We Spoke With Joe Lamp’l About “The Vegetable Gardening Book”

Gardening personality Joe Lamp'l (a/k/a the "Joe" in joe gardener) spoke with us about discovering gardening, growing vegetables, his new book and more.

by Rodney Wilson
PHOTO: courtesy of Cool Springs Press

Known to many as “joe gardener,” gardening enthusiast Joe Lamp’l has, over the years, become the voice and inspiration for thousands of growers across the globe. Whether through his long-running DIY Network production, “Fresh from the Garden”; his PBS must-see TV show, “Growing a Greener World”; his podcast, “The joe gardener Show” or his myriad media and print appearances, Lamp’l is an unabashed cheerleader for getting yourself out to the garden.

He’s also the author of three books, with his most recent, ““The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest,” hitting shelves just this month. Lamp’l took a few minutes out from his busy schedule to speak with us about his own experiences as a grower, his passion for teaching and inspiring growers, the big ideas behind his most recent book and more.

Hobby Farms: How did you first become interested in growing?

Joe Lamp’l: I grew up in Miami, Florida, where everything grows. As the youngest of four boys, my next-youngest brother was five years older than me. So when I was 8, he was 13 and really had no interest in hanging out with me. So he was off doing his thing, and I was hanging out with my dad, who I called the Weekend Warrior. He had his week job, day-to-day, in insurance, but on the weekends, he’d go out there and mow the grass, edge the driveway, trim the bushes to get everything looking good again. And I would just tag along and help him out. I loved that.

But at the end of the day—or at least when he was through—he went inside to relax and I still had some energy in me at 8 years old. So I was running around the yard and came back, recklessly, across one of the bushes that he had just got through trimming. And I accidentally broke a branch off of it.

I did not want to get discovered for that, so the best thing I knew to do was cover my tracks. I took that broken branch and shoved it into the ground right next to  the base of the parent plant. I pushed dirt around it and went about my business, hoping that I wouldn’t get found out.

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Fast forward about eight weeks, maybe, I came back by that bush and had totally forgotten about it. But when I went back by there, it triggered my memory that this was the branch that I had broken, and I looked down to find the broken branch.

But I couldn’t find it … until I started narrowing it down to the one branch, and I realized that, yes, this is the one. Except it wasn’t dead. In fact, it had sprouted new leaves and started to root a little bit.

I was blown away. I could not get over how that happened and was fascinated. That is truly the moment I said I was hooked on horticulture. From that point, I just started planting more branches—though I’d cut them, not break them. I’d stick them in the ground and watch them regrow themselves and become new plants.

And then I started getting my parents to buy seeds, so I started planting seeds into clay pots. Along the outside of my parents’ bedroom window, there was a good place there, so I made a garden. That was the first place that I planted vegetable seeds—bush bean seeds. And they grew!

I didn’t know about right place, sun exposure or anything like that. I just made a trough, stuck seeds in there and watered them, and they grew.

Of course, those beans were the very best I ever had in my life. So it just went from there. Every day I wanted to know more. My love of gardening in all genres—especially food gardening, but I did roses and that stuff, too—really took off from that moment and never, never stopped.

As a home gardener, I had my own vegetable garden. But then I was picked after a national search from DIY Network/HGTV to find a host for a new show they had created. It didn’t have a name yet, but we named it Fresh from the Garden. That was in 2002. It was supposed to be one year and 26 episodes of teaching people how to grow food, with every isolated on one particular crop.

One episode, you would watch me teach you how to grow tomatoes, for example, from seed or seedling to harvest. So each episode took four or five months, the full growing cycle, to help people see how to do the whole process. Then the next episode would be another crop—beans, eggplant, squash, all the way through. The show was going so well, they decided to turn it into 52 episodes over three years.

The only reason it stopped then was because we ran out of things to grow. We’d covered everything!

I was honored to be the person to teach the world (or at least the country) to grow vegetables and food. We had a great, successful three seasons. That just reinforced and enhanced my love and passion for vegetable gardening. That was 20 years ago, and it’s only increased from there.

Read more: Get the most from fall growing with a raised bed garden!

HF: Have you seen an increased interest in growing food in your own interactions?

Lamp’l: I have totally seen that! I had started ahead of COVID—ironically and thankfully—the Online Gardening Academy, where I had created courses to help people go deep on particular subjects. Thank goodness, the first course I ever created, in 2018, was Beginner Gardening Fundamentals, and we’d continued to enhance it.

And here comes 2020, and that course is out there relaunching—we relaunched it each year—right as COVID is hitting.

There was a dramatic difference from prior years. We added a lot of new gardeners. And the more home gardeners we have, the less food miles we’ve got and the more control as people take over their own gardens and utilize that space that they’ve got—however small it may be—to grow some of their own food.

It thrills me that they’re doing that.

HF: How has interacting with passionate growers over the years impacted your approach to gardening?

Lamp’l: It inspires me all the time. It always gives me something new that I can learn. I’ve been gardening since I was 8 years old, and I still learn something new every day. If I don’t, I didn’t try.

Sometimes it just hits me in the face. Other times, I’m looking for something new to learn. Having that unique opportunity to go out there and meet face to face with new gardeners all over the country—people that are heroes of mine that I’ve met online or elsewhere—then I’m able to coordinate with them to meet for a podcast or a television episode … I don’t take that lightly, and I know that I am so fortunate to be able to do that.

And then being able to ask them my questions, as well as the questions other people have as we find the story in that. It’s not hard to find the story, but having the opportunity over about three days with each person, to get to know them and break bread with them and have those conversations, that story that you didn’t even know you had emerges from that.

It only gets better from having that direct, intimate contact with them on an informal, casual, gardener-to-gardener basis. It is a thrill, a joy and an honor to be able to do that, and I’m so thankful.

Can you speak to the emotional impact, beyond all the technical growing stuff, that watching a plant grow has on you?

It wows me. It awes me every day.

I often say, you know, I’ve always loved gardening. But I love gardening more today, and tomorrow I’m going to love it even more than today. That’s because I never stop learning. No two days are the same. I’m going to see something tomorrow I’ve never seen before. I’m going to be in awe of some insect flying around or something.

I’ve seen a lot over the years, but it’s amazing that I can still feel the same way and get goosebumps, day after day, having the opportunity to be in the garden. If you just sit there quietly for a minute or two, you see something new. There’s nothing else that I can think of that comes close to that.

When I talk to gardeners and would-be gardeners, I tell them that, if they haven’t experienced that yet, it’s just one more element that makes gardening so amazingly special. You get to observe nature’s wonders up close and intimate.

Those moments never stop, and I never cease to be amazed and awed by that.

Can you share your inspiration for writing The Vegetable Gardening Book?

My last book prior to this was 15 years ago—The Green Gardener’s Guide. That was my second book, and I didn’t think I’d ever write another book. And Jessica Walliser with Cool Springs Press continued to ask me about her next book idea that she wanted me to write, and I kept saying, “No, no, no.” I just don’t have the time anymore.

Then she told me she wanted the next complete guide to vegetable gardening book written. When she painted that picture for me, to be the author of the next great vegetable gardening book, I wanted to be that person. I felt like I need to be that person, really, because I am so passionate about inspiring new gardeners with a focus on growing food. I recognize it as so important for themselves, our future, for climate change—all of those things. It’s almost a calling and a mission for me beyond whether or not I have time to do it.

I wasn’t going to initiate that project, but when she facilitated that for me and made it as easy as possible, I couldn’t say no. I knew in my heart of hearts that I had to say yes.

Read more: Do you have food security concerns? Well, it’s time to start a garden!

HF: What can people expect to learn from The Vegetable Gardening Book?

Lamp’l: My total catchphrase is that I want to help you take the guesswork out of gardening by teaching you the “why do” behind the “how to” so that you can become a better, smarter, more confident gardener. That’s my credo, so I think about that behind everything that I do related to gardening and teaching people.

When I wrote the book, I wanted readers, as they read those words, to hear my voice in such a way that they felt like they were with me in the garden at that time, talking about that crop or that process. Talking about improving the soil or why compost is so important, why mulch is so important. Why we need to be such good stewards when we deal with our pest and disease challenges.

I wanted them to hear that in my voice and my ethos, how I approach all of those things, because they work. I know they work, and I want people to understand that, if they do these things this way, they can do it, too, and have just as much success.

But gardening can be intimidating. And a lot of times people follow the how-to steps without ever stopping long enough to figure out why they need to do those steps. Why are those steps important? I always say, it’s like a cook following a recipe card. They go down the list of the steps and they make that dish.

Gardening can be like that. But that’s not going to make you a better, smarter, more confident gardener. It’s not going to take the guesswork out of gardening. You gotta understand the why do behind the how to.

In the book, that’s what my objective and hope was from start to finish. If I connect with some people that way, it’s a success.

And specifically what people can learn: They can learn all the best practices for becoming an organic vegetable gardener. Then they can learn how to grow what we call “The Fab 40”: the top 20 warm season and top 20 cool season crops, with a couple popular vegetables mixed in to make up that top 40.

It gives the down and dirty, kind of like baseball card information that they need to know, as well as anecdotes and observations from me  My favorite varieties and tips on storing, harvesting—whatever the challenges are of that particular crop, I call those out.

HF: What would you say to someone interested in growing some food but intimidated or concerned about limitations?

Lamp’l: I would say there are no obstacles to growing food. You can grow lettuce or arugula on an apartment balcony. Or you can even grow indoors these days with [smart gardens]. There are systems in place that take all of the concern, doubt and lack of knowledge out of the way.

But what I tell people is, never wait until you feel like you know enough to start gardening. The only way you’re going to know enough to garden is to start gardening. That may be simply sticking a seed in the ground from a pack that somebody gave you. But if you read the information on the seed pack, you planted according to the directions and then see what happens—and do a little homework along the way if you want to—you’re going to learn from that!

Be ready to make mistakes, and embrace them. Because that’s how you’re really going to learn. Try to understand what happened, what went wrong or why didn’t this work out? That’s the way you advance your knowledge, skill, confidence and desire to move forward.

The other thing? Start slow. People can get very overwhelmed quickly because the plants, in their DNA, want to grow. They want to be successful. Blind luck can give them what they need to do that.

So I would say, just do it. Never be concerned or worry about the space constraints. There is a plant for you to grow, and the only way you’re ever going to learn is to do it. Start, and don’t waste any time.

HF: Finally, why is it important for people to grow their own vegetables?

Lamp’l: The first reason is that it’s fun! It’s rewarding. It’s challenging and never boring. And it’s healthy—you’re taking control over how you grow the food that goes into your body. It’s a lot healthier and safer when you’re growing your food yourself.

Plus, you eliminate food miles—the distance food travels across the country or across the world.

And you’re eating in season, so you’re eating fresh. Fresh is best! There’s nothing that tastes better than growing that food in your own garden. You introduce that psychological advantage that helps you advance, in my mind, the flavor if what you just grew. But it’s literally just better anyway.

When you grow it, it’s the best of all worlds. It’ll blow your socks off. And it’ll give you that inspiration to keep growing in the future. Growing food is just a joy and a challenge.

And a lot of the plants that we grow in our yard attract pollinators and beneficials. We need to do our part for them, too. And when we do it without harmful chemicals, we have the all-important benefit of a healthier ecosystem. That’s going to make our food crops and the rest of our garden healthier, as well as help us be healthier because the food we’re eating is clean and it’s delicious.

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