There’s nothing like the feeling of starting your own vegetable garden. It’s the beginning of a thrilling journey that rewards you and the environment of nature and people in many ways. It’s the realization of what food should taste like. It’s the realization of just how precious food is.
One of the most important things we should know when starting a garden is that mistakes will be made, no matter how many books and websites we read. Have no fear, though, for this will make you a better gardener. Nothing beats experience.
Still, it is good for the newbie gardener to minimize the most easily avoidable mistakes.
Planting Too Much. Start small; allow yourself to become familiar with the basic act of gardening and how much work it takes. Begin with just a few types of vegetables and plan on expanding the following year. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and snap beans are fairly forgiving for the novice gardener. Kale and leafy greens are good, easy cool season crops. Maybe try a bit of broccoli.
Not enough sunlight. Vegetable plants require at least six hours of direct sunlight to thrive. Summer vegetables like tomatoes and peppers are especially demanding of full sun. Cool-season crops are a little more forgiving of shade, with lettuce being perhaps the most shade tolerant. This also depends on climate. In the deep south, afternoon shade is actually welcome.
Poor soil preparation. Soil is perhaps the most critical aspect of a vegetable garden. It must be deep, loose, friable, and nutrient-rich. Incorporating plenty of organic matter in the form of compost or well-rotted manure is the best way to amend soil and keep it healthy. Hard, compacted ground must be tilled or turned. A raised bed is the ideal approach to good soil for small gardens.
Planting at the wrong time. Many crops have a relatively short window of opportunity for the ideal planting time. Plant cucumbers too early and they will suffer with the slightest frost. Plant broccoli too late in spring and it will bolt (flower) with hot weather. Make sure and check with a local source like the Ag Extension office for the best planting times in your particular area.
Improper plant spacing. Spacing is crucial for allowing the plants to develop fully and to allow plenty of sunlight and airflow (important for disease prevention). Even though new plants look small, they will get much bigger by the time they are producing. When seeding things like carrots, it is important to thin plants to the proper spacing (indicated on the seed packet) after seedlings have emerged.
Improper watering. The amount of watering needed will vary depending on soil and climate conditions. Good garden soil stays moist but is well-drained. Seeds and small seedlings need to be watered at least once a day to keep the soil moist, but not flooded. For established plants, let the top inch of soil dry between watering. Overwatering can be just as bad as underwatering.
Fertilizing too much. The most important way to “feed the plants” is to feed the soil with organic matter. This creates a natural micro-ecosystem that enriches the soil. Applying too much chemical fertilizer will cause lush green growth with little or no fruit. Make sure to apply fertilizer exactly as directions indicate. Organic fertilizers are better because they must be broken down by microorganisms to become available to the plant, moderating the nutrient release.