The Top 8 Newbie Urban Gardening Mistakes

The Top 8 Newbie Urban Gardening Mistakes
I’ve been participating in my Community Garden since 1999 and I absolutely love it. I love growing my own food — there is nothing better than eating a sun warmed heirloom tomato right after it’s been picked.

For several years I’ve been the unofficial garden mayor. I keep track of the garden waiting list (a 3 to 4 year wait) and onboard new gardeners when their turn comes up.

I am no Master Gardener by any means, and every year I’m still experimenting and tweaking my gardening techniques, but over the years I’ve noticed newbie gardeners making the same urban gardening mistakes over and over again. I figured I’d post a list so new urban gardeners learn can what to avoid and hit the soil running.

Top 8 Newbie Urban Gardening Mistakes

Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #1 — Not Using a Weedblocker

Urban Gardening Mistakes - Not using this landscape fabricWhen new gardeners first get their plot I always recommend putting down landscape fabric. It’s usually black and comes in a rolled up sheet. You can buy an eco-friendly variety that is compostable.

Not only does it block weeds from growing, it channels rainwater to the plants. Most importantly, in our case, it keeps stray cats from pooping in your plot. They can’t scratch on the fabric, and prevents them from treating your plot like a litter box.

New gardeners usually opt-out of the weed blockers because it doesn’t look as nice as the freshly turned soil they have when they first plant their garden. Within a couple weeks, the once newly worked soil is covered with weeds and it is really difficult to keep up with pulling them. Soon enough the plots using the landscape fabric are looking much nicer than the ones without and the next year folks are using the weed blocker.

If you don’t want to use landscape fabric, there is also sheet mulching or regular mulch. Watch out though, because cats will still poop in regular mulch.

Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #2 — Not Paying Attention to Planting Charts

Urban Gardening Mistakes - Not paying attention to this USDA Zone MapWhen and how long your planting season lasts depends on your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. The zone you are in determines which plants will thrive in your area and when you should plant them for maximum success.

Here in Philly, you want to plant your greens in the early Spring or late Summer or they will fry from the heat. Peppers, Tomatoes and squash need sun and heat to grow fruit.

Before you run out and buy plants and seeds, look up your Hardiness Zone and find a planting chart. By being strategic with your planting schedule you will have healthy plants and a maximized harvest.

Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #3 — Putting in Plants Too Close Together

Urban Gardening Mistakes - These tomato plants are too close together

These tomato plants are too close

I get it, in an Urban Community Garden you don’t get a lot of space. The temptation to load your plot with as many plants as possible is very tempting, I still do it sometimes. Also, when plants are babies they are so cute and small, it’s hard to imagine how huge they will become when they grow to their full size.

Those now tiny plants will be full grown in a few months and if they are too close together it’ll be an unwieldy mess — it’s difficult to manage and it’s not healthy for them. Plants without adequate airflow around them are more susceptible to disease and pests, and if one plant catches a fungus or infestation it’ll quickly spread to others.

Trust me, if you are conservative with the number of plants you plant and keep a decent amount of space between them, you will be happy you did when they are full grown.

Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #4 — Using Crappy Round Tomato Cages

Urban Gardening Mistakes - Using these bad tomato cages

Don’t buy these

Every year there is a pile of discarded, twisted and broken round metal tomato cages in a corner of the garden, because these things are terrible. The design is poor, the legs are flimsy and mid-summer they are all falling over. You can try to prop them up with stakes, but they usually wind up eventually falling over again.

I found this tip a few years into my gardening career, and it was a game changer: Square Tomato Cages!

Well built square tomato cages are amazing. They sit sturdily in the ground and they do not tip. I’ve had the same set of square tomato cages for years and they have not bent or broken.

Another tomato cage tip is to loop the branches of your tomatoes through the cage bars as they grow. This promotes vertical growth and keeps the plants’ branches away from each other to avoid crowding. If you try to do this when the plant is too far grown you risk bruising and breaking the branches.

square tomato cages

Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #5 — Not Fertilizing Plants Susceptible to Blossom-End Rot

You’ve planted your tomatoes and anxiously watched them grow, but then, just as they start to ripen they develop a gross, rotten bottom half! You’d think your plants must have caught a disease, but actually they are suffering from Blossom End Rot which is caused by a calcium deficiency.

Several types of plants are susceptible to Blossom End Rot including tomatoes, peppers, melons, and eggplant. It can be avoided by adding an organic tomato fertilizer to the soil when you plant your plants. If your plants are suffering from Blossom End Rot, you can actually dissolve some TUMS in a watering can and water your plants with it. This will give your plants the calcium they need and reverse the rot.

Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #6 — Using Bad Watering Techniques

Urban Gardening Mistakes - Watering the plant not the groundThere is a lot of debate over watering technique, but in my opinion, watering is more about consistency than quantity. If you choose to moderately water your garden or flood it, do it on consistent schedule. Some folks say it’s better to let your garden get dry between deep watering because it encourages the plants’ roots to grow further down into the soil. Others think it’s better to water moderately and more often. Either way, choose a technique and stick to schedule.

Consistent watering also helps cut down on tomato cracking. An influx of water after a dry spell will cause the insides of the fruit to grow suddenly and the outer skin can’t keep up.

The best time to water your garden is early in the day. Also, water the ground and not the plant itself. Keeping the plant and leaves wet makes them prone to fungal infections.

Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #7 — Not Being on Top of Your Harvest

Urban Gardening Mistakes - Not Staying on top of your harvestWhen you first plant your garden in the Spring you can’t wait for harvest time! However, I’ve found by the time plants are overflowing with fruit, sometimes people are checked out and not making the necessary frequent trips to the garden to pick all the vegetables. Veggies wind up falling onto the ground and plants go to seed. In our garden if veggies are obviously being neglected the neighborhood kids will start grazing off your plants.

Try to keep up with your harvest. I know it can be overwhelming, but make a plan for what to do with all of those vegetables. Freezing, canning, pickling, giving some away to friends and co-workers are all great options. You can also find non-profits that will take your extra harvest as donations.

Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #8 — Forgetting About Your Plot in August

Urban Gardening Mistakes - Ignoring your plotBy the time August rolls around, the weeds are in full force and a chore to keep up with. Also, any bugs, pests and diseases that are in your area may have invaded your garden. It’s gross to deal with and many people start to ignore their plot and let the whole thing go to seed until Fall.

I know the struggle is real, I know you want to go into Summer vacation mode, but fight to stay engaged with your plot in August. If a bug or disease invades your plants, stay calm and research an organic way to deal with it. You may just have to cut off the diseased part of the plant, or use a natural oil to keep the bugs off.

If you go on vacation, hire a kid in the neighborhood to water your plants. Tell your neighbors to take whatever ripens while you are away. Letting your plot go for even a week may result in a rapid decline.

The end of Summer is the time to extend your gardening into Fall. If you keep on top of your plot, you can clear space for cooler weather plants and keep your harvest going.

Even if you make all of these mistakes, you’ll still enjoy gardening!

This list is meant as a guide for the Newbie to avoid many first time gardening mistakes. However, no matter what you do, if you throw some plants in the ground too close together and not at the right time, you’ll still get some veggies and enjoy your time gardening.

I’ve gotten so much benefit out of my community garden while making many mistakes along the way. Go find a garden in your area, sign up for the waiting list and give it a try.

The Big Difference Between Us and the Millennials

I was born in 1970.

Baby me looking thrilled.

Baby me looking thrilled.

This means I spent years age 10-20 in the 1980s. As teens, my brother and I were latch key kids, and my parents didn’t helicopter us, or really pay much attention to what we were doing at all.

I spent my 20s very differently from the Millennials because my generation has something going for it the Millennials don’t have.

We didn’t have social media to broadcast to the entire World, the dumb-ass, repulsive and irresponsible things we did.

Thank goodness!

I don’t buy into generation bashing.

Since the dawn of time, every generation has dissed the generations above and below them. When you’re a kid, older generations are stuck in their ways and don’t understand you. When you’re older, younger generations are idiots and useless.

I never understood why the minute GenXers turned 30, we all turned into a bunch of “kids these days,” “get off my lawn” complainers who believed all good music stopped in 1988. Did we suddenly have amnesia and forget what it was like to be called “Slackers?”

It’s 100% revisionist history to act like we were so responsible and independent when we were young, and Millennials are all lazy and entitled. We can revise that history because there were no dumb Tweets, embarrassing Instagram Photos, or viral Facebook posts for the world to judge.

Every generation has good and bad.

I really try to not judge people by age; I try to stay age agnostic. As a business owner, I’ve employed people of many ages. I’ve had folks who work their asses off and take incredible initiative and others who put in the bare minimum necessary to keep their jobs. If you broke those folks down by age, you would find no correlation.

I have Millennial friends who are Entrepreneurs, Executive Directors, who are generally hard working and doing amazing things. I have GenX friends who maintained the Slacker lifestyle well into middle age. Both are respectable choices as long as you’re happy.

It’s all good, my friends. Stop being a cliche, middle-age grump and remember back to our early 20s — it wasn’t pretty, and fortunately, it’s not archived on the Internet.

But are you happy?

I am a business owner.

LGBT companies - YIKES Inc 2Sometimes I feel like this is overshadowed by all the other things I do, but I co-own a web development company. I employ people and together we deliver websites to clients.

I am 100% throwing my hat in the ring to become a well-known and respected WordPress development company. I have worked hard, in the past few years, to consume as much knowledge as possible about WordPress and its ecosystem, and make resources and tools available to my employees to continually elevate our standards, practices and quality of product.

I have also sat back and watched the evolution of various well known and respected WordPress development companies on Twitter and other online media outlets. I see the exponential growth, constant hiring and acquisition of other companies and think, “what constitutes success?” Is 50 employees success? 100 employees? Is never ending growth success? Making as much money as possible?

When are you satisfied?

I’ve seen blog posts announcing a new hire just to see the same person announced as a new hire at another company months later. Not that this is bad, it’s the way things go in business at a certain level, but it is not for me. That is not what I want.

A Happiness Company

On the plane ride back from WordCamp San Francisco I had an idea. I want to create a new type of business (like a benefit corp or B Corp) called a Happiness Company or H Corp. A company that is maximized for happiness for everyone involved — owners, employees and clients.

The elements that make people happy at their job have been studied and calculated: number of employees, salary point, benefits, work environment, life/work balance etc. These are the elements I want to compile to create a clear list of goals for my business. I want a success point, not never ending growth.

Throughout my life I’ve heard people say things like “I was employee number X and now I don’t even know everyone who works at the organization.” They usually mark the increase in employees as the point in which happiness at their job went downhill. This can apply to any kind of business or non-profit and it is what I want to avoid.

This is my goal: Create a Happiness Company checklist and accomplish every item on that list.

Maybe I wont have multiple vacation houses, but I will be happy and so will the people I work with, that is what matters most to me.

Sooo, I captioned one of my videos

Around 19 years ago Mia and I went to St. Croix for our anniversary. We stayed at a gay resort which turned out to be kind of crummy. Out of all the folks staying there, we wound up hitting it off and becoming fast friends with a straight couple — Jennie and Michael. Jennie was hearing and Michael was Deaf. We wound up hanging out together the entire trip and learning a few signs, but we mostly relied on Jennie to interpret.

When Mia and I got back to Philly we signed up to audit the Community Collage of Philadelphia ASL Interpreter Program and wound up studying American Sign Language for 2 1/2 years. The next time we hung out with Jennie and Michael we could communicate pretty freely. Even though they’ve moved to Wyoming we still keep in touch via Facebook, etc.

Since then my ASL has gotten pretty rusty, but I still have an interest in Deaf culture, have Deaf friends and have many hearing friends who are fluent in ASL and work at PSD (where we sent our kid to preschool) or DHCC.

TL;DR: I care about Deaf/Hard of Hearing stuff and try to be a good ally.

When this blog post came out on captioning videos I was like, “cool, I’ll do that.” I started captioning my video from WCSF 2013 and, wow, it was painful.

I don’t really like watching myself on video anyway, but slowly typing out everything you’re saying really gets you intimate with your verbal ticks.

Here’s mine:

  • So…
  • Um
  • Like
  • And then…

It’s hard, but if you’re a presenter I would highly recommend captioning your videos — most importantly to make your videos accessible for Deaf and Hard of Hearing folks, but also to become a better speaker. I finished typing my captions on WCNYC dev day and the next day when I presented I only said “so” once.

The hardest part about getting better at something is to come face-to-face with your weaknesses, but it’s totally worth it.

Here is my video with captions. Don’t drink every time I say “so” unless you want to get really drunk. I promise not to get you drunk at WCSF 2014 (with my words anyway).

It’s WordCamp Season!

It’s finally nice out which means it’s WordCamp season in Philly and beyond!

speaker-badgeThis year YIKES, Inc. is a sponsor for WordCamp Philly and WordCamp NYC, both events are back after taking a break in 2013.

We’ve had a good time helping out with #WCPhilly, from hosting a hackathon for the website to organizing delicious snacks and a Happy Hour. It’s gonna be awesome!

I am also giving a presentation in the morning called “Six Ways to Up Your Theme Game.” It’s about moving on from modifying other people’s themes and building your own.

Later this month I’ll be doing my Girl Develop It WordPress 101 class and in July I’ll be doing my Theme Building class.

We’re off to a busy and fun WordPress-filled Summer!

How I Got the Nickname Lil’ Jimmi

Last week, I saw Neutral Milk Hotel. It was my friend Sara Weaver’s favorite band. She played In The Aeroplane Over The Sea constantly in her van. The girl was very messy, and she would lose the CD then buy a new one. At the end of the day, I think she bought it 3 times.

Sara died on June 7th, 2002 after a 2 year battle with Leukemia. It’s been over 10 years, but seeing the show was still an emotional struggle.

Old Swisher Press Photo from 1999

Old Swisher Press Photo from 1999

Sara was one of my very best friends. We dated for a Summer in 1992 then wound up being much better together as friends. I was in several different bands with her until she wanted to get serious with her last band, Swisher. I couldn’t devote the time necessary for touring so I switched to a manager/webmaster/everything else role.

She had a photographer friend she called “The Scottish Guy” (Sara made up nicknames for everyone). He did all her photography which I would then use for flyers, CD art, etc.

One day Sara told The Scottish Guy she was in my neighborhood and he replied, “Oh, you were going to see Jimmy then?”

According to the Scots Dictionary

“In the Glasgow area the name Jim or Jimmy is used informally to address any man not known to the speaker.”

That was it. She called me Jimmi (she was very adamant about it being spelled with an “i”) or Little Jimmi from then on.

Sara with my stitched up thumb I cut carving a pumpkin.

Sara with my stitched up thumb I cut carving a pumpkin.

Soon there were groups of people who were also calling me Jimmi (including her parents and sister). It got to the point where some folks did not know my real name. She had this big, vibrant personality and was a total charmer — the nicknames she gave people tended to stick.

When she was diagnosed she just released Over Nothing, a great album I think would have done really well if she hadn’t gotten sick. She had just finished a tour that I roadied a portion of. Being a roadie was the most fun I ever had in my entire life.

Sara’s parents, sister, boyfriend Jon, several friends and Mia & I went into full-on caretaker mode. We made a website called The Weave Report; I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a home made blog (done in Perl). It chronicled the whole, horrible 2 years and beyond.

I never thought she was going to die, she had me convinced that she was going to “kick Leukemia’s ass.” At the end she was in organ failure, and we had to make the decision to stop. After she died, I felt like I was dumped back into regular life, and I didn’t know how to function in it. We were all a mess. It took years for the dead inside feeling to subside. The feeling that nothing mattered because Sara died.

The WeaveWhen Sara took her last breaths, it was completely surreal. One thing that happened was someone (later, Mia told me it was her) placed Sara’s rings in my hand. They were cheap, silver rings she probably bought off a street vendor near Market Street. One was 3 rings that intertwined to make one. I gave one of the 3 rings to Jon, one to Mia and the 3rd I have worn around my neck on a chain every day since she died. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.

Sara getting sick and dying is one of the most formative experiences of my life. Having someone close to you die is like joining a really shitty club. It changes you as a person.

Now I use the username “liljimmi” whenever possible. I like to think there will be new folks who associate me with that name, the funny nickname Sara gave me.

My Philly Tattoo Convention Adventure

BfQqSepCMAECADqMia and I have been going to tattoo artist, Emma Griffiths, since the 90s. She does incredible work and is funny as hell. She’s located in Brooklyn, so we always travel to get work done. A couple months ago she posted to Facebook saying she’d be at the Philly Tattoo Arts Convention if anyone wants to make an appointment to get work done.

For Mia’s and my 20 year anniversary of our first date we got “Mia” and “Tracy” classic heart tattoos. I got my Mia heart on the back of my left calf. I’ve been wanting to add a “Josephine” (our kid) heart on my right one to match it, so I emailed Emma to make an appointment.

I’d never been to a tattoo convention before, I was a little scared. I imagined testosterone-filled booths with women in sketchy outfits promoting different products. There was some of that, but I was pleasantly surprised by seeing a lot of female tattoo artists and all kinds of people attending the convention.

Getting a tattoo in public was an interesting experience. Emma had to cram into the small booth she was sharing with 2 other women without all of her usual equipment. I was on my stomach with my face right at the front of the table. When folks would page through her portfolio books my face would be right there. I was thinking I should have gotten a quick tutorial so I could answer questions as she worked. A stranger even asked me “how does a calf tattoo feel?” Um, it hurts. I had to try and keep a calm face when she was on an extra painful spot.

What I loved was when her colleagues would come by and watch her work and make suggestions. It was like getting on-the-fly consultations from these women with decades of tattoo experience — a real treat.

The whole thing was strange and very cool.

Afterwards I walked around, I never knew there were so many products and supplies for tattoo artists. There was a lot of amazing work on display and a lot of really bad tattoos. I had never heard the sound of so much buzzing in my life.

Here is the tattoo. My daughter loves it, but she is mad it didn’t include a paw print (she is cat obsessed).


Shooting the Legendary Blue Horizon

I only started taking pictures a few years ago.

I really didn’t know I was any good until I joined a Meetup group and the really good photographers in the group told me my pictures were decent. I also started posting my photos to Instagram and found a community there. This led to begging the wife for a DSLR for my birthday then quickly outgrowing said birthday DSLR and upgrading to a fancier one.

Photography is an expensive hobby so I was incredibly excited when one of my clients, Benita Cooper, emailed me out of the blue asking if I would be interested in a PAID photography job for her interior design business. At first, I referred her to one of my photography pals thinking I was not qualified to shoot pictures for money, but she said she loved my photos and believed I could do the job.

Get paid to shoot pictures, what??

She landed a project doing interior design work for the conversion of The Legendary Blue Horizon into a boutique hotel. They wanted to use photos of the building in its current abandoned and decaying state for the lobby and rooms of the future hotel. I was a little nervous, but excitement over getting access to this building won out.

The Legendary Blue Horizon is a World famous boxing venue located on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. I don’t know anything about boxing, but when I mention it to people they are familiar with it, and some say they have seen a fight there.

It was great to shoot — a grand arena with beautiful wood seats — and it was nice to relax and shoot with 100% legit access.

Here are some of my final photos. I am so thankful for Benita believing in me and I absolutely can’t wait to see how the pictures look, blown up and framed, in the renovated lobby.

The Legendary Blue Horizon boxing ring The Legendary Blue Horizon boxing ring The Legendary Blue Horizon boxing ring The Legendary Blue Horizon boxing ring The Legendary Blue Horizon boxing ring

Start using Sass. It’s easy and it’ll change your life. For real.

A while ago you could hear me saying things like:

I know using a CSS pre-processor would probably change my life, and you’re a big loser if you don’t use one, but… [insert excuses here].

I think it was mostly the decision between LESS and Sass, learning curve avoidance and the daunting “change how you’ve done things until this point” feeling that kept me from using a CSS pre-processor. I knew I needed to start using one though, but I didn’t know which one to go with. Then WordPress core made the decision to use Sass. I followed suit soon after.

It took me about a day to learn the basics and start using Sass. The time it took me to love it and never want to do CSS the old way again was about 10 minutes.

Sass is awesome and it is really really easy to make the switch. Here is how I did it.

  1. Learn Sass
  2. I’m not going to go into detail about all the cool things Sass can do, but there are a few.

    • CSS pre-processing – Sass lets you do a lot more than you can with regular CSS. At the end of the day it builds nice (minified if you prefer) CSS files for your site to use.
    • Variables – In regular CSS you often have to repeat styles like colors, or create selectors for them and add them to your HTML elements.

      h1 {
         color: #FF0000;
      .red {
         color: #FF0000;
      <h1>This is red</h1>
      <div class="intro red"> 
         This text is red, too. 

      If you needed to change the shade of your red style you would have to copy and paste the new hex code in every location in your stylesheets. On the HTML side, if you no longer wanted to use the red class you would have to remove it from all the elements using it. You could potentially be modifying a lot of files — a giant pain in the ass.

      With Sass variables you can define your red color in one place and use it anywhere you want. If you need to change the shade of red you just edit the variable and it’ll update everywhere the variable is used.

      $red: #FF0000;
      $green: #00FF00;
      h1 {
         color: $red;
      .intro {
         color: $green;
      <h1>This is red</h1>
      <div class="intro"> 
         Now this is green.
    • And More! Check out Nesting, Partials, Import, Mixins, Inheritance, Operators and (say what?) color functions.

    I started with Sass Basics to get familiar with basic functionality. TreeHouse has a really good “Deep Dive” Sass Course you can take online to learn more advanced concepts.

  3. Get it up and running on your computer
  4. To use Sass you need to install Ruby. Don’t let that freak you out, it’s not a big deal and you don’t have to learn Ruby to use it.

    I use a Windows machine and Sublime text for writing code. I am not Ms. Command Line (even though I used emacs to write HTML files in the early 90s), and I managed to set Ruby and Sass up without a problem.

    • Setting Up Sass on Windows – I followed these step-by-step instructions from and had Sass installed in minutes. If you are a Sublime text user like me, you only need to complete step 1 and 2 of that guide.
    • Using Sass with Sublime text – There are a few plugins for Sublime Text that makes writing Sass work like a charm.
      • First, make sure you have Package Control installed. Package control allows you to add plugins for Sublime Text. If you don’t have it installed, just go to the Package Control install page. Copy the import code there, paste it into the field that pops up at the bottom of Sublime Text when you select View > Show Console and hit enter.
      • Next, install Sass plugins. Josh Earl has a great post on How to Add Sass Support in Sublime Text. Essentially, you will be installing 2 plugins: sass-textmate-bundle (“Sass” in Package Control) for pretty code highlighting (read Josh’s article for details on configuring the plugin) and SASS Build that will allow you to compile your .scss (the extension for Sass files) files into regular .css files (minified or not).
      • Finally, a couple tweaks. You can automate CSS file compiling so it happens every time you save a .scss file with the plugin SublimeOnSaveBuild. You’ll never have to worry about having the newest compiled version of your CSS files. On the other hand, you don’t want to create a .css version of all of your .scss files (like partials). Joshua Winn has a post with the snippet of code you need to make Save on Build ignore partials. You would be adding this code under Preferences > Package Settings > SublimeOnSaveBuild > Settings - User.

    With Sublime Text, and a few plugins, you don’t have to worry about messing with the command line to make Sass “watch” your files. You just have to hit save.

  5. Start using it with your projects
  6. The best part of switching to Sass is you can ease into it.

    It goes like this: take your .css file and change the extension to .scss. That’s it.

    Sass can completely understand regular CSS. You can start off slow by using Sass functions on new edits to your style sheet, you don’t have to convert everything you’ve done previously to use Sass functions. However, you’ll want to. Soon.

    Once you start using it, you’ll want to go through whatever base CSS files you use for new projects and Sassify it. There are plenty of converters out there to help you do that.

That’s how I made the switch, I encourage you to do it, too! If you enjoy writing CSS you will LOVE using Sass.