With many new and returning vegetable gardeners among our ranks this year, it’s a good time to highlight common vegetable gardening mistakes, and the best ways to prevent them. I’ve been lecturing on this topic for almost ten years, since my Starter Vegetable Gardens book was published, and these are the seven vegetable gardening mistakes that come up again and again...
1. Taking On Too Much
Just as a new cook should not take on a dinner for twelve, new gardeners should limit either the size of the garden or the length of their plant lists. A small garden is fun because you can keep up with the details while learning about your site and soil. Then expand gradually as more plants capture your interest. If you’re looking at a large site, divide the growing season into three parts – spring, summer, and autumn - and grow three crops in each subseason. For example, you might grow potatoes, peas and salad greens in spring, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers in summer, and end the year with broccoli, kale and watermelon radishes.
2. Being Overly Optimistic About the Weather
Beautiful spring days lull us into thinking that only happy days are ahead, but then the wind starts blowing cold, or maybe a spring thunderstorm sends down hail that lays plants flat. Most gardeners are also weather addicts, accustomed to carrying the ten-day forecast around in their heads, because cloches, row covers, or wind-taming tunnels must be in place before they are needed. Check out the springtime tips in The Mess of Protecting Plants from Stress and How to Make a Row Cover Tunnel.
3. Confusion About Soil
I’m now used to seeing pictures sent by new gardeners of plants that are undernourished and overwatered, and often deprived of light, too. The gardeners usually did the right things, amending the soil with bagged organic amendments, but that is only step one. Rich, fertile soil is created gradually, as fungi and other soil inhabitants build their invisible cities underfoot. Meantime, prepare the soil with a balanced organic fertilizer and a heaped helping of compost every time you plant anything.
4. Allowing Limits on Light
Plants are solar beings that get most of their energy from sun. Each leaf is a solar collector, so plants make their best growth when every leaf gets all the light it can process. This is why your garden should be in the sunniest spot available, and why you need to thin crowded seedlings so none are deprived of light. If partial shade is unavoidable, you’ll find inspired ideas in Grow Fruits and Vegetables in the Shade. In addition, the Garden Planner has a filter for partial shade tolerance, found by clicking on the Custom Filter button to the left of the plant selection bar.
5. Growing Heat-Sensitive Crops in Containers
Many new gardeners think that growing vegetables in containers is easier than growing them in the ground, which is simply not true. Containers always have a dwarfing effect on plants, and container-grown plants need constant watering and feeding. Root temperatures in containers fluctuate daily, and cool-season plants especially get upset when their roots get too warm. This does not happen in deeply dug or mulched beds, where soil temperatures are more constant. On the plus side, plants that like warm roots such as peppers and eggplant may grow better in containers where summers are cool. From citrus to strawberries, we have a bevy of articles on Growing Edibles in Containers.
6. Letting Weeds Take Over
Weeds are part of Nature’s plan for healing over scarred places in the earth, and if allowed they will pave over every open space with green. You cannot permit this, because the weeds will rob your plants of light, nutrients and water. Weeding is a fact of gardening life, so weed early and often, and keep your weeding tools sharp.
7. Giving Up Too Soon
Every new endeavor involves a learning curve, and gardening in no different. Give yourself time to learn the best practices to follow, study up on your favorite plants, and network with other gardeners to learn about crops and varieties that grow well in your area. The garden is a great teacher. In a few seasons, you’ll go from being a newbie to an old hand.