9 Vegetable Gardening Mistakes Every Beginner Should Avoid: An Expert Roundup
5 gardening experts on their biggest failures with growing vegetables (and how to avoid them)
We asked five garden experts: “What are your two biggest mistakes with growing your own vegetables?” Reviewing their answers, we discovered three common themes – lack of planning, inadequate soil preparation, and improper care of growing crops. If you are a beginning gardener and really want to get ahead of the game, the experts can help you avoid these common mistakes. Their experiences and advice provide valuable wisdom for any home gardener.
Kathy has been a home gardener for many years and coordinates her local community garden.
When asked about her two biggest mistakes, this is what she had to say:
1. Forgetting to keep up with succession planting
“Forgetting (or not having time to) keep up with succession planting of crops I like to have all season. Especially lettuce, but also beans, bok choi, dill, cilantro, radish etc.. Lettuce is the big one though. I mean to plant it every 3 weeks, but then I have a good row of it that we’re eating and I forget to plant another. Arrgh. I complain about this every year.“
How to avoid this?
“How to avoid this problem? Well I even wrote and sell a nice iPhone app that tells me when to plant all sorts of vegetable seeds, including succession planting of lettuce (it’s at the Apple Store under “Skippy’s planting calendar” or go here: Skippy’s Apps). Maybe I need a loud buzzer added to it.“
Solution: Harvest every week, and sow new ones
Succession planting, sowing small amounts of seed at short intervals, makes possible a continuous harvest of fast-maturing vegetables. Radishes, for instance, mature in 30 days or less, after which time, they become pithy and often split. As Kathy would tell you, harvesting small amounts every week as they mature over 30 – 60 days allows you to get the most out of this and many other vegetables.
2. Skimping of soil prep
“Soil for most crops needs at least an inch of rich compost added every spring. I hate to bring in plastic bags of expensive compost, but sometimes I don’t have a good source of homemade compost. That’s happening to me the past couple years with my community plot and my new home garden. It takes a while to get a composting system going (I’m adding lots of chicken and goat manure, kitchen scraps and garden clippings to my bins). I hope I have some good home made compost next year. “
Solution: The use of cover crops & good compost
“How to avoid this problem? Cover crops can add organic matter, and fertilizing during periods of heavy plant growth with a nice organic product is also good. But next year, if I don’t have my homemade compost ready, I’ll buy those plastic bags of composted manure for the crops that need it like potatoes, squashes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn and cucumbers.”
Composting is a simple way to make a nutrient packed growing media, reduce the amount of trash sent to the landfill, and support the environment. Compost provides nutrients for your plants, improves the texture of the soil, encourages the growth of beneficial microbes, retains moisture, and moderates soil temperatures. The natural process of decomposition: composting breaks down organic waste – yard debris and food scraps. The resulting product is a loamy media, rich in nutrients and live microbes.
3. Sowing too many seeds
“Planting or sowing too densely. Give the plants some room to grow! Thin-out the seedlings when they develop their first leaves.”
When thinning out seedlings, think of them as micro-greens. The tender seedlings of lettuce, spinach, radishes, beets, and broccoli make a healthy addition to salads and sandwiches.
4. Not providing protection
“Failure to provide protection. Enviromesh will stop Carrot Root Fly; nets will stop birds; fleece will protect from frost.”
Enviromesh is a lightweight mesh that provides not only pest protection but also protection from heavy winds and rain. Use wire hoops to hold it above the crop, making sure that the edges are secure to the ground so insects cannot get in.
To be a home gardener is to have a passion for life’s simple pleasures. While Mark’s passions keep him in the kitchen and behind the camera lens, Megan Cain’s keeps her reaching out to others.
This is what Megan had to say:
“I work with a lot of gardeners of all levels and have realized that many of them are making the same errors over and over again. My goal with my business is to help gardeners skip over the beginner mistakes and move right to the advanced ones! Here are two common mistakes I see gardeners making each season.”
5. Watering way too much
“When people ask me about issues they’re having in their gardens, especially disease, the first thing I ask them is: “How much do you water?”
“Do not water your garden every day. Too much water can cause a lot of problems such as disease, rot, and stunted growth. In general, most plants need 1 inch of water per week, and that includes rain. If it rains ¾ of an inch during the week, then in my garden I’m off the hook. I don’t water that week. “
Solution: Make use of a rain gauge
“How do you know how much it rains? Get a rain gauge and put it in your garden. It’s really fun to run out after a rain storm and see how much water your garden received.”
“The exception to the 1-inch per week rule is seeds that are waiting to germinate in your garden. They need to be kept moist until germination so you should be watering them every 1-2 days. After germination you can put them on the 1 inch per week schedule with the rest of your garden.”
“Vegetable gardening is its own adventure, so don’t forget to laugh at your mistakes and embrace the learning that comes through them. That’s precisely how we become better gardeners over time.”
This is what Charles had to say about his gardening mistakes:
6. Taking on too much, without preparing the soil properly
“In 1987 there was a big shortage of organic carrots. My seven acres of undug beds were needed for other crops and I had access to a tractor and rotovator, so I rotovated a half acre of wheat stubble in early April and had a contractor drill the carrot seed. No false seedbed, quick and easy! But then the chickweed grew, it loves rotovated soil, and despite hoeing three times, taking many hours, because of continued damp weather the carrot seedlings never made it to daylight and I harvested… nothing!”
As we read earlier, enriching and preparing the soil is the most important step a gardener can take to grow a lush, bountiful garden.
7. All Eggs in One Basket
“1987 was a vintage year for sales of parsley, to a supermarket via Somerset Organic Growers cooperative. They asked for a lot more in 1988 and we made large plantings in April, only to suffer a lot of aphids that brought the motley dwarf virus. No harvests. I should have fleeced until first pick but for me the main moral was the risk of putting too much effort and expense into one crop, hence my big effort after that to develop a market stall and the veg boxes which were just becoming popular.”
Solution: Companion planting is the way to go
Throughout nature, biodiversity ensures the survival of the strongest and most productive of the species, creates a natural balance among insect populations, and balances the nutrient levels of soils. Learn from Charles’ experience and plant a wide diversity of plants. Companion planting techniques are one way for home gardeners to develop biodiversity. Certain species of plants, when combined, protect each other by attracting pollinators, repelling pests, and increasing plant productivity.
Brenton and his wife Beth turned their small urban backyard into an organic garden in 2004 and began to sell their produce at local farmers markets. It wasn’t long before the Johnson’s started buying additional land to expand their farm and created a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Fast-forward to today, the farm covers 200 acres, and their CSA has over 1,000 members.
According to Brenton, the two biggest home gardening mistakes are:
8. Not understanding the fertility requirements of different plants
“When growing at home, it can be tempting to think that digging up your yard and planting the seeds or the transplants is going to be enough. But it’s usually not. Plants need food to grow just like people do – and oftentimes the soil in our backyard isn’t going to contain all the right nutrients or have the right protection for vegetable growth. While soil health and plant nutrition can quickly become a very complicated web of knowledge, home growers can avoid this mistake by implementing two standard practices. At the beginning of the season, put down 1/4 to 1/2 an inch of compost where you plan to plant.
Then, both before & after planting, include a lot of organic matter — mulch in the pathways between your plants will continue to provide nutrients as it decomposes, and help maintain soil health. Imagine trees in a forest – their falling leaves are the basis of a regenerative process, they always have a heavy mulch-like material over their roots; it protects the soil, maintains microbial life, etc. Organic farmers focus on this kind of process. A common phrase is “Feed the soil, not the plants” – because the soil is really where every plant’s health lies.”
9. Not being sure of when to plant for vegetable success
“One of the best guides for me – when I first started planting in my backyard and when I plan the crops for our 200 acres today – is the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Vegetable Planting Guide, which you can find a link to on our JBG resources page. Always keep in mind that it is better to plant on the early to middle end of the spectrum, rather than the end. For example, one of my first years growing I planted an array of tomatoes in May. The plants looked amazing… beautiful growth… but in the end, not one piece of fruit. The next year I planted in mid-March, and had much more successful plants. It is also key to remember seasonal frosts and how they interact with your plants. If planting before the last frost (usually early March), you’ll want to be sure your plants are adequately protected.“
Make a planning of your vegetable garden to avoid mistakes:
“Overall the best way to avoid challenges is by doing research — I recommend reading The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman, which you can find online. Follow local farm blogs to see what they are planting and harvesting as a guide. Attend the Austin Organic Gardeners meet up for example. Visit the farms you love and their booths at the farmers markets to speak directly with growers – they will be glad to share their passion for farming!“
There are just a few things as disheartening as planting seeds that never germinate, losing a crop of seedlings to a late frost, or growing beautiful plants that never produce.
Solution: Study the seed packages closely
Seeds require certain soil temperatures to germinate, and crops require a certain number of days to mature, so pay close attention to the planting times listed on the seed packet. Frost damage is often a result of gardeners planting summer crops too soon. If you wish to get a jump on the season, be prepared to use cloches and row covers to protect your seedlings.
Since 1792, the Old Farmers’ Almanac has provided a wonderful resource for weather forecasts and garden tips, as well as planting times for different crops and regions of the country. Check out their website at almanac.com.
Following the advice of Megan, Brenton and the other experts, take the time necessary to learn about the crops you wish to grow, their fertility, exposure, and water requirements; planting and harvest times, and other issues. Then, with this information, you can carefully plan and maintain your garden. Keep a journal to help you with planting dates, including succession planting. And as our experts will tell you, make the health of the soil your number one priority. Most important, however, is to have fun and not worry about the little mistakes we all inevitably make from time to time. Please share your biggest gardening mistakes with us in the comment section below, and let us know if you have found the solution?