May 10, 2016

Newbie Vegetable Gardening Mistakes - and How to Avoid Them

Anyone who grows veggies was once a newbie - and as beginners, all of us made mistakes. But you don't have to make the most common vegetable garden mistakes if you follow these simple guidelines.

Mistake # 1. 
Not Prepping the Soil.

When I was a kid, I helped my dad with our large vegetable garden, but when I married and tried to start a veggie garden all on my own, I made a big mistake: I had no idea that my hard, clay soil was totally unsuitable to gardening! My veggies did grow, but they sure didn't thrive. Trust me: Ignoring your soil can make a huge difference between vegetables that produce abundantly and vegetables that seem stunted.

So before you do anything else, prep your soil properly. This means getting rid of any grass, weeds, and rocks; testing the garden soil; and amending the soil with organic matter. To learn the details of how to do all these things, click here.

An expert's large garden along a canal in Amiens, France. (Courtesy of Vassil.)
Mistake #2. Starting Too Big.

If you've never gardened before, don't make your first garden a huge one. Time and time again, I've seen newbie gardeners loose interest this way. They just get too overwhelmed, and soon weeds are everywhere and vegetables are on the ground, rotting.

Instead, start with a small patch. As your skills as a veggie gardener grow, expand your garden. It's a lot less frustrating and wasteful!


Mistake #3. Not Paying Attention to Sunlight.

Another common newbie gardening error is not putting the garden in "full sunlight." Yes, there are some edibles that will grow in part shade, but almost all of them are far more productive in full sun.

What exactly is "full sun?" Six hours a day of complete sunlight. In an ideal world, those 6 hours are morning sun, since hotter afternoon sun will wither and dry out plants more quickly. To learn how to figure out how much sunlight your proposed gardening area gets, click here.


Mistake #4. Not Choosing the Right Plants.

If you buy your seeds from a catalog, you'll be tempted by all sorts of plants that just aren't suitable for your climate. All gardeners have been tempted! But if you want a productive garden, you need to focus on seeds and plants that are well suited to your climate.

Plants that grow well in one region may not grow well in another. (Courtesy of Mark Ahsmann.)
First, you need to know your USDA gardening zone. You can easily learn that information at the USDA website. Whatever number the USDA assigns to your area is the gardening zone number you need to look for in seed catalogs and plant tags. Click here for more information on understanding your local gardening climate.

I also recommend that you find a local seed company, if possible. Seeds grown in your area are quite simply most likely to thrive in your garden. If you can't find a local seed company, look for a business that grows seeds in a climate similar to yours.


Mistake #5. Planting Too Early.

Every gardener wants to start his or her garden as soon as the sun comes out in the early spring. But this is a great way to kill plants. Instead, learn you first frost date, and don't plant any veggies before that time. Here's a handy site listing first and last frost dates for the U.S. 

Of course, if you winter sow your seeds, you don't need to worry; you can plant your seedlings out in the garden as soon as they are the right size.

A well mulched potato patch. (Courtesy
Mistake #6. Not Mulching.

Mulch not only prevents the garden from being overrun by weeds, it adds valuable organic matter to the soil, boosting it's fertility, and lowers the need for watering. Examples of organic mulch include straw, wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, and compost. (The latter is most often dug into the soil, but it can also be used on top of the soil, as a mulch.)

Don't allow the mulch to touch plant stems (because this will make them susceptible to disease). Fine mulch (like compost or grass clippings), should be about 2 - 3 inches thick. Mulch with bigger pieces (like bark or straw) can be applied up to 4 inches thick.


Mistake #7. Over Watering and Fertilizing.

Plants will rot and become susceptible to disease when over-watered or -fertilized. Instead, test the soil before watering by sticking a finger about a two inches down into it. If the soil feels dry there, water deeply. Always water in the mornings. (Evening watering may lead to excess dampness and therefore disease; afternoon watering results in too much moisture loss).
Too much water actually damages plants.

If you decide to fertilize your plants, choose an organic fertilizer, and carefully follow the manufacturer's instructions. If you make your own fertilizer (learn how here), I recommend fertilizing once or twice over the entire season. If your soil is well prepped with organic matter, you may not need fertilizer at all.




Mistake #8. Not Harvesting.

Strange as it might at first seem, a lot of inexperienced vegetable gardeners hesitate to harvest their edibles. In fact, a few years ago, I called this the #1 biggest mistake gardeners make. For example, maybe a few beans seem ready, but not enough to feed your family of four - so you let those beans sit on the vine. However, not only will those beans likely go to waste, but when you don't harvest veggies when they are ready to be picked, it sends a signal to the plant that it's time to stop growing. The plant slows production and will eventually go to seed, becoming useless for food.

Instead, harvest even small amounts of edibles when they are ready. (They make great snacks!) Not sure when the food is ready for picking? Click here for advice.


Mistake #9. Not Strolling Through the Garden.

When it's growing season, I grab my morning tea and wander around the garden, just looking. This may seem like a waste of time, but I assure you it's not. By strolling through the garden and observing, you can catch many problems in their early stage - when they are still easy to manage. For example, you may notice something is beginning to munch on one of your lettuce's leaves. This gives you time to research what it might be causing the damage - and act before the critter eats your entire crop.

These daily wanderings also help prevent food waste. Sometimes you can be in the garden one day and all the tomatoes are green, and the next time you see them, a few days later, they are rotting. But that's not gonna happen if you take the time to wander through and enjoy your garden.

Perhaps best of all, daily strolls through the garden are good for you. Study after study (and plenty of good old fashioned experience) shows that gardening makes gardeners healthier. Some of the positive affects are from eating better and getting more exercise, but a good portion of it is simply the peaceful, relaxing experience of being around plants. Take the time to enjoy!



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