Growing veggies is as easy as planting a seed and watering it, right? Um, yeah, maybe if you are lucky! The past four years, I have grown food on 2 splendid acres for 50 families. This past year, I grew food only for my household, in new soil, practically breaking new ground, and I felt like a complete novice. I finally understood what budding home gardeners go through in the first few year of establishing a garden. It's tough work, learning your soil, and learning from mistakes. Here are 10 issues that gardeners have and some common FAQs to help you through your gardening blues:
1. Not enough sunlight. For some, this might seem obvious, but for beginners, this is a huge issue. After all, growing your own is tres chic right now, and we all just want to plant everything, everywhere! But this isn't always possible. If you don't have full sun where your garden is planted, chances are, it won't thrive. What does full sun mean? The technical definition is 6 hours of full, direct sun everyday. (Excluding cloudy days of course!). What happens if your veggies don't get enough sunlight? Symptoms include: little to no seed germination, long floppy stems, yellowing of leaves and mold/bacterial issues. Another thing to consider: As the season progresses, the position of the sun changes in the sky. Some sunny areas of the garden might become shady or sunny depending on this. Try to work this into your favor choosing what you plant in those places wisely.
2. Too much/too little water. Most garden vegetables are considered European. If you consider the ideal European climate, think regular rain, intermixed with sunlight. The recommended amount of water for most of your common garden veggies is 1" per week. What does this translate into? If you use overhead sprinklers, this translates into 63 gallons per week for a 100 square foot garden. Check the flow of your watering system to calculate how long this should take. Drip irrigation is a great way to make watering a breeze and use less of it, once you have the system in place.
3. Reacting too little too late. Once I heard about a very Zen-minded farmer in Japan who readily planned to let 1/3 of his farm go to weather, 1/3 to hungry critters and the remaining 1/3 to market. That's one (spiritual) solution to garden pests! However, if you want to plan on keeping most of your harvest for your own use, you have to act fast at the first signs of trouble. If you see one plant that has been munched by critters, chances are, those critters will be back the next day planning on gorging on your veggies. See signs of disease? Diagnose and treat immediately. Some diseases can wipe out an entire crop, as well as spread throughout the region. See signs of beetles or slugs? Implement barricades to protect your plants. Solutions often take a bit of troubleshooting, the faster you act, the more time you have to adjust your solutions to save your future harvest.
4. Waiting too long to harvest. Some garden vegetables announce when they are ready to pick by being irresistible, like tomatoes and peas. Others do not. The key is to know what the vegetable looks like when you want to eat it, and pick. There's no waiting around for some. Take a look at our tips for knowing when your veggies are ready.
5. Neglecting the soil. The same batch of seedlings, started from the same batch of seed, treated identically will act completely different in different soils. Before you begin any garden endeavor, have your soil tested. Make sure you can actually grow something in your soil, and then go from there. You might need to import top soil and grow in raised beds or you might have rich, fertile soil. One you have established a good growing medium it is vital that you feed it every year. Remember, you are taking all the nutrients out of the soil in the form of your vegetables and eating them. You've got to put back what you take.
6. Leaving weeds for "later." How much harm can those itty, bitty weeds do? Not much now but give them a week or two and they can certainly choke out a lot. Think about it: Just look at any open space. Is it full of vegetables? No, it's full of the same plants that keep popping up all over your garden. If you gently cultivate the small weeds in your garden once a week, it's actually a lot less work than letting the garden get over grown and trying to save your vegetable by tearing out a weed forest.
7. Planting in small containers/planting too close. When plants are small, you can fit them into small containers. But they will stay small with no space for their roots nor nutrition from a good supply of soil. Plus, containers dry out very quickly. Pay attention to the planting instructions on seed packets, even when planting a container garden. If your kale needs 18" of space, but your pot is only 4" across, it won't grow to be the luscious kale plant of your dreams. I promise. Similar to the issue above, you have got to give your plants room to grow. I know it seems a cruel fate in the garden, to plant seeds, then rip out the ones you don't like. But this is the name of the gardening game. If you think you want more than what you are able to leave based on the plants space needs, then plant a bigger area next year, don't cram a bunch in a small space and expect high yields. Beets need 4-8 inches to produce a nice, fat, round beet. If you never thin them, and leave them in a thick cluster, you might not even get one beet. And that would be a beet tragedy. What to do with the thinnings? For most things, I say eat them!
8. Planting at the wrong time. Think you are getting ahead by planting all your seeds in a warm spring? Not if the weather turns and it snows 8" the next week! While weather is quite unpredictable, it's still a good rule of thumb to follow recommended advice for planting according to the climate in your region. Frost always kills tomatoes, and spinach always bolts in 100 degree weather. Plan to avoid these travesties by planting the majority of your garden according to conventional wisdom for your region. Having said all that, it's always fun to try to get ahead, or push the season a bit longer. If the mood strikes you in a warm spring, it's okay to plant some cold hardy crops early or tomatoes under protection, but always have a back up plan, just in case.
9. Thinking you don't need a fence. Will ground hogs eat this? Yep. Is this tomato variety deer tolerate? Um, never.
I heard about a product you can spray on to deter critters? Only by coincidence! Sorry, no quick solution. Protect your plants (and yourself from disappointment) and put up a fence. A good one. Because where there's a will, there's a way, and the critters will get in if they can!
10. Having high expectations. This is where we talk about that Zen farmer again! (See # 3.) We always picture the garden of our dreams, don't we? And when the garden of our dreams turns out to be the garden of our nightmares, it's more than a little heartbreaking, isn't it? Perhaps it's a really really bad year, and your garden suffered from one turn to the next. Or perhaps you are making a mountain out of the numerous vole hills. Protect your tender heart as you would your tender seedlings, and try to set the bar low (or lower). Some things you can control (see 1-9) and some things you can't (see hurricane Irene). Work at the things you can control, and accept the things you can't. There is a lot to learn from your relationship with your garden!