Whether you've been a gardener for two days or twenty years, mistakes in the garden are sometimes inevitable. There are some mistakes, however, that can easily be avoided. Take a moment and find out which mistakes you might not know you're making; by avoiding these mistakes, this year's harvest could be your best yet.
By the time spring finally rolls around, most gardeners are eager to get back into the garden. But, if you live where temperatures can still dip below freezing, avoid setting out tender crops such as tomato, cucumber, melon, eggplant, and pepper. These vegetables should stay under cover until nightly temperatures remain at least 55 degrees F. If you want to give them a little head start, plant them under a grow cloth, cloche, milk jug, or other type of protection.
Some salad crops, such as spinach, looseleaf lettuce, arugula, and kale, don't mind growing shoulder to shoulder. However, most vegetables do best when they aren't packed together too tightly. Tomatoes, for example, require good air circulation to remain healthy, so be sure to space them at least 2-3 feet apart. If planted too closely, your plants are more likely to be stricken with problems such as blight or mildew. Other vegetables that need a bit more breathing room include broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, sweet corn, potatoes, and peppers.
Consistent watering is essential for good harvests. Most crops do just fine when they receive about an inch of moisture a week. Buy a rain gauge to monitor rainfall and use a drip irrigation system or soaker hose to make up the deficit during dry spells. Plants that are deprived of water will show obvious signs of wilting and yellow leaves and the fruit will be stunted or deformed. Vegetables receiving too much water will generally be fine as long as your soil drains well, although melons and tomatoes may crack if watering is inconsistent. But, if excess water puddles in your garden, your crops will suffer and the leaves will turn yellow. The only way to fix this is to improve your soil by working in several inches of organic matter. A layer of mulch applied around your crops will also help keep soil moisture consistent.
Vegetables and herbs need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day to perform well. Some leaf crops such as lettuce and spinach can be grown in partial shade, but even they don't perform all that well out of direct sunlight. If you don't have a sunny plot of land for a traditional garden, try gardening in containers that you can move around on your deck or patio to take advantage of what sun you do have. Vegetables grown in shady conditions won't generally produce fruit, or if they do produce a crop it will be smaller and less flavorful than any grown in full sun.
Good soil is the key to success with any garden and is especially important when you are growing food crops. Vegetables are heavy feeders, so if you don't improve your soil with several inches of compost, rotted manure, or shredded leaves, your crops will probably suffer. The best time to improve your soil is in the early spring right after it begins to dry out. Do a soil test, or take a handful of soil and squeeze it in your palm. If the soil forms a tight mass, it's still too wet to work. If it holds it shape but can be easily teased apart, it's ready to go. Spread several inches of organic matter over the surface of the soil and till or spade it into the top foot of soil. Then, your garden will be ready for planting.
It's probably no surprise that weeds will choke your crops and compete with them for moisture and food. But, did you realize that some weed seeds can remain dormant in the soil for decades and that a single specimen of the common weed lambs quarters can produce up 500,000 seeds per plant? That's why it's really important to eliminate weeds as soon as you spot them. If you allow just one weed to mature and set seed, you'll find yourself fighting the problem for years. To keep weeds at bay, start by spreading mulch over the surface of the soil right after planting. Then, if any weeds start to break through the mulch barrier, remove them by hand or use a sharp hoe that will cut the plants off at the roots. Avoid using chemical herbicides, especially in a food garden.
It's easy to get a little out of control when it comes to growing vegetables and herbs. The idea of harvesting baskets of delicious, fresh produce can tempt you to plant crops your family doesn't really like. For example, if your kids won't eat green beans, use the space in your garden to grow veggies everyone can enjoy. There's no reason to grow everything you find in the seed catalog if all you really need are some tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers. And, more important, there's no need to grow 20 tomato plants when two or three will do the job. Plus, having so many vegetables growing at once takes time and energy and could lead you to slack off on weeding, watering, and other chores.
Vegetables aren't magical; they don't produce fruit on their own without being fed properly. Besides amending your soil with compost, it's a good idea to add some additional compost every time you sow or harvest a new crop. Granular, slow-release fertilizers are also helpful and will feed your plants for up to 90 days. Simply sprinkle the granules around your plants according to label directions, and every time it rains your plants will get a quick meal. On the other hand, be careful you don't overfeed your plants. Some crops such as tomatoes will produce more foliage than fruit if they are given too much nitrogen.
Vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans, and melons do best when they can grow up, over, or through a support that keeps their fruit from touching the ground. Tomatoes grow well in sturdy cages designed just for them, and melons and cucumbers can be trained to sprawl over a mesh tunnel or trellis. Pole beans prefer to twine their way up a trellis, tepee, or other vertical support. The supports help keep these crops healthier by providing better air circulation and the fruits stay healthier and cleaner held high above the surface of the soil.
Keep insect pests at bay by inspecting your crops at least once a week. Take a few minutes and examine both the upper and lower surface of the leaves and eliminate any pests you see as soon as possible. Once they get a foothold, it doesn't take long for insect populations to explode and ruin an entire crop. And keep in mind that most insects only attack a particular kind of crop, so if you don't see any damage on your tomatoes, your squash may be under attack just a few feet away. The good news is that most pests can be eradicated by being vigilant and removing the worst offenders by hand. But if you do find yourself fighting an army of pests, use a biological control that's safe to spray on food crops.