy to get really excited about gardening at the first signs of spring, but if you plant warm-season crops like sweet potatoes too early, you may lose them to late frosts. Our friends over at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia have put together a simple planting guide that will help you dial in right timing for bigger bounty. Learn more at

Those are the common missteps that I’ve seen gardeners make around here. Hopefully what I’ve shared will help you avoid them! I’d love to hear what other challenges have come up for you in your garden. Again, send me your questions at


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