I will always maintain that part of what makes gardening fun is that we’re always learning. Hopefully we repeat success one year to the next, don’t repeat mistakes, and take good notes to remember the difference. There will always be new challenges to learn from though, and fresh sometimes surprising triumphs. It’s what keeps us coming back each season!
Here are a few common mistakes that are easy to make, but easy to avoid:
Planting Seedlings Too Deep or Too Shallow
Recommended planting depth is usually printed on the seed packets, and you should heed the advice. Planting depth is crucial to success because planting too deep can prohibit seeds from sprouting or can produce weak seedlings that are tired from working so hard to push up through the soil. Easier to correct but still problematic: planting your seeds too shallow. This can cause them to dry out quickly before they sprout or cause the young plant to fail due to poor root growth.
There are some seeds that require a very light touch in order to germinate, lettuce being a popular example. When I plant lettuce, I sprinkle the seeds on my planting space and just press lightly in order to ensure good soil contact.
While there are exceptions, a good rule of thumb is that seeds should be planted at a depth of twice the size of the seed itself.
Planting Too Closely
This is a hard one! It doesn’t matter if you have one 4x8 bed or a 50x100 bed, I’ve yet to talk to a gardener that doesn’t wish they had just a little more space. There are always new and interesting varieties we want to experiment with, and one more row of beans we want to squeeze in.
There is one thing I can guarantee: overcrowding will not lead to more food production. Ironically, it often will give you less. What you get is plants competing for water and nutrients in the soil, diminished air flow that will encourage fungus and disease, and stressed plants that will be less able to recover from bug pressure. Plants that are spending energy competing with other plants and trying to maintain health during stress situations will have less ability to put energy into fruit production.
You must thin your plants! Follow mature spacing recommendations on your seed packet. That little 4-inch pot of squash could grow to 2-3 feet!
I get it, it’s hard. We’re trying to grow life, not deal out death. No one wants to just rip out your plant babies when you’ve sown a row of pak choi. When you’re starting tomatoes inside, it feels weird to rip the smallest sprouts out of the pot leaving just the strongest. It is for the greater good though, and a practice you should become comfortable with. And it doesn’t have to all be loss. You can eat many of your thinned sprouts, and you can try to re-pot some of your tomatoes to share with a friend.
Planting in the Wrong Spot
Many of us have limited options where we can put our vegetable beds, and it can be tempting to try and squeeze plants into any available spot. For our vegetable crops, all need well drained soil, and while some will be happy with part shade, most will only thrive in direct sun, at least eight uninterrupted hours. A good rule of thumb is that if the plant produces fruit, it should be in full sun, and leafy vegetables can often do just fine with at least 4 hours of direct sun.
Ignoring the Soil
Compost, compost, compost! Very few of us are lucky enough to live in a place with lovely loam already in place. Here in the mountains of western North Carolina we have heavy clay that needs loft added before being suitable for yielding vegetables. When I am planning a new bed expansion here on my farm, I shoot for starting the process a good six months prior to when I would like to start planting. I am a no-till gardener, so I will lay a tarp down to smother the existing grass/clover. Two months later, I will pull back the tarp and put down a good six inches of whatever organic material I have available, which is usually a mix of shredded leaves, decomposing wood chips, and rotting straw. Shredded leaves go first because they’re apt to blow away, and then I’ll cover with the chips and straw for a nice heavy blanket of delicious decomposition. In the late spring (I do not use new beds for early spring crops), I will go over the new bed with my broadfork, and then top it all with about two inches of compost. I have been using this method to make new beds for over a decade with great results.
Now it’s worth a mention that compost, like fertilizer, has a limit in its effectiveness of application. Read: more does not mean better. The addition of compost should be seen as the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Your existing soil has good stuff in it! By adding good organic matter periodically we help unbind existing nutrients and help draw worms, beetles, and other helpful critters that will naturally aerate and poop, adding even more goodness to the garden party.
After your first year of adding 4-6 inches of organic matter, you should look to add 1-2 inches of a good compost to your beds every year. I just do this right on top and let my soil friends incorporate it for me.
While it’s understandable why this might seem logical, it is absolutely not the case that the more fertilizer you apply, the more produce you can grow. This falls under the same logic that you would also not get more fruits if you plant more plants closer together.
Success in gardening often comes down to a balance of nature, and too much and too little tip the ecological scale and can be problematic. Excess fertilizer can stunt growth, burn both foliage and roots, and perhaps worse of all, can throw your soil into an unhealthy spiral that could possibly ruin your chances of a good crop for the rest of the season.
In my gardens, I only use a gentle, all-natural, balanced fertilizer such as Browns Fish Fertilizer. This is only on occasions that my plants look like they need it, or are in a growth spurt. Exceptions to this are heavy feeding crops that need an extra bump, or specialty crops like garlic that often need a bit of a specific food in order to put on the large bulbs that we all want to see.
In all cases of feeding, follow the directions on the packaging, and don’t be tempted to add just a little more. A prudent strategy would be to give a little, and then wait a week or two and if your plants still look like they need a little something-something, and gently feed again.
25 years into my gardening journey, I spend more time feeding the soil than feeding my plants.
Using Synthetic Fertilizers
From my personal observations, there is no quicker way to kill your soil than to use chemical fertilizers. Sure, it may give you some miraculous growth at first (see what I did there?) but there's evidence that synthetic products have detrimental long term health effects to your living soil and the critters that live in it. With so many wonderful natural options, leave them on your shelf and focus on the big picture of sustainable garden health for years to come.
Using Pesticides as Soon as You See a Bug
Resist the knee-jerk reaction to panic as soon as you see some bugs on your plants. Get yourself a good bug identification book, and wait to treat - or not treat - when you know what you’re dealing with. I once helped a woman who was so upset that her fennel plants were covered in these caterpillars that she kept smushing them. When I asked her to take a picture for me so we could find out what we were dealing with, it turns out she was trying to eradicate Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, a beneficial species. Whoops!
Do not, under any circumstances, use a broad-spectrum pesticide. They may eliminate your target, but they will also kill our friends, like ladybugs, bees, butterflies, and lacewings. If you kill the good bugs, you will enter into a cycle of imbalance that will have you constantly fighting the bad bugs. You will become seriously frustrated, and gardening is meant to be pleasurable. Read up on IPM gardening techniques, and leave the heavy chemicals in the dust.
Many broad-spectrum products are systemic, and might find their way into your body via your veggies. Best stick to organic products, as gentle as possible. I have fought many an aphid with my water hose and squashed more squash bugs by hand than I care to admit. If manual methods are not cutting it, try first something simple like insecticidal soap or neem oil. And remember, healthy soil builds healthy plants, and healthy plants are best able to shrug off mild bug damage on their own. If you have healthy plants and a good population of beneficial insects, you might not have to do anything at all!
Watering too Much or too Little
Too much water or too little water both will cause stress to your plants, and will cause rot or stunt growth, respectively. Your plants are alive! Seems like a silly thing to say, right? We all know that, but rarely make the connection that living things will drown in too much water, likewise will become weak and unhealthy when dehydrated. Stressed plants will be more susceptible to disease and bug infestation, and the veggies will have fewer nutrients if able to produce a harvestable crop.
Most vegetable crops require a good one inch of water a week. What does that look like? The only way to know for sure in your personal situation is to run your sprinkler system with a rain gauge time it, but generally it’s an hour of rain/sprinkler time. I like to run my sprinkler for 20 minutes at a time and shoot for 3-4 times a week if it hasn't rained. This gets me a nice moisture, without getting soggy at any given time. Don’t stress about this too much. If you aren’t sure, get a moisture reader, or wiggle your finger an inch or two into the ground and feel for moisture. If it’s moist, maybe wait to water until the next day.
Plants don’t always visually tell you they need water, in fact they can sometimes be faking it. Broadleaf crops like squashes and cucumbers will often pull moisture from their leaves in the heat of the summer in order to protect themselves from sun scald. This can look like your plants are desperately thirsty, but don’t fall for it! If you aren’t sure, just wait until the cooler evening or first thing in the morning and check them again. If they are receiving regular water already, those leaves will look healthy and perky again, and if they still are wilted, give ‘em a drink!
Lastly, use mulch in the form of dried grass clippings, straw, dried leaves, wood chips, or simply compost. All these will make ideal mulch for your vegetable plants. Keeping your soil covered and not bare will conserve water and help keep weeds at bay. Living mulches are also wonderfully beneficial, but I don’t recommend experimenting with these until you have many seasons under your belt.
You Become Overwhelmed
It is extremely empowering to grow your own food. It can be easy to get carried away with the potential and start too many plants, turn over a huge amount of ground, or buy too many plants or seeds to start with. When you are just getting started, make a list of what you love to eat, and make a drawing of what you want your garden to look like. Does it fit into the amount of space you can dedicate to it? Do you anticipate having enough time to water, weed, and feed?
Watering and feeding time is hard to estimate since there are a so many ways to do both, but weeding is universal. It’s my experience that for every 8x4 raised bed garden we should all figure in about 30 minutes of weeding time a week. This is on the high end, your time may be less if you are on your mulch game, and it may be higher during certain times of the year when growth is strong. I grow in 2x50’ rows, and find I can hoe down both sides of the row in 30-60 minutes. I do my best to make time to weed each row once a week. I find it’s much easier to stay on top of weeds under 2 inches, those that are less rooted than more mature weeds and easier to pull out. When under two inches, I can scrape them up with my favorite stirrup hoe, anything bigger I have to bend down too much to yank by hand, and who wants to do that for hundreds of feet?
You’ll find your groove, but it’s good to have an idea of what kind of time you’re looking at so you don’t build 20 raised beds and find out your job and family only allow you time to keep up with 10 of them. Start small! You can always expand the next season. As a beginner you need to account for learning time too, so be gentle with yourself. Gardening is likely to become a lifelong hobby, don’t burn yourself out in the first season.
Go on, Get Growing!
I hope this will help you gain confidence and have fun! In my life, there is no greater joy than gardening. It connects us to ourselves, our ancestors, our health, and the earth, and that all feels priceless to me.
My hope for you: Slow down, enjoy the process, take good notes, and eat good food!
Written by Sow True Seed's Education Director, Angie Lavezzo.