There is more to gardening than meets the eye. From the viewpoint of one who has never tried growing their own food, it may appear to be simply a case of tilling up some soil, popping a few seeds in, and sitting back and waiting for the gourmet vegetables to roll in.
Usually, though, there is more to it than that. Growing food is a combination of science, art, diligence and good fortune — and it is a moving target. There are the perennial challenges to stay ahead of weeding and watering, and to protect the plants from the hungry jaws of insects and wildlife looking for a free meal. But there are a few more tricks of the trade beyond the basics, and even smart gardeners make mistakes. Here are eight ways that even the best gardeners can slip up.
1. Leaving inadequate space between plants and between rows. While setting tiny little broccoli or Brussels sprouts seedlings into the bare ground, the expanse of wide-open garden can be deceptive. Even though the directions on the seed packet expressly say to leave three or four feet of space, it takes a lot of willpower to do it.
It is so easy to get swept up in the excitement of buying and planting and then run out of garden space, resulting in the temptation to just squeeeeeeze those hills of pumpkin plants a little closer together. Because, they can’t get that big, right? Wrong. They can. And they will.
I once read that placing plants too close together is a common beginner error, but it can be difficult even for seasoned gardeners to avoid.
There are a few exceptions to the rule of giving plenty of room — most notably peppers and snap beans, both of which are happier touching their neighbors.
It is important to follow the instructions on the seed packet or in the catalog, and even get out a tape measure if necessary in order to prevent underestimating the distance between plants.
2. Losing control of succession planting. The idea behind this concept is to plant a little at a time, over a span of several weeks. This is to prevent drowning in those early summer vegetables such as lettuce and spinach and radishes and carrots and beets and chard — plants which grow quickly and require only a partial season from start to finish. It makes more sense to plant a small amount of each every two or three weeks so that they reach maturity a little at a time.
However, it is sometimes easier said than done. By the time the third or fourth planting of early season vegetables is due to go in, a gardener can be too busy with planting and tending warm-weather crops to bother with them. And then there are the warm-weather harvests to keep food-growers busy.
Gardening involves a lot of intricate timing and juggling, and succession planting adds a little extra complication to the mix. But wrapping up the harvest without a last blast of those delicious cold-weather foods leaves gardeners wishing they had followed through with later plantings.
3. Forgetting about soil health. Soil is a living entity. Without healthy soil, hopes for healthy garden plants are slim. It is important to have it tested regularly and heed the recommendations for amendments — and to follow the guidelines pretty closely. Soil only slightly deficient in nitrogen will not necessarily benefit from five times the recommended amount.
Other tenets of soil health include insuring adequate drainage and avoiding walking on it when wet so that it does not become too hard packed.
4. Recreational rototilling. Some gardeners believe in tilling, and others do not. But either way, tilling is directly related to soil health. Excess tilling can destroy organisms which keep the soil alive and vibrant, and allow the soil to become compacted and lifeless.
It is important to use a rototiller only when truly necessary and to avoid tilling when the soil is mucky and subject to too much damage.
5. Neglecting to thin rows. Directions on vegetable seed packets say to plant every half inch to an inch and then later thin them to somewhere between two and 12 inches, depending upon the species. The point is to attain a high rate of germination — because every seed does not germinate into a seedling — and then once they take root, to pull out enough to allow the remainders space to grow.
It is hard to do. Ripping out half of those green bobbing heads of radish leaves popping up in sweet little rows feels self-defeating. And destroying all those healthy-looking corn plantlets already reaching for the sky and promising to become healthy fruitful stalks — ouch!
It has to be done. It helps to remind oneself of how much healthier those remaining ones will be, and how scrunched up and unproductive the whole crop will be if they are not thinned. And the crop is guaranteed to be subpar if they are not.
I’ve tried to plant them as far apart initially as they are supposed to be after thinning, with poor results. Big gaps show up in my rows, and while it probably was possible to replant, I did not get to it. Additionally, many must-thin seeds like lettuce and carrots are so tiny that it’s nearly impossible to plant them in neat pre-thinned rows.
6. Being nonchalant about compost sources. Gardeners need to ask all the right questions of compost sellers and make sure they know what they are getting. What is the actual composition — is it cow manure, household compost, or biosolids? And does it contain peat moss and other fill material? Has it been adequately heated? Is it organic? Are there scraps of non-biodegradable materials? Has it been tested for metals?
Biosolid material, or human waste, is off-putting to some gardeners. Fill material can be an excellent addition, but not if it results in a mix that is mostly wood chips or other carbons. Unheated compost of any kind can contain pathogens. Compost which is not certified organic can possibly contain herbicides that could damage the garden.
It is easier to be careful up front than to risk having to dig it out of a raised bed garden and haul it off later.
7. Touching plants when wet. It is never the best idea to bother any wet vegetable plants, but it really matters with beans. Picking, weeding or brushing past bean plants when wet can increase their chances of disease and should be strictly avoided. It is worth rearranging a schedule to pick or tend beans before predicted rain and even in order to work around a heavy dew.
8. Leaving ripe fruit unpicked. Fruit, in this case, is the mature result of a flowering body—vegetables such as squash, beans, eggplant, peppers and anything else which grew from a blossom and is not part of the plant’s stalk or root. These plants live to produce fruit. The more is picked, the more they produce. Plants can become stagnant and stop putting on more fruit if it is not consistently picked.
It is important to pick vegetables diligently. Even if there is too much to use immediately, it is better to do so, and give it away or even feed it to livestock if necessary, than to let it sit on the plant and inhibit later production.
Gardening is great, and growing your own food even better. Paying attention to concerns such as space, timing, sourcing and diligence can help growers save valuable resources and avoid crop loss. By following these simple guidelines, even smart gardeners can avoid common mistakes and enjoy a bountiful harvest.
What mistakes would you add to the list? Share your gardening mistakes in the section below: