5 Common Mistakes In The Backyard Vegetable Garden

Thinking of growing a backyard vegetable garden? Save time and money by avoiding these simple pitfalls.

Vegetable gardenZbynek Pospisil/Getty Images

Common Vegetable Garden Mistakes

You’re likely to err when you take your first stab at vegetable gardening. As a brilliant 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 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 learn from your mistakes. It’s bound to make you a better gardener!

1. Great Expectations for Your Backyard Vegetable Garden

Filled with enthusiasm, many rookie gardeners plant large gardens without considering the time and effort needed to maintain them. Check out this list of 12 popular veggies and their suggested planting dates!

Set Realistic Expectations

“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,” Rein 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.”

Too Much Maintenance is a Bad Thing

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, ­over fertilizing and over pruning,” Rein 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: Put 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,” Rein says. Meet 11 easy-to-grow plants for a shade garden.

Common Mistake With Full Sun Plants

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 chances are your yield will decrease and the fruits won’t be nearly as sweet, Rein warns.

Track the Sunlight Before Planting

To avoid this mistake, track the sunlight in the area you’re considering for about a week before you plant. This should give you enough time to observe the way light hits your yard on 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 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,” Rein says. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to prepare the planting site.”

Get a Good Soil Combo

Good soil means the right combination of silt, clay and organic material. Too much sand can dry out your plants. Compact soils with too much clay can lead to poor air and water circulation. Learn more about improving your soil.

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 exceptionally loose and grainy, indicating a sandy soil type?

“For sandy soil, add a higher ratio of organic material,” Rein recommends. “Place at least two inches on top of the bed and work it in evenly to a depth of four to six inches. For clay soil, you should work in an ample amount of compost, so that the ratio of clay to organic material ratio is roughly 50:50.” Learn more about starting a garden and doing a soil test.

Be Sure to Add Organic Matter

Adding organic matter improves your soil’s texture and nutrient balance. But you can also test soil 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. Learn about changing your soil’s pH here.

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to prepare the planting site,” Rein says.

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,” Rein 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.” Check out our lawn and garden fertilizer guide.

Balanced Nutrition is Key

Plants, like people, require balanced nutrition. Just as humans can overload 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,” Rein 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.”

Avoid Overfeeding

Plants can metabolize only so much. To avoid overfeeding, Rein 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 says. “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: over-attentive or neglectful,” Rein 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.” Learn how to install a drip irrigation system.

Rein 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,” Rein 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. Click here for more watering tips.

Install a Drip-Irrigation System

“If you’re really concerned about minimizing water waste while still watering effectively, install a drip-­irrigation system in your garden,” Rein 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. “Consistent watering is critical to disease resistance and the development of root systems,” Rein says. Here are 10 ways to save money in the garden.

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