You’re likely to err when you take your first stab at vegetable gardening. As a very smart individual once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
Not that we advocate making preventable errors. After all, gardening blunders cost you both time and money. So with that in mind, we asked Bill Rein, a horticulturist at W. Atlee Burpee & Co., to point out the common missteps of beginning gardeners. After reviewing these, feel free to make your own mistakes from them. It’s bound to make you a better gardener!
1. Great expectations for your backyard vegetable garden
High on their own enthusiasm, many veggie gardeners bite off more than they can chew by planting gardens without considering the time and effort needed to maintain them.
“You have to remember that plants are living things, so neglect—unless you’re very lucky—means dead plants or, at the very least, sad-looking plants,” Bill says. “Be realistic about how much time you have for gardening, and refrain from growing more than you can maintain. A small, healthy garden is a lot more attractive than loads of wilting plants among a mass of weeds.”
And too much maintenance can be as bad as too little. “Some of the new gardeners I’ve met during my travels are so dedicated that they actually end up overdoing it: overwatering, overfertilizing and overpruning,” Bill says. “It’s easy to do if you really enjoy tinkering in the garden.”
To avoid showering your plants with too much attention, draw up a weekly checklist of maintenance tasks and stick to it.
2. Ignoring light requirements
It sounds simple enough: Locate plants that need full sun in sunny areas and those that prefer shade in shady areas.
“But you’d be surprised at how many gardeners, new and old, get this wrong,” Bill says.
Full sun actually means the plant grows best in six or more hours of direct sunlight. Sure, you can plant it in a spot that gets fewer than six hours, but the chances are your yield will decrease and the fruits won’t be nearly as sweet, Bill warns.
To avoid making this mistake with the area you’re considering, track the sunlight there for about a week before you plant. This should give you enough time to observe the way light hits your yard on both sunny and cloudy days. If you monitor sunlight in early spring, be sure to account for how much shade nearby trees will produce after they fully leaf out.
If you don’t have time or aren’t at home enough to make such observations, try a digital monitor like the SunCalc.
3. Forgetting to Make Amends
“Amending the soil is the first and most important task before you start planting,” Bill says. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to prepare the planting site.”
Good soil means the right combination of silt, clay and organic material. Too much sand in the soil can dry your plants out. Compact soils with too much clay can lead to poor air and water circulation.
Start by digging the bed, then removing weeds, debris and rocks so you can see and touch the soil. Grab a handful. Does it feel compacted or gummy, or does it appear to be exceptionally loose and grainy, indicating a sandy soil type?
“For sandy soil, add a higher ratio of organic material,” Bill recommends. “Place at least 2 inches on top of the bed and work it in evenly to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. For clay soil, you should work in an ample amount of compost, so that the ratio of clay to organicmaterial ratio is roughly 50:50.”
Adding organic matter improves your soil’s texture and nutrient balance. But you can also get a soil test by taking samples to your local university extension office. The tests are helpful because they indicate which nutrients your soil lacks and what should be added, as well as the soil’s pH level and what should be done to change it. Then you can remedy the situation accordingly.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to prepare the planting site.”
4. Assuming more fertilizer is better
“There are lots of new and longtime gardeners who burn up their lawns and plants by being heavy-handed with fertilizer,” Bill says. “It’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s also easy to avoid if you just take the time to understand how fertilizer works.”
Plants, like people, require balanced nutrition. Just as humans can overdose on vitamins or other supplements, plants can get sick or even die when they take in too much of one or more nutrients.
“A gardener reads the fertilizer rate on the back of the bottle or bag and decides that adding a bit more than recommended will speed up the results,” Bill observes. “A few days later, dramatic results aren’t visible, so the gardener decides to add just a bit more fertilizer. Before you know it, the plants begin to show results—they start to turn brown.”
Plants can metabolize only so much before they literally overdose. To avoid overfeeding, Bill recommends following fertilizer instructions to the letter. That means adding only the recommended amount as often as the label instructs.
“Remember that some fertilizers are designed to feed gradually,” he reminds veggie gardeners. “There’s no need to reapply if the fertilizer is continuously releasing nutrients into the soil. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not working.”
5. Willy-Nilly Watering
“Most first-year gardeners fall into two categories: overattentive or neglectful,” Bill says. “The overattentive bunch waters way too frequently and often ends up with root rot. The neglectful group forgets to keep up with regular watering and ends up with dried-up, wilting plants.”
Bill recommends that gardeners test soil moisture by simply placing a finger about an inch or so into the soil. If it feels dry, go ahead and water thoroughly. If it feels moist, wait a day and check again.
Here’s another thing to avoid: watering above the plants.
“Sure, it’s easier to water above the plants, but it’s not very efficient,” Bill says. “In fact, it can cause leaf spot and blight problems.”
It’s best to place a hose nozzle atop the soil, directly over a plant’s roots, and allow just a trickle of water to be absorbed into the soil. Or put your hose nozzle on the soaker setting, then manually water the base of the plant.
“If you’re really concerned about minimizing water waste while still watering effectively, install a drip-irrigation system in your garden,” Bill suggests. “It’s a worthwhile investment for plants that require consistent watering, which include vegetables.”
Speaking of consistency, make it one of your watering priorities, Bill says: “Consistent watering is critical to disease resistance and the development of root systems.”