27 Tips from a Master Gardener

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A few years ago, I attended a class taught by Marta Waddell, a Master Gardener in Arizona. I’ve referred to my class notes repeatedly and decided they were good enough to pass along to you! This master gardener advice is priceless.

Woman walking through garden carrying watering can

It’s never too early to begin dreaming about next season’s garden. Whether spring is approaching or you’re in the thick of weeding and harvesting right now, you’ll want these tips.

You should also take my quick, 11-question Gardening Self-Assessment to learn more about your specific growing areas and challenges your garden faces. Get this free printable assessment here.

Now let’s look at Marta’s master gardener advice:

  1. Practice eating what’s in season locally. This will get your family used to eating seasonal produce, and, therefore, what you can grow in your own garden.
  2. Learn what herbs might help your family’s health issues and start an herb garden specifically for that purpose.
  3. If you’re worried about too much shade in your garden area, plant dwarf trees rather than full-size trees. An attractive dwarf tree with practical use, like a lemon tree, would be perfect.
  4. All heirloom plants are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirloom.
  5. Try more than one variety of each vegetable to see what gives you the best results.
  6. Calorie crops, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, use much less space than grains. More details about growing higher-calorie crops can be found in this article.
  7. For survival, study what the poorest farmers in third world countries grow: Sorghum, peanuts, and chickpeas are three such crops.
  8. A good book for those living in harsh desert climates is Extreme Gardening by David Owens.
  9. High-quality tools are a must and so is maintaining them. Keep a bucket filled with sand and a bit of motor oil mixed in to clean off dirty gardening tools.
  10. Solarize your garden area to get rid of weeds a few weeks before planting season. Clear out weeds or scalp mow your garden beds. Moisten the ground well, and cover with a large sheet of clear plastic. Weight the plastic down around the edges with rocks or bricks. Weed seeds will germinate, but the heat will kill them. Leave the plastic sheet on for 6-8 weeks. This will reduce the rate of weed seed germination by 60-80%.
  11. A wire mesh trash can is good for sifting compost. Some benefits of sifting your compost include: aerating the compost, removing lumps and clumps, and separating desirable from undesirable materials
  12. Test the germination rate of your seeds yourself. Place ten seeds on a wet cloth. Cover and wait ten days. If eight seeds have sprouted, your germination rate is 80%. If only 5 have sprouted, the rate is 50%, and so on. You can still use seeds with a lower germination percentage, but you’ll want to consider sowing more heavily in order to reap the yield you want.
  13. Store seeds in the refrigerator in an airtight container. “Frost-free” will draw moisture from seeds. Here’s more information about how to save seeds — it’s not as simple as you might think.
  14. It isn’t legal to save seeds that have been patented.
  15. Heat and moisture are enemies of seeds. The seeds may sprout, but they won’t grow anything. Stored properly, some seeds can last 5-10 years, but most will last just 2-3 years. Younger seeds will grow better.
  16. Mail-order companies are best when it comes to buying seeds because they store their seeds in optimal conditions.
  17. Just because a nursery is selling certain plants does not mean that particular variety grows well in your area.  They are selling what they know people will buy. Do your own research to determine the best varieties for your area.
  18. Never work the soil when it is wet or very dry. Working wet soil compacts it making it harder for water and air to permeate; roots struggle also. Very dry soil harms roots by extracting moisture from them. In both cases, the soil structure is damaged.
  19. Have your soil tested so you’ll know what additives it needs.
  20. Recycling your kitchen waste by adding it to a compost pile is great but won’t necessarily result in balanced soil. See #19.
  21. Transplant when it’s either a cloudy day or at dusk. This shields plants from direct sunlight and gives them a chance to settle in.
  22. Plan your garden so you’re planting for a staggered harvest. Otherwise, you may be harvesting tons of zucchini, for example, during a single week and then have to wait several more weeks for another zucchini harvest.
  23. Don’t water at night, and be sure to water the soil, not the leaves.
  24. Consider using gray water or water from rain barrels. If you live in a drought-prone area and need to conserve water, drip hoses are good for raised beds and will help make sure the soil and roots aren’t getting too much water too fast.
  25. A couple of tablespoons of oil or a teaspoon of soap in a rain barrel will prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs.
  26. The best pest control is the eyes and hands of the gardener. Use soapy water to get rid of many types of pests.  (Don’t use a soap that contains citrus oils/ingredients.) Planting marigolds in the vegetable garden is another way to deter pests.
  27. Marta recommends the following books: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman; The Edible Ornamental Garden by John E. Bryan; and Gardening When it Counts by Steve Solomon.

Interested in becoming a Master Gardener?

If the idea of becoming a master gardener intrigues you, visit the American Horticultural Society to find a program near you.


Your next garden can be your best-ever when you have a solid understanding of all the pieces that come together to make any garden a success. Combine Marta’s master gardener advice with my free, printable Gardening Self-Assessment and you’ll have the insights and tools to make your next garden your best garden!

Want even more gardening know-how? Don’t miss my “27 MORE Tips From a Master Gardener“!


50 thoughts on “27 Tips from a Master Gardener”

  1. i was going to ‘pinit’ and then i read ‘it isnt legal to plant seeds that have been patented’.
    generally that would be GMO and i am not interested in them.
    or perhaps its just a graft which develops a seed thats patented? i dont know but if it is from nature or a graft then promoting a patent seems a bit inhumane.

    i dont think advising people to ‘buy’ mail order seeds is the best option. harvest your own seeds from what grows best in your ‘patch’. hello……………. and goodbye. i wont be back to your ‘business’.

    1. The Survival Mom

      I have no idea what you’re talking about. First, I don’t sell seeds or have any vested interest in where people buy them. The reason it’s not legal to save seeds that have been patented by seed companies is because of the word PATENT. Just as it’s not legal to reproduce the invention of another person, it’s not legal to reproduce seeds that others have developed. If you have a problem with that, take it up with the companies that spend time and money to develop certain varieties of plants — not with me.

      Yes, you can save seeds and it’s something I’ve recommended on this site, but people have to start somewhere, right? As in buying heirloom seeds from reputable companies.

      1. LOL. ‘Legal’…. Whatever…. Unless I’m going to commercially distribute these seeds, I’ll be saving whatever seeds I want. And I get what you’re saying about compost not necessarily perfecting your soil, but do you really want to look like you’re dissuading anyone from composting when there’s so much garbage out there already?

      2. Gwendolyn thompson

        Thank you for this response to her. I find your further explanation to her, adds to my understanding and just as valuable. Lots of informative information for this soon to be gardener. I appreciate your sharing.

      3. The information of plant patents is wrong. If it is the plant that is patented its seeds are not. As it is most likely a hybrid of some kind, any plant grown from its seeds will very likely not be anything like the parent plant. It is certainly legal to sow the seeds.
        However, it is also possible to patent seeds, as is common in GM crops where the producer wants to get repeat sales from farmers. In that case the seeds are usually sold on the agreed condition that the any seeds produced will not be saved for growing.

        1. Hi folks, There’s a lot of confusion regarding patent law that I can offer clarification with. First, let me say that I agree that we should reap all the fruit of our labor, and that includes the seeds contained therein. However, we have to recognize the law, and I think the article just reminds us of the fact as our beloved master gardener cautions. So, if one were to “drop a spare piece of fruit” the following season, they should think carefully before selling a bumper crop at the co-op; that’s all. Now, regarding the law, it is neither the seed nor plant that is patented. The genetics of the plant are patented. Technically, we can nurture and consume the plant, but we are legally prohibited from modifying it or making copies. It’s akin to software copyrights, if that helps paint a better picture.

      4. Don’t bother will fools like Gino, he obviously hasn’t a clue. Seeds from your own garden or even from weeds, are all natural and they can not be patented. I don’t care who sells them and its the same with any herbal plant, tincture, oil etc, even if a company makes it if it is 100% natural, it is something they can not patent.
        Glad to see someone preparing for the coming disaster and willing to help others, there are so many cranks out there, want money for this or that, and not will to share anything.
        Shortly after the C-19 scandal began – sorry but it is and it was originally just a very severe flu, only the jab made things infinitely worse but there things naturally we can take to lesson the effects or eliminate some. I was given advice by the Lord to prep now. Being on a pension and a very limited income, I was able to slowly increase my supplies. So glad I took note as I have close to a 3 year head start.

    2. Just because it’s patented doesn’t mean it’s GMO. Plant breeding can be the results of years of selection and careful cross pollination by a small farmer in Idaho. If they want to patent it, they can.

      Additionally, seed saving isn’t always an option if you have a small area as some crops cross pollinate easily (like cantaloupe and cucumbers) and end up producing seed that produces a gross fruit. You could get lucky and get something really yummy, but that’s impossible to tell until you spend the time to save the seed and grow the fruit the next season…. When you can buy from great catalogs like Baker Creek Heirlooms, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (which donates tons of money to people growing and preserving heirlooms), why waste your time?

    3. Gosh is it really necessary to be so NASTY? ESPECIALLY when someone is taking the time to share their knowledge and experience and to top it all – for free. I say chill out….and THANKS Survival Mom!!!

  2. I wanted to add – watering at night can be a really good idea for those living in dry and hot areas. Better at this time when your soil can absorb the moisture before it evaporates. It’s not recommended for milder climates or those with high humidity in the soil since it can cause mildew and other water issues. But I know it has saved us quite a few times in the midst of the Texas drought season when watering at any time before the sun goes down just seems fruitless.

    1. watering at night is a great way to water in Texas during the HOT part of summer or during a hot dry spring when in a drought…I live in east Texas so we have to deal with A LOT of humidity and watering at night does cause mold and mildew on the leaves of the plants during a normal spring cycle but not so much during the summer heat …. Basicly you have to just use your on judgement as to what time of the day is best for your area…During a drought though watering at night… even in east Texas… is the way to go since the summer sun has a tendacy to “burn” plants up during the day so they need as much water has they can get!!

  3. The best soap is either Dawn or Dr.Brommer’s peppermint soap . Be careful not to over fertilize. I know sometimes it tempting more is best but it not . Fertilizer contains soluble salts that if over used can burn up your roots . Neem oil is a great organic choice in pest control. It is a fungicide, miteicide and pesticide

  4. I did read somewhere that if you want small fruit trees it’s better to buy regular trees and keep them pruned. The dwarf trees tend not to be as hardy. Thanks for all the info, I enjoy your site.

  5. Great list, thanks for passing it on…Master Gardeners have so much knowledge and wisdom! I am curious about #23 on your list, “be sure to water the soil, not the leaves.” Many times I have read this statement from other gardeners, magazines, etc. and it makes me scratch my head and wonder because rain (the best way to water a garden) gets the leaves, not just the soil.

    1. The Survival Mom

      True, and you have no control over rainfall. I’ve always heard that moisture on leaves can cause mildew. Some people think it can scorch the leaves on hot summer days, but I’ve heard that isn’t necessarily true.

      1. We lived just northwest of Phoenix for 8 years. I had a smaller window of growing because of the heat. However, in early spring I had amazing greens. One year lots of tomatoes , corn and squash. But we are in Lubbock, Texas now. Love it! Have a huge garden, and I can grow just about everything now. And especially with all the rain we have been having, the cool weather crops are growing like gangbusters! And, so glad to be out of the Arizona heat. I just laugh when people say it’s hot here, but I understand everyone has their limits. Thanks for the article!

    2. Like Frances, I too live in east Texas and never water from the top down, especially during the heat of summer. The water droplets act like a magnifying glass and focus the Suns rays, burning the leaves. In the spring when it is wet, I rarely water, but if I do I’m very aware of mold and fungus ( not just on the plants but the soil too). I mulch the garden heavily from first planting (with hay).
      I mostly plant transplants I grow from seeds. Watch your local farm supply store in the fall. I frequently get ” end of season seeds” for 10 cents per package. They work fine for several years. Just plant more seeds in each hole and be prepared to prune!

  6. Thank you for sharing this! I am just getting started out on my vegetable garden and this is a great list of tips!


    1. The Survival Mom

      Do you mean a desiccant packet? Those would remove moisture but I’m not sure you would need them if you store seeds in a refrigerator. If you can’t do that and you live in a very humid climate, then, yes, those packets would work.

  7. Fabulous article! I’ll be implementing a lot of these. I’ve only been doing vegetable and herb gardening seriously for 5 years so I’m definitely still in the learning stage. Thank you so much!

  8. I appreciate your info. It was very nice of you to share your notes. I have decided that I will not grow GMO plants and will not willingly eat GMO food. I think it is crucial that we know where our seeds are coming from, respect patents of hard working gardeners and stick to heirloom seeds. I work too hard in my gardens to sabotage myself with not testing my soil and using plants that don’t do well in my zone. I have a compost bin and use well aged horse manure. For anyone to take offense to your post is not paying attention. Thanks for your advice.

  9. I have worked in several nurserys,we watered when needed all throughout the day. However,with that being said,some plants don’t like thier leaves to be wet,such as violets.Geraniums do not need a lot of water.Melons will rot on the ends of too wet. Tomatoes do not like a lot of water either.

    1. I always thought that tomatoes were bug water drinkers. I would read that alir from different people.

  10. But when it rains their are clouds and the leaves are not very hot at this point. I’ve experienced this myself watering on the leaves while it’s very hot out and it scortches them some and doing it constantly could harm your plant and or it’s production.

  11. One of the best organic pest controls is to know your birds and be ready for them.

    In North Florida, robins arrive the last week of January. If your garden is dug and turned they will visit you, scratch out all of the grubs and bugs, and dine heartily. The following year, they will seek you out so be ready.

    Check your local bird schedule with local bird watchers so that you can feed the robins and not the crows!

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