Learning From Your Vegetable Gardening Mistakes

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Tomatoes and basil in a basket

No matter how long you’ve been growing a vegetable garden, each season you learn new ways to do it better. Maybe you made a mistake on planting dates, or had to deal with disastrous weather, or perhaps you just forgot why you started writing your tomatoes’ variety names on a piece of painter’s tape and sticking it on the pots. (When you try to keep up with fiddly little tags, ‘Romas’ somehow turn out to be ‘Green Zebras’.)

A top early season vegetable gardening mistake involves the unexpected deaths of carefully nurtured seedlings. “Wind wrecked my broccoli seedlings,” a new gardener recently told me. “Everything was fine – temperature, sun, soil – but the wind ate them up.” Cloches, row cover tunnels, or even cardboard boxes placed over seedlings can prevent wind damage, but you have to watch the weather and think ahead. In places where wind is a factor, tender seedlings need protection.

Cloches can be used to protect against wind as well as cold

Getting it Right with Tomatoes and Peppers

New gardeners and those who have recently relocated often work in “new” soil that is not naturally-occurring, having been purchased in bags or off-loaded from a truck. Some instant soil mixes for raised beds are great, while others need time to come alive.

With most gardeners’ favorite crop, tomatoes, soil-borne mineral deficiencies become apparent in midseason, when the plants are growing, blossoming and setting fruit all at once. Shortages of calcium and magnesium often appear as blossom end rot, which causes dark patches to form on the fruits’ blossom ends. This physiological disorder can be prevented with several good gardening practices – amending the soil with compost and a balanced organic fertilizer, maintaining even soil moisture, and perhaps adding pulverized eggshells to planting holes to provide extra calcium. Leaves that look pale with darker green veins are a warning sign of magnesium deficiency, which can be quickly cured by drenching with dilute Epsom salts (1 teaspoon per quart of water).

Heavy peppers need support

“The limbs broke off of my peppers. Nobody said I had to stake peppers!” my friend Carly confided. Too many gardeners learn this lesson the hard way, myself included. I now use small 3-ring tomato cages for most of my pepper plants, with more stakes added in fall when the branches often hold heavy fruits near their tips.

Peas need support, too, regardless of what the seed catalogs say. A neighbor watched her “self-supporting” peas grow into a tangle that collapsed into the mud – an easy vegetable gardening mistake based on misinformation. A few twiggy branches stuck into the ground among the plants would have increased sunlight, reduced the threat of diseases, and made the peas much easier to pick.

Seedlings need more space to grow well as they reach maturity

Crowded Plants Complain

“The seedlings were so tiny, and we wanted lots of vegetables, so I fudged on spacing,” confessed one of my favorite newbie gardeners. “And I thought that little mini-peppers and cherry tomatoes would grow on little plants.” Peter’s new raised bed grew into a crowded jungle in which the radishes never plumped up, the carrots entwined like lovers, and he had to water every day to keep the plants from drooping.

Crowded vegetables are unhappy plants, but you can keep your motivation high for thinning or planting at proper spacing by reminding yourself that plants are solar beings that get most of their energy from light. Plants run on sun, plain and simple. If you respect this truth, you will grow a better garden.


Doing Better Next Time

Sometimes the vegetable gardening mistake of the season is not planting enough. As winter closes things down, I often hear fellow gardeners resolve to make multiple sowings of basil, bush beans, summer squash, and other fast-growing crops that come and go quickly. Succession sowing every three weeks or so extends the harvest season and encourages you to try novel planting dates, which can lead to many happy surprises. In a full-season garden, you have to keep planting. Isn’t that great?

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