Just as there is no such thing as a perfect garden, there is no perfect gardener, either. We all make mistakes and learn through experience. What are veggie gardeners’ biggest blunders? I have made each of these six classic garden mistakes many times, and after talking with thousands of organic gardeners, I know I am not alone. Let me share these common garden problems with you so you might benefit by learning from my errors.
1. Taking on too much: Spring fever inspires big dreams among veggie gardeners, and it’s easy to forget that every planting comes with a commitment of future maintenance. Before you know it, your to-do list becomes overwhelming—weed, water, thin, plant, prune, stake and harvest, all at once! If you’re a novice gardener, you will greatly enhance your chances of success by starting small with only a few rows or beds, allowing yourself to focus on the plants you’re growing and learn more about their needs. Another smart idea is to limit the number of veggies you grow in each of the three seasons: spring, summer and fall. 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, it’s easy to keep up. For example, you might grow potatoes, salad greens and snap peas in spring; peppers, tomatoes and squash in summer; and cabbage, carrots and spinach from late summer to fall.
2. Too optimistic about the weather: Every climate is kind to some vegetables and cruel to others, which is why heat-loving okra is irrepressible in Memphis but struggles in Minneapolis. Emphasizing regionally adapted crops is an excellent strategy, but you will need to take additional steps to protect plants from wild weather. Spring is especially hazardous because beautiful days alternate with others that are cold, windy or both. Milk jug cloches or row cover tunnels placed over spring cabbage, broccoli or other seedlings keeps the plants’ stress levels low, and they will keep your seedlings from getting shredded by hailstorms, too.
With warm-season crops such as beans, tomatoes and squash, it’s better to wait for warm weather to settle in before planting than to push for an extra-early start. Mostly, you’re waiting for the soil to warm up because warm-natured plants will not grow in cold soil. In this instance, patience will prevent many problems.
3. Misunderstanding soil: Soil is the most mysterious piece of the gardening puzzle. In addition to providing comfortable digs for plant roots, it needs to provide small amounts of trace nutrients. You can get a soil test done through your local extension service for free or a small fee, which will provide good baseline information including your soil’s pH, a measure of its acidity or alkalinity. Most vegetables grow best in soil with a slightly acidic pH between 6.0 and 6.5; extremely acidic soil can be modified with lime, and very alkaline soil can be toned down with sulfur. Enriching soil with organic matter also has a neutralizing effect on soil pH.
The sure path to better soil leads straight to your compost pile. If you dig a 2-inch layer of compost into your soil every time you plant anything, your soil will enjoy constant infusions of organic matter, which supports beneficial soil organisms, especially fungi and earthworms, and its quality will steadily improve. Mulching with grass clippings, shredded leaves or other biodegradable forms of organic matter will passively improve the soil, too.
Some new gardeners think it might be easier to grow vegetables in containers than in the ground, but this is not true. The roots of veggies grown in pots become quite warm on hot days, but the same plants grown in enriched beds enjoy constantly cool roots. The summer vegetables that grow best in containers—eggplant, peppers and tomatoes—are warm-natured plants that can tolerate warm root temperatures as long as they get plenty of water.
4. Forgetting to fertilize: Compared with animals, plants have very skimpy appetites because light is their primary energy source. Yet, plants do need three important nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium—if they are to function efficiently as 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. In general, it’s best to apply organic fertilizer at the rate recommended on the label, and to mix it into the soil just before the crop is planted. To get plants off to a fast, strong start, I like to place some organic fertilizer in trenches beneath germinating seeds or directly below transplanted seedlings—a technique called “banding” that greatly improves fertilizer efficiency.
If you keep chickens, rabbits or other livestock, you can make your own organic fertilizer by composting the manure, adding 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. Read more about organic fertilizers in All About Organic Garden Fertilizers.
5. Not giving plants enough space: A little plant is a solar being, and each new leaf is part of its expanding solar array. When plants grow too closely or are crowded by weeds, reduced sunlight and competition for water and nutrients can stunt their growth so much they never recover. This is why it’s important to grow plants at proper spacing, which is easy when you’re setting out purchased plants but harder when you’re thinning homegrown beet and carrot seedlings you were praying over the week before. Of more importance is weeding early and often for the first six weeks of a veggie’s life, or until it enters its reproductive phase. After blooms and fruits appear, it’s best to rely on mulch to suppress weeds, as disturbing the roots of mature plants can trigger ripening disorders or diseases that enter through injured roots. If you can’t tolerate wily weeds among your almost-mature peas or pumpkins, clip them off at the soil line instead of pulling them up.
6. Accidentally inviting bad company: Wherever you garden, wild creatures are watching you work, waiting for their favorite meal to be ready. To learn which critters to expect, talk with neighbors to find out what kinds of animals are commonly seen in the area and what they like to eat. In some areas of the Midwest, gardeners shy away from sweet corn because it invites raccoons, who will make away 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 pests, 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 like to eat, they are not likely to devour them. When all else fails, motion-activated sprinklers that surprise invaders with a spray of water can keep a garden safe.
Gardeners (being adventuresome by nature) should expect some slipups and learn from them. As the saying goes, mistakes are proof that you are trying.
Award-winning garden writer Barbara Pleasant grows organic vegetables, herbs and fruits in her Floyd, Virginia, garden. In season, she averages three gardening mistakes a week. Get more beginner gardening advice in her excellent book, Starter Vegetable Gardens.