Year in Review: 2020 in the Garden

The global pandemic kept so many of us at home this year. There’s no doubt that 2020 has been lonely, but I’ve kept my head clear (and my hands dirty) in the garden. It feels good to make something beautiful out of an ugly situation and have fresh produce without relying on a grocery store. Many people see gardening the same way and picked up a shovel for the first time.

This was my first full year in the garden outside WLTX, and each season was a huge success! The weather in South Carolina was about as generous as it could get, There were few days of extreme heat, even fewer days of extreme cold, and an entire summer that was drought free. I had a totally clear schedule because of COVID-19 precautions and learned more in the past 12 months about gardening than ever before.

ON-AIR | Meteorologist Alex Calamia recaps the 2020 garden at WLTX

New things I learned

I have no formal education in plants or agriculture, so just like many home gardeners, I’m learning about gardening from experience. The weather has never caught me by surprise (WLTX has the most accurate forecast in the South Carolina Midlands!), but there are a few mistakes I made in the garden this year that I’ll never make again.

There’s a huge difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes

Tomato fruits come in all shapes and sizes, and the same is true for the plants themselves! There are a seemingly endless number of tomato cultivars, but only two types of growth habits, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes grow to a mature height (which varies based on cultivar) and then produce a mass of flowers and fruit. Determinate tomato plants are great in pots (some only grow a foot tall!), require less support, and won’t get overcrowded. Indeterminate tomatoes produce flowers and fruit sporadically and continue to grow until cold weather knocks them out. Indeterminate varieties can reach huge proportions, which is why they require support (after a while they practically look like vines!). I didn’t know my tomato plants growth habits until after they were planted. They became a tangled mess! In 2021, I’ll plant determinate tomatoes in a separate garden bed from the indeterminate types so they all have room to breathe.

The winter garden can be just as productive as summer time!

South Carolina is no stranger to regular hard winter freezes, but there are an impressive variety of plants that prefer the cool and dark days of winter over our hot and sunny summer weather. When the weather cools down in August and September, I start broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, collards, brussels sprout, cabbage, kale, parsley, and cilantro. These plants grow best during milder periods in the winter, but they can survive temperatures as low as the mid 20s without any damage. I really didn’t expect parsley to do so well in the winter garden because I’ve never seen them available for sale during the winter time.

“It looks, feels, and even smells like spring, but it’s still winter! Despite the tease, there are things you can plant in your garden right now that can take some southern chill. #FakeSpring #WLTXwx #GandysGarden

Originally tweeted by Alex Calamia (@AlexCalamiaWx) on February 4, 2020.

One plant species = Dozens of types of produce!

What if I told you pretty much every plant in my winter garden was the same species? Would you be surprised? I was! Brassica oleracea is native to the Mediterranean, but over thousands of years it’s been selected by growers to develop different characteristics creating amazing plants like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts, and collard greens. These amazing greens are just variations of the same plant. Basically the entire winter garden is Brassica oleracea and Lactuca sativa (the botanical name for lettuce!).

Watermelon isn’t as hard to grow as it looks

I’ve always felt uneasy about trying watermelon plants. There’s something about big fruit that seems more intimidating than small and simple. I’ve never grown watermelon before because I didn’t have the space until this year, and I’m so glad I finally gave them a try. Despite all the advice online that makes these plants seem really finicky, they’re actually pretty easy. All watermelon plants need is full sun, enough water at the right time, and PLENTY of space and patience. They take about 3 months to start producing, but once those fruit form you’re just a few weeks away from heavy watermelons.

Starting some plants from seed are a waste of time

Seeds are the way to go for so many plants, especially in South Carolina where the growing season typically starts in March and warm days arrive quickly! This year I saved a ton of money starting tomatoes, basil, squash, watermelon, and squash from seed. Another huge benefit was having the opportunity to grow some incredible varieties you won’t find at local nurseries (like this delicious curvy squash that produced fruit for 9 months and grew over 50 feet long – practically into the parking lot!).

There are some plants that aren’t worth the effort from seed. Fruit trees take decades to produce fruit from seed and likely won’t produce true to seed. I’ve even found some popular summer plants like eggplant are rockstars if they’re purchased as seedlings but way too slow to germinate from seed unless you have a grow light indoors to give them a start in the wintertime. I’d rather just spend a few extra dollars to get them as small plants in the spring and save time.

I’m looking forward to 2021 already! The garden is going to be bigger, cleaner, more productive, and more diverse than ever. It’s only December, but now is absolutely the right time to start planning. What are you going to grow in your garden?

The moment I became a gardener

Alex's Porch

Plants can’t speak, but they’d have a lot to say about weather and climate if they could. I’m a meteorologist by profession and an avid gardener. I’ve been turning my parents’ New York City backyard into a tropical oasis ever since I was 13 years old. Now I grow fresh fruits and vegetables at work and share my success and failures with all our viewers.

As the years go by, the line between my career and my hobby is getting blurry. I’m learning more each growing season about how plants respond to environmental stress, and I’m learning more about myself too. My hard work and patience are rewarded with beautiful plants that give me so much happiness and food!

How fell in love with gardening

The garden bug bit me early. (I’ve been getting bit by plenty of actual bugs ever since, by the way!) I grew up in New York City, but my family would spend a few weeks in Florida every summer. I didn’t grow up around a lot of trees or thunderstorms in the city, but Florida was a total contrast. The thunderstorms were right on schedule every evening, and the palm trees looked so graceful dancing in the gusty downpours. I was hooked! I watched Florida’s palm trees breeze through some of the strongest storms of my childhood. It made me wonder why such resilient trees weren’t growing in New York. I refused to take “it’s too cold” for an answer!

There are thousands of different species of palm trees. Their fruits range from coconuts, dates, and the – currently very trendy – acai. Some species thrive in hot deserts, others grow in saltwater. Palms give off such an exotic vibe, but some, like the Sabal palmetto, are US native and have historical significance. In 1776, the British army’s cannons were no match for a fort on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina that was built using Sabal palmetto trunks. The palmetto has been on South Carolina’s state flag since 1861. The tree is so significant in its own right that many southerners don’t realize it’s just one of the dozens of native palm trees to the southeastern US.

Palm trees can handle a lot of rough weather, but they are a goner as soon as temperatures get too low. You won’t see a New York street lined with palm trees in the middle of winter anytime soon, but our climate is changing. I was only in the 9th grade when I planted my first palm tree in the ground in New York City. That was almost 15 years ago and those palm trees are still alive today.

Spring 2012 VS Summer 2020 in my parents’s New York City Backyard

Over the years I filled my parents’ yard with hundreds of plants. Some of them were tropical, others were really unusual, and a few produced amazing fruit. New Yorkers are known for taking things at a fast pace, but my neighbors would take things a little slower when passing by our front yard. I was able to have conversations with neighbors that would have otherwise passed by.

Gardening & My Career

I moved away from New York in 2017 to take my TV career to warmer pastures, and I took my passion for plants with me. When I worked in Gainesville, FL I had a weekly segment called “What’s Growing On” that featured all the latest agriculture news in north Florida and gave tips to gardeners. At work, I planted flowers and succulents in a courtyard that was previously covered in thorny weeds. Gardening once again proved to be an amazing way to connect with people, but instead of neighbors, I was having conversations with viewers and co-workers.

Right now I’m living in South Carolina where I’m living my dream job. I’m a morning meteorologist, but I’m also a gardener. WLTX’s, now-retired, former chief meteorologist Jim Gandy created a garden space where he shared grew fruits and vegetables and shared garden and climate stories with his viewers. Now I’m gardening in that space and sharing weekly stories about the connection between plants and climate. It’s important for viewers to be informed about how fragile our food supply is and to be empowered to make their yards greener and tastier. When viewers stop me in the store, the garden is the first thing they want to hear about! It’s so popular that I created a garden community on Facebook where I can have conversations with viewers about their gardens and share their advice, questions, and photos on our morning show.

A home garden is one of the greatest investments a person can make. Produce at the grocery stores can come from thousands of miles away in an expensive endeavor that uses a lot of resources and is not often environmentally sustainable. Growing food at home doesn’t have to take up a lot of space or cost a lot of money. Gardeners can choose to grow plant varieties that aren’t available at the grocery store without any added chemicals. All it takes is a pot of basil or a tomato that started sprouting from the compost pile to bring nature into everyday life. The end result is often a beautiful green space that gives more than it needs and can be enjoyed with family and friends for years to come.