So you want to start gardening. That’s great! There are many reasons to grow your own food, from enjoying the freshest posable produce, to having control of what goes into your body, to the joy of being out-of-doors with your hands in the dirt.
But if you’ve just been bitten by the gardening bug, you’ll want to avoid a few common pitfalls to ensure you stick with it for years to come.
Mistake #1: Going to Big.
Ok, you decide, I’m putting in a garden. You run out and rent a roto-tiller and start converting half your lawn into beds. You have visions of rising 90 different kinds of vegetables and replacing 50% of your calories with home-grown food. I applaud your enthusiasm but stop. You may have dreams of your yard looking like the picture above, but if you are just staring out, your setting yourself up for failure.
Gardening, like any other skill, takes time, patience and practice to do well. It’s far better to start small, learn and experiment, and find out what works and how much time you’re willing to invest before burring yourself in a massive project. A few potted tomato plants, or a single 4’ x 8’ raised bed should be plenty to start you off. You’ll be surprised by how much you can produce in this limited space.
Also limit the variety of vegetables you plant. Three or four will do, along with maybe a couple of herbs. Tomatoes, peppers, beans, and onions are a great choice for a single bed. The different plant heights allow them to share space, and they complement each other well on your plate. A little basil and oregano round out the mix nicely.
Learn what it really takes in terms of time, effort, and money on this small scale, and the pleasing results will encourage you to expand in future years.
Mistake #2 Not Preparing your Soil Properly
If you are going with potted plants, some garden vegetable potting mix will do the trick. But if you are going in-ground or with raised beds, smart preparation is key. Most suburbanites converting a patch of lawn are going to find a lot of rock and hard clay beneath their grass. Digging up a bunch of sod is also a lot of work. Luckily you can avoid both. Here is a simple formula for getting those beds going.
- Start in the fall. Yes, that’s right. It takes time for soil to build so use the fall and winter to your advantage.
- Cut the lawn in the areas you want to convert at the lowest setting with a mulching mower. Don’t bag the clippings.
- Lay down 2 -3” of compost over the area.
- Cover the compost with plain newspaper (not glossy) or cardboard and soak thoroughly.
- Cover that with another 3-4” of compost.
- And finally add a 3-4” layer of mulch. What is mulch? It’s any brown plant matter such as fall leaves, grass clippings, straw, or chopped up pruning’s from other plants.
Keep your new beds moist with weekly watering until the first frost, then let nature do its thing. In the spring just clear away a little mulch where you want each plant (do NOT turn over the entire bed!) and dig into the nice rich soil nature has been hard at work building for you.
Mistake #3: Not Protecting Your Plants
It’s additional work, but fencing, frost covers, and bird netting is key if you want a yield from your garden. Birds, rabbits, and deer will make short work of your plants if you don’t protect them. If you’re constructing a 4’ x 8’ raised bed, add posts about 4 feet tall from the corners of your bed, and center of the long sides. Connect the posts with cross-beams. 1” x 1”’s or bamboo poles work well for this. Attach bird netting to the top and sides of the frame, overlapping by about a foot at various points on the side to create entrance points you can lift back for harvesting. The netting will keep out most garden interlopers. The frame can also be used to support frost covers if planting early spring greens, and to attach supports for your tomato’s or other climbing plants.
Mistake #4: Not Automating your watering
New gardeners without an established routine are easily side-tracked by other commitments and can forget to water each day. You may even want to take a vacation sometime and not come back to dead plants. It would be wise then to invest a few dollars in a watering system. A $5 sprinkler and $15 watering timer (assuming you have a hose) are all you really need. Set it to water on a gentle setting for about 20 min each morning before the heat of the day. It’s one less job and one less worry for you, and your plants will thank you for it.
Mistake #5: Not Planning for Abundance
If you’ve followed the first four tips, you are going to be rewarded with substantial yield from your garden. Nothing is more discouraging then seeing ½ of it go to waste because you were not prepared to preserve your bounty. Once plants start producing you should be checking for new ripe veggies every other day. Pick all that have reached a desired size, are ripe, or are nearly so. Better to let a few vegetables finish ripening on the window sill then drop to the ground to be eaten by bugs.
Decided before you plant your garden if you are going to freeze, can, dry, or give-away your surplus. Stock up on the supplies you’ll need when you are buying your plants, and watch instructional videos while those plants are growing. That way you’ll be all set to go when you harvest, and won’t have to see your harvest spoil because you couldn’t get out for a week to buy canning jars.
Follow these 5 tips and you’ll find your first foray into gardening will be rewarding, successful, and inspire you to keep growing year after year.