5 Mistakes You’re Making in the Garden
Gardening may seem pretty straightforward: plant your seeds, water regularly and watch them grow into beautiful, strong, lush plants. Unfortunately it’s not always that simple.
Growing a successful garden means you need to pay attention to the soil you’re using, the climate and temperature and the way certain plants interact with one another. Gardening is not always a “set it and forget it” endeavour. However, if you follow a few basic rules, you can take your garden from ho-hum to hot damn!
Maybe you’ve tried growing a garden in the past with limited success. Perhaps you’ve never grown anything at all and have no idea what to pay attention to. Or maybe you’ve just accepted the “fact” that you’ re a brown thumb and are incapable of growing or keeping any plants alive.
If any of this sounds like you, read on to discover five common mistakes that might be standing in the way of you and a healthy, high-yielding garden.
1) You treat your soil like dirt
Green thumbs know that good, balanced soil, rich in organic matter is the first key to success in the garden. Plants get their nutrients from the soil, so naturally the soil needs to be full of nutrition.
Rich, dark soil -the type with earthworms munching their way through it- is the good stuff. Dirt, on the other hand, is void of nutrients and tends to be dustier, lighter in colour and “dead,” meaning no signs of worms or other insects.
Planting in good, nutrient-rich soil gives your plants everything they need to grow strong and healthy. Planting in dirt is like feeding your plants a diet of white bread and crackers: it might be enough to survive on but not to thrive on.
You should also fertilize at regular intervals to feed your soil the nutrients it needs. This, in turn, feeds your fruits and veggies the nutrients they need. This, of course, is also super important because your fruits and veggies will someday feed those nutrients to you and your family. See how that works?
Soil also needs to be balanced, meaning it needs to be at the right pH level for the plant’s preferences. The pH level determines how acidic or alkaline the soil is. The pH (potential Hydrogen) level of soil is measured on a 14-point scale. A low pH (anything under 7.0) is considered acidic. 7.0 is neutral and anything over 7.0 is considered alkaline.
Certain plants prefer more acidic or more alkaline soil. For example, blueberries prefer more acidic soil, so adding a little vinegar or some coffee grounds (highly acidic) to the soil can boost your blueberry production. But many other plants -including broccoli, beans and garlic- can tolerate a higher PH level, meaning a more alkaline soil.
While you could test your soil with a special kit, the easiest way to know if you need to fertilize or amend your soil is by watching your plants grow and seeing if they look full and healthy or if they’re small, stunted or weak and wilted. You can also check out this DIY soil test from lifehacker.com. You can then amend your soil with different natural fertilizers and organic matter, like vinegar and coffee grounds for acidity or wood ash for alkalinity.
2) You’re planting the wrong things at the wrong times
Depending on your growing zone, different seeds and plants need to go in the ground at different times of the year. Some do better if they’re started indoors and transplanted to the garden as seedlings. Others do better if you direct sow the seeds.
Knowing what to plant when, and how to do it the right way can make all the difference when trying to get seeds to germinate, seedlings to survive and plants to reach their full potential in the garden.
To know when and how to plant in your area, you need to know when your average first and last frost dates are. In colder climates the last frost comes later in the year and the first frost comes earlier, making for a shorter growing season. In warmer climates it is the opposite (and in some, no frost at all) making for a longer and even year-round growing season.
Different plants need to go in the ground at different times in relation to the first and last frost dates in your growing region. If planted too early, the ground may still be too cold and seeds won’t germinate. If planted too late, it may not have time to grow to its full potential or for fruits and vegetables to ripen before it gets too cold again.
To find out when your first and last frost dates are, check out these frost charts for popular regions in the US (US Frost Chart) and Canada (Canadian Frost Chart). You can also just Google “your region or municipality” + “average frost dates” to find out when to expect the first and last frost in your area.
3) You’re not growing the right plants together
Just like certain types of people get along better than others, certain types of plants get along better than others as well. You should always consider which plants will benefit from being planted together and which ones you should separate (much the same way as you would separate siblings who aren’t getting along).
This practice is called companion planting, and it can have a big impact on your garden. For example, planting basil with tomatoes is a good idea because they are great companions, both in the garden and on your dinner plate! Basil helps to repel all sorts of pests from tomato plants, including white flies, mosquitoes and aphids. It is also said to enhance the flavour of tomatoes as they grow.
Planting nasturtiums or marigolds in the veggie garden is also a great choice as these flowers are well-known for their pest-repelling properties. They make great companions for most fruits and vegetables.
On the other hand, plants that make poor companions can be a recipe for disaster when grown close together. Beans, for instance, should not be planted alongside members of the allium family (onions, garlic, chives, leeks, etc.) These plants can stunt the growth of beans and other legumes such as peas. Likewise, brassicas (including broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts) don’t grow well when planted next to members of the nightshade family (such as tomatoes and peppers). Nightshades can negatively affect the growth and even the taste of brassicas.
Don’t get too caught up with following all the rules of companion planting, otherwise planning your garden beds might turn into a way more stressful process than it needs to be. Lots of gardeners report having success growing plants together that shouldn’t get along. But keeping companion planting in mind can help to ensure a successful garden.
Try to stick to the basic rules of companion planting: DON’T plant certain plants that are well-known for not getting along (like those mentioned above), and DO plant a variety of plants that work together to improve the soil, repel unwanted pests and enhance each other’s flavour.
4) You’re not rotating your crops
Just as it’s important to use soil rich in all the right nutrients to feed your plants, it’s equally important to rotate your crops each year to make sure they are getting all that they need from the soil and are giving back as well.
Rotating crops simply means that you do not plant the exact same thing in the exact same spot two years in a row. You want to move them (rotate them) around the garden and grow plants from different families in different areas. This helps to minimize pests and diseases that may be lurking in the soil and will attack certain plants from the same family. It also helps to ensure that the soil in a certain area is not depleted of specific nutrients.
Since members of the same plant family tend to feed on the same nutrients, planting them in the same spot year after year will only deplete the soil of those nutrients which, in turn, will make for a weaker crop. For example, broccoli and other members of the brassica family are heavy feeders, meaning they suck up a lot of nutrients from the soil. Brassicas need to be rotated every year into soil that is rich in nutrients and so that the soil where they grew the previous year has a chance to replenish.
Beans and legumes are considered light feeders, and are beneficial to soil. In fact, they feed the soil and their leaves should actually be mulched into the soil when they die off as they will put tons of nutrients back into the soil where they were planted.
Again, don’t get too caught up in the nitty gritty of crop rotation as it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where everything should go. This is especially true if you are planting more than one member of each plant family or are working with a small space.
Again, try to stick to the basic rules of crop rotation: DON’T plant the same exact thing in the same exact spot as the previous year, and try to avoid planting members of the same plant family in the same spot two years in a row. DO rotate your crops to some degree every year and try your best to plant heavy feeders where light feeders previously grew and visa versa.
5) You’re not planting with pollinators in mind
While you may be making every effort to repel pests both large and small from your garden, you may be overlooking the importance of attracting beneficial insects and pollinators.
Bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and even wasps are all considered pollinators or predatory insects and are especially important for plants that rely on pollinators for crop production.
Apples, cucumbers, blueberries, and squash all need to be cross-pollinated in order to bear fruit. This means they rely on pollinators to carry pollen from the stamen (male reproductive organ) of one flower to the pistil (female reproductive organ) of another flower.
Much the same as humans cannot impregnate themselves, plant species that depend on pollinators need them to carry pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of another flower in order to “impregnate” that flower and cause it to produce fruit.
Members of the squash family, for example, have male and female flowers and the females will not produce fruit without cross-pollination. Apple blossoms, on the other hand, have both male and female parts, but they rely on cross-pollination from a different variety of nearby apple tree in order to bear fruit!
Some plants are self-pollinating, however, and will bear fruit without the help of pollinators. Such plants include tomatoes, peas and beans. But by and large you will do yourself a world of good if you take a few simple steps to attract beneficial pollinators to your garden.
Don’t worry about trying to wrap your head around how pollination works or which plants require what type of pollination. All you need to worry about is attracting pollinators in the first place and nature will pretty much take care of the rest.
Consider taking the following steps to attract beneficial pollinators to your garden:
Hang a hummingbird feeder
Pick up a hummingbird feeder for less than $20 at most garden and hardware stores. Then make the nectar for pennies instead of buying it pre-made. Just mix 1 part sugar with 4 parts water and bring to a boil in a saucepan. Turn the heat off, mix well and let cool. Then transfer to your feeder and watch the hummingbirds flock to your garden!
Build a bee hotel
Honey bees aren’t the only pollinating bees around. Mason bees are lesser known and can even be mistaken for flies. They are excellent pollinators, however, and they don’t sting!
You can attract Mason bees to your garden by building a bee hotel for them. Follow these plans from Burt’s Bees to build your own bee hotel.
You might also be able to buy a pre-made “hotel” from a local Mason bee supplier in your area and have it set up in your garden with Mason bee larvae already in the holes of the bee box. A quick Google search should tell you if there are any such suppliers in your area.
Add a water feature to your garden
Butterflies, birds and bees all need water as well. Consider adding a birdbath or other water feature to your garden to attract them. Adding water to your garden will also help attract dragonflies. While dragonflies aren’t pollinators, they are considered to be very beneficial bugs as they prey on pests such as gnats, flies and mosquitoes.
Plant a flower garden
Pollinators are attracted to the bright colours of flowers, so don’t forget to add in some flowers when you’re planning your veggie garden!
Lavender is always a nice addition to the garden as it looks pretty and smells great, has healing and medicinal properties (and certain types are edible), plus it’s a major attractant for honey bees.
Scarlett Runner beans are another great addition to your veggie garden as they produce bright red flowers that attract loads of hummingbirds, and also produce beans to eat!
Gardening success is simple science
Planting and growing a successful garden does involve a little science, but it’s not rocket science. Anyone is capable of turning a handful of seeds into a bumper crop if they follow a few basic gardening rules. Even then, some rules can be broken.
If you’re not sure how two plants will do side-by-side, plant them together and see! If you’re not sure how good your soil is, plant some seeds in it and watch how they grow (or don’t grow).
Remember there are no failures in the garden, only learning experiences. Even the most experienced gardeners face challenges and setbacks from year to year. But that is how we learn and grow as gardeners ourselves. Don’t get too hung up on how successful your garden is. Look at it like a science experiment and resolve to learn from it to become a better gardener year after year.
Perhaps you’ve had little success in the garden before or you’ve never even tried growing anything because you have no idea what to do. The best thing you can do is to take some time to plan your garden before actually planting anything. When planning what will go where, take the common mistakes listed above into account and try to avoid them.
Whatever you do, don’t stress about it too much! Growing a garden can be a beautiful, bountiful, rewarding experience, but not if all it does is stress you out. If some things don’t grow as planned, do your best to figure out why and then try doing things differently the following year. It’s not the end of the world. That is, after all, the beauty of gardening: There’s always a new season to begin again.
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