With these pointers, gardeners just getting their trowels dirty can sidestep six classic food-growing faux pas, such as those related to fertilizing crops, spacing plants, pest control and more.
Just as there’s no such thing as a perfect garden, there’s no perfect gardener either. We all make mistakes, but, in doing so, we learn which ones never to repeat, and along the way we discover savvy strategies to add to our gardening routines. So, what are vegetable gardeners’ biggest blunders? I’ve made each of the following six common gardening mistakes, and after talking with thousands of organic gardeners, I know I’m not alone. Get a head start by learning from our errors instead of laboring through your own.
Spring fever inspires big dreams among gardeners, and it’s easy to forget that every planting requires a commitment to future maintenance. Before you know it, your springtime aspirations will have turned into an overwhelming summer reality — weed, water, thin, plant, prune, stake and harvest, all at once and for weeks on end!
If you’re a novice gardener, you’ll greatly enhance your chances of success by starting small with only a few rows or beds, allowing yourself to focus on each individual crop you’re growing and better understand its needs. Instead of trying out 10 unique tomato varieties and every hot chili pepper under the sun, pick one or two of each and build your plant-care confidence.
Another smart idea is to limit the number of different types of veggies you tend in each part of your growing season (spring, summer and fall, in most climates). Vegetable plants need the most attention during their first month in the garden, so by having only three to four juvenile crops going at a time, you’ll be able to keep up without a hitch. For example, you might grow potatoes, salad greens and snap peas in early spring; peppers, squash and tomatoes in late spring through summer; and cabbage, carrots and spinach from late summer to fall.
To avoid taking on too much, some gardeners start by growing only in pots or containers, assuming this will be easier — but this often isn’t true. A container limits the spread of roots and the plants can easily become water-stressed and quite warm on hot days, while the same plants grown in enriched, mulched beds would enjoy consistently cool roots. The crops that grow best in containers are heat-tolerant plants, such as eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, which can take warm root temperatures as long as they’re given a large pot and plenty of water. But even still, you may need to water container-grown crops twice a day during summer’s hottest stretches, which is a major commitment. Comparatively, you’d only have to water plants in garden beds a few times a week.
Instant “bag beds” are a better no-dig option than containers, because, with this method, you cut slits in the bottoms of the bags so roots can move down into the soil below. Plus, the bags can be mulched to help retain soil moisture.
Every climate is kind to some vegetables and cruel to others, which is why heat-loving okra plants are irrepressible in Memphis but struggle in Minneapolis. Choosing to grow crops that are adapted to your region is an excellent first step, but you will still need to take additional measures to protect plants from wild weather.
Springtime can be especially hazardous because beautiful, sunny days alternate with others that are cold or windy, or both. Placing milk jug cloches or row cover tunnels over spring seedlings will keep your plants’ stress levels low, and, if you live in an area prone to storms, could shield your seedlings from getting pummelled by hailstorms, too. For some crops, row covers are an important step in pest prevention as well, so they’ll do double duty for you as you become a more experienced gardener.
With warm-season crops, a common misstep is planting too early. You’ll be better off waiting for warm weather to settle in and the soil to warm up than pushing for an extra-early start, because warm-natured plants will not grow in cold soil. Plants that need warm soil and weather include beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers and tomatoes. While you wait, you can plant any of these crops that do well in cool soil and can take a bit of frost: broccoli, cabbage, collard greens, kale, leeks, peas, radishes and spinach.
Especially for beginners, soil may be the most mysterious piece of the gardening puzzle. In addition to serving as comfortable digs for plant roots (airy, friable and able to hold moisture), it needs to provide your crops with nutrients.
The sure path to better soil starts at your compost pile, which is why newbie gardeners would do well to dive into composting the same year — or even the year before — they jump into gardening. If you can dig about a 1-inch layer of mature compost into your soil every time you plant, your soil quality will steadily improve. These frequent infusions of organic matter have a neutralizing effect on soil pH and also support beneficial soil organisms, especially earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi.
Another big key to creating super soil: Don’t skip the mulch. Mulching liberally with grass clippings, straw, shredded leaves or other biodegradable materials will add even more organic matter to your soil over time. Plus, throughout the growing season, thick mulch will suppress weeds, hold in moisture, and help regulate soil temperature.
If you keep chickens, rabbits or other livestock, you can use their manure to make an organic soil amendment, too. To fully compost the manure, add just enough moisture and high-carbon organic matter (such as leaves or sawdust) to help it rot. Keep in mind that composted manure will retain more of its nitrogen if it’s never leached by rain, so be prepared to store the finished product in containers or bags, or under a tarp.
Compared with animals, plants have skimpy appetites, because sunlight is their primary energy source. Yet plants do need three important nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — if they are to function as efficient photosynthetic factories. Dry organic fertilizers provide these and other important nutrients, such as calcium and magnesium, which are crucial for blemish-free tomatoes and sweet, thick-walled peppers.
Don’t overdo it, though. Soil-testing labs tell us gardeners apply too much fertilizer far more often than too little. In general, apply organic fertilizer at the rate recommended on the label, and mix it into the soil just before the crop is planted. As the growing season progresses, fertilize a couple more times — especially for long-season crops — ideally at a crop’s first fruiting and again as you gather your first harvest. You can do this simply by spreading a strip of organic fertilizer, such as grass clippings or mature compost, directly alongside your crops — a technique known as “side-dressing.”
A young plant is a solar-powered being, and each new leaf is part of its expanding solar array. If plants grow too close together or are crowded by weeds, reduced sunlight and below-ground competition for water and nutrients can significantly stunt growth. This is why it’s important to grow plants at the proper spacing when you’re setting out seedlings, and to thin the crops you grow from seed, such as beets and carrots. Seed packets will usually tell you the optimal spacing. Thinning work is a bit painful, because you feel like you’re killing half of your crop. Your harvests really will be bigger and better in the end, though, because your little seedlings will have the room they need to thrive.
Of equal importance is owning a good hoe so you can weed early and often to keep unwanted plants from stealing your crops’ sun, water and nutrients. Then, as blooms and fruits appear, it’s best to rely on mulch to suppress weeds. If you do a good job of weeding and prevent any weeds from going to seed, you’ll have far fewer weeds the following year.
Wherever you garden, wild creatures are watching you work, waiting for their favorite meal to be ready. To find out which critters to expect, talk with neighbors about what kinds of wildlife are commonly seen in your area and what they like to eat.
In some parts of the Midwest, gardeners shy away from sweet corn because it invites raccoons, which will make off with cantaloupes, too. In Virginia, where I live, groundhogs have been known to level gardens overnight, and the deer regard snap beans as candy. If you can’t fence out animal pilferers, you can protect your crops with chicken wire cages, row cover tunnels, or even enclosures made of burlap or other cloth stapled to wood stakes. If animals can’t see plants they’d like to devour, they’re more likely to leave them alone. If all else fails, motion-activated sprinklers that surprise invaders with a spray of water may help safeguard your garden.
Insect pests are sometimes even more troublesome than larger critters. Watch your plants closely for signs of pest damage, and lift up plant leaves to try to spot pest eggs on the undersides. Plus, plant some flowers! Most new gardeners are so enthusiastic about starting the journey to grow veggies that they skip planting flowers, or they relegate blooming beauties to “ornamental” areas of their yard. Instead, incorporate flowers into your garden plans from the get-go. Flowering plants draw in beneficial insects that not only boost pollination, but that actually eat crop-munching pests.
This article originally appeared in our sister publication Mother Earth Living as 6 Common Gardening Mistakes to Avoid.
Award-winning garden writer Barbara Pleasant grows and preserves a bounty of fruits, vegetables and herbs in Floyd, Va. If you’re a beginning gardener, we highly recommend her book Starter Vegetable Gardens.