1. Ignoring Soil Health: attempting to grow high quality plants from a low quality soil.
There’s nothing better than sinking your teeth into your own home-grown, delicious, nutrient-rich food. That kind of food not only tastes amazing, it works wonders for your health. Where do plants get the nutrients necessary to create such flavorful and healthy food? The answer is: the nutrients in the soil.
You cannot expect to have amazing food without an amazing soil. Even if you get a pretty good harvest from a plot of ground that you never improve on, the quality of your produce will be less. It would be like eating three carrots to get the same amount of vitamin A you could get from just one carrot that came from a garden where the soil was well invested in.
The single best way to increase your soil’s health and nutrient holding capacity is to add tons of organic matter. Organic matter such as brown and green composts, brown and green manures, vermicomposts, peat moss, crop residues, composts from greenwastes, and others are all examples of different organic matter sources that will greatly enhance your soil’s condition. Adding large amounts of organic matter to a garden soil on a regular basis is one of the grand keys that opens the door to gardening success.
2. Poor Light Management: misplacing the garden plot on your property or misplacing plants within the garden plot itself or both.
Light is the energy source plants use to convert carbon dioxide from the air to make carbohydrates and protein, or in other words, it takes sunlight for plants to make food for you and me. If a plant is to be maximally productive it needs to receive the maximum amount of sunlight possible, at least six hours of direct sunlight a day, preferably more than eight. Of course, there are plants that actually prefer shade over direct sunlight but in general this is not true for food-producing plants. First-rate food production requires an abundance of sunlight.
That being said, it is critical to design your property such that the garden plot is placed where it will receive the greatest amount of direct sunlight during the growing season. Where possible, remove any obstacles that may shade the garden area. If your garden is in the shadow of your house or a big tree for the better part of the day, you cannot reasonably expect your plants to produce lots of quality food.
Additionally, make sure that plants don’t shade one another within the garden plot itself. Tall crops like corn, pole beans and peas, or fruit trees should all be towards the back of the garden, while shorter crops like carrots, beets, or radishes should be towards the front of the garden. The “front” or “back” of a garden are relative terms depending on where you live on the earth. If you live in the northern hemisphere, your “back” of the garden is the north side of the garden while your “front” of the garden is the south side of the garden; in the southern hemisphere it is the opposite. Arranging your garden to reduce shading and maximize light interception by your plants will greatly enhance your plants’ abilities to produce delicious food for you en masse.
3. Poor Timing: planting the wrong plants at the wrong times of the year.
Some of us love hot weather, others prefer it cool. And so it is with plants: some plants thrive in summer heat while others do best in the cool weather of spring or autumn. Making sure to plant the right plant at the right time of the year is critical to gardening success.
The plants that love the heat are called warm season crops. They perform very poorly in cool weather and are often injured, or sometimes killed, by cold temperatures even if the temperatures are still above freezing. They should be planted after the threat of frost is well past and when temperatures are nice and warm. Examples of crops in this category include tomatoes, okra, corn, beans, melons, cucumbers, and squashes.
The plants that love colder weather are the cool season crops. Hot weather decreases the quality of the food they produce while cold weather produces the reverse result. In fact, in some cases, a light frost actually improves crop flavor considerably without actually killing the plant. These crops should be grown during the spring and autumn when temperatures are cool and mild. Examples of crops in this category include peas, carrots, beets, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and lettuce.
Some crops are perennial such as asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, apples, peaches, and cherries (the last four being, of course, trees). Unlike warm season or cool season crops, perennial crops live for several years (decades in some cases) before they need to be replaced. Even though they live throughout the year and experience both warm and cold there is still a right and a wrong time to plant them.
Avoid planting during hot summer months. Planting in autumn or spring is best. Or if you live in a region of the world where winters are very mild, you can even plant during the winter. But in all cases avoid summer planting if you can help it.
People perform their best when they are in an environment they love. Likewise, plants will also perform their best for you when you make sure to plant and grow the right crops at the right times of year.
4. Over Watering: drowning your plants instead of just giving them a drink
The rule of thumb on watering is to water deeply but infrequently. Gardeners tend to be better at the first part of that recommendation but not the second part. It’s a good idea to fill the soil with water for your plants to drink, but after that you should not water again for two or more days (note the plural on days, by the way), and in some cases plants can go without watering for a week or more.
Yes that’s right, after a good solid watering some plants may not need to be watered again for a while. This refers to plants that are already established. For newly-transplanted plants or seedlings, they will, of course, need more attention and more frequent watering. Established plants have established their roots deep in the soil in every direction so they have a much greater reservoir to pull water and other resources from.
The reason for this is because the soil (at least good garden soil, with plenty of organic matter in it) acts very much like a reservoir in that it holds and stores water really well. The soil reservoir is much deeper than just a few inches below the soil surface. In fact, if you’ve watered deeply, your soil reservoir will likely be full of water for several feet below the soil surface. So just because the top few inches or soil are dry does not mean the bottom 10 feet of soil are dry too; and yes, there are crops whose roots can reach 10 feet underground, at least when they’re deeply watered.
Let your plants drain the soil reservoir before you fill it back up again. Plant roots need to breathe. Sometimes we forget that because roots are underground and we never see them, but it’s true, plants’ roots need air. There are plants that can live and actually do well in swamps where they’re always flooded with water, but 99% of garden fruits and vegetables do not fall into that category. Therefore, water deeply but infrequently.
5. Over Fertilizing: approaching toxicity instead of mild supplementation (better yet… just use compost).
Unless you’ve sent a garden soil sample to a soil laboratory for analysis, chances are you have no idea exactly how fertile or infertile your garden soil is. And yet, a lot of gardeners pour on the fertilizer even though there’s a good chance they don’t need to at all. Or maybe they’re only lacking in one or two essential plant nutrients but not all of them. Once more, the best way to increase your soil’s fertility is actually not with fertilizers, but by regularly adding organic matter to the soil. A lot of organic matter comes with many plant nutrients, thus potentially offsetting any need to further fertilize your garden.
Even if your garden legitimately needs some additional fertilizer, it is often a good idea to apply less than what the fertilizer package recommends. Remember that fertilizer companies, like any business, want you and me, the consumer, to use as much of their product as possible so they can make more money. As a result, fertilizer recommendations on packaging are likely to be more on the generous side. Apply half the amount of their recommendations and wait and see how your garden fairs. If your garden continues to suffer for want of more nutrients then you can add that other half, but chances are, that will not be the case.
6. Not Using Cover Crops or Mulches: depriving your garden of a whole host of ecological services.
Cover crops and mulches are soil coverings. The main difference between the two is that cover crops are living plants such as clovers or annual grasses, while mulches are dead plant materials such as grass clippings or autumn leaves. Mulches are primarily used in the garden while crops are growing, whereas cover crops are primarily used in the garden during the off-season or whenever the garden, or areas within the garden, would otherwise be left bare.
The benefits to using mulches and cover crops are many such as: smothering weeds, contributing lots of organic matter to the soil, preventing soil erosion, aerating the soil, preventing weed seeds from entering the soil, adding nitrogen to the soil through leguminous cover crops, preserving soil moisture, increasing soil nutrient holding capacity, controlling soil borne diseases with mustard cover crops, providing forages or hay for livestock, attracting pollinators, preventing weed seed germination, controlling nematodes, increasing soil water holding capacity, decreasing soil compaction, catching or distracting herbivorous insects, etc.
The real beauty of cover crops and mulches is that they save the gardener tons of money. Mulches like grass clippings or autumn leaves can often be acquired for free. Cover crop seeds can be purchased by the hundreds for only a few dollars. Not only are cover crops and mulches inexpensive, in and of themselves, but because of all the different benefits or ecological services they provide, they often offset the need for a gardener to purchase and use expensive chemicals such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. In this sense, cover crops and mulches are both economically and environmentally friendly.
7. Not Rotating Crops: failing to keep soil pathogens and crop eating insects on the run.
Our world is a world of competition and survival. That may sound a little bleak but it’s true and the garden is no exception to that reality. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, nematodes, insects, animals small and large, would all love to find and feast on the resources provided by your garden that will not only ensure their survival but help them to out-compete one another and thrive.
One effective way to prevent gardening losses, particularly to diseases, is by using crop rotations. A crop rotation is simply alternating or switching crop locations in the garden such that no one type of crop is grown in the same spot continuously. For example: if you had a garden plot that was divided in half with the first half being used for warm season crops and the second half being used for cool season crops, a good crop rotation could be as easy as swapping sides between the warm and cool season crops every year. As another example: let’s say you grow your garden in pots on the patio. If one of your pots contained a tomato plant last year, this year you should plant something different in that pot like beans or turnips. If in another pot you grew lettuce last year, this year you could grow corn or strawberries.
The reason why this simple technique is so effective at preventing disease is because it always keeps pests on the run. With crop rotations, pathogens, and even insects, can never anticipate or get used to certain crops being in certain places. With that kind of inconsistency or complexity in the environment, it is increasingly difficult for pathogens and insects to successfully establish themselves and reproduce. And the more complex the rotation the more difficult it is for your plants’ enemies to adapt. Rotations are made more complex by rotating with plants that are from totally different botanical families and are therefore genetically very dissimilar.
A good example of this practice was the Norfolk rotation developed by farmers on the British Isles back in the 1700’s. The farmers from that period rotated their plantings from wheat to turnips to barley and then to red clover before repeating the rotation. Wheat and barley are from the Poaceae botanical family, turnips are from the Brassicaceae botanical family, and red clover is from the Fabaceae botanical family. That’s four different crops from three different botanical families. And the two crops that were from the same family, wheat and barley, were not grown back to back, they were separated by turnips which came from a totally different family. The record states that the farmers who used that rotation saw, in several instances, a double yield in wheat.
One of the best perks to this kind of pest control is that it costs nothing extra, if anything, crop rotations save money. You’re still using the same amount of seeds, just planting them in different places. And reducing disease and insect problems can save a gardener a lot of time and money on pest control. Be sure to keep your garden’s pests on the run by rotating your crops.
8. Putting Soft Plants in Hard Climates: not sufficiently hardening-up plants before exposing them to the great, but sometimes harsh, outdoors.
A lot of gardeners get a jump on the season by starting plants indoors towards the end of winter and then transferring them outside once weather improves. This is a great way to stretch out the growing season but it can also easily become a great way to shorten a growing season if your plants fail to survive the transfer from indoors to outdoors.
Inside your house it is nice and warm, the temperature is always constant, all the lighting is 100 watts or less, there is no wind to speak of at all, the air is perfectly calm. In short, plants that are grown indoors are exceedingly pampered. Put those plants outside in the real world without hardening them up sufficiently and they won’t do well if they survive at all in the first place.
Hardening up is nothing more than conditioning or training your plants for a different environment. They need a transition period of time to get used to the outside before they’re put outside for good. And this is where a lot of gardeners run into trouble: they simply don’t give their plants enough time to adapt and transition from the indoors to the outdoors. This conditioning or transition period varies depending on the types of plants and the environment they’re being conditioned for; it usually take several days to over a week.
The process of hardening up is simple enough: just set your plants outdoors to get them used to the outside environment – don’t plant them in the garden yet. The key is to keep a good eye on your plants throughout the day to make sure they’re handling the transition well. If they start to look sad bring them back inside, but once they perk back up and look good and strong again put them right back outside. Once your plants have hardened up enough to withstand being out of doors all day for several days and still look fantastic then it’s time to plant.
With cool season crops, hardening up can begin as soon as temperatures are a few degrees above freezing. With warm season crops the hardening up process starts at a good 20-30 degrees above freezing because, unlike cool season crops, warm season crops have little or no adaptability for the cold. Being patient during the hardening up process will make sure your hard work in trying to get a jump on the season actually pays off in the end.
9. Limiting Plants’ Roots: cutting your plants off from the soil reservoir below
Strong plants must have a strong foundation i.e. a strong root system. There are two common mistakes that gardeners make that limit their plants’ roots growth and thereby compromise their garden’s ability to produce heavily.
The first mistake we’ve already touched on from above: it has to do with poor watering technique. Shallow, frequent watering will keep all the plants’ roots up near the soil surface where the water is. This problem is easily remedied by watering correctly: deeply and infrequently. For more details on good watering technique see the above section on watering (section 4).
The second mistake is to put down a physical barrier underneath the soil like landscape fabric or some other type of hardware like a wire screen. This is more commonly done with grow boxes where the grow box is placed or built on top of a barrier and then the garden soil is dumped into the grow box on top of the barrier. Why would anyone put down a subsoil barrier that would inhibit a plant’s roots from growing deeply? I’ve even seen professional gardeners do this and I confess it amazes me that they would make such an elementary mistake.
One of the theories behind the subsoil barrier is weed prevention, but good weed prevention is only supposed to negatively affect the weeds, not your crops. Good barriers that prevent and smother weeds without interfering with your crops include mulches and cover crops as discussed previously.
The other theory behind subsoil barriers is to prevent burrowing animals from getting into your garden and eating your crops or your crops’ roots. You can still prevent burrowing animals from getting into your garden by using barriers but in a different way: use them vertically as a border or underground fences around the perimeter of your garden. In this way, when an animal comes burrowing along it won’t be able to cross the underground “fence” into your garden, but at the same time your plants’ roots will not be prevented from growing deeply. If you want extra protection, bury the fence several feet deep so burrowing animals can’t simply dig a couple inches further down to get under your fence and into your garden. And of course, the fence can also extend above ground to keep surface dwelling animals out of the garden as well.
10. Mono-Variety Planting: keeping the genetic pool of your garden too small.
One of the reasons why natural ecosystems are so stable is because they are exceedingly diverse. They have scores of different kinds of species each with their own unique set of adaptations. This breadth of adaptation is what gives the ecosystem its strength: where some individuals in the population are weak others are strong; such that, in the event of a disturbance within the ecosystem like a storm or a really bad disease it is very likely there will always be some survivors.
One of the easiest ways that gardeners can cut potential losses in production due to unforeseen negative environmental impacts is to plant a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. For example, let’s say you have a garden with 30 plants but it only has two different species: 25 corn and 5 tomatoes. Diversify the garden next year by planting 10 corn, 5 tomatoes, 2 peppers, 8 carrots, 3 Brussels sprouts, and 2 melons; that’s still 30 plants altogether but a lot more diversity.
But what if, going off of our previous example, you’re particularly partial to corn and tomatoes; they’re your favorite vegetables and clearly you want to grow them in the greatest abundance. You can still diversify, at least somewhat, by planting several different varieties of corn and tomatoes. So, for example, instead of planting all 25 corn of one variety, plant 4 ‘Silver Queen’, 3 ‘Celestial’, 3 ‘Summer Sweet’, 4 ‘Ambrosia’, 3 ‘Delectable’, 2 ‘Jubilee’, 3 ‘Incredible’, and 3 ‘Merit’; that’s still 25 corn plants but 8 different varieties. If a corn disease struck your garden and started affecting your corn, with eight different varieties, it is likely that the disease will get some of your corn, but not all. Diversifying your garden is an excellent gardening technique to hedge against hard times.
There is another advantage to planting many different varieties of one species that actually has more to do with convenience than stability but I thought I might as well mention it here while I was on the subject. Different varieties often have different numbers of days to maturity; that is, one variety of corn, for example, may take 65 days to reach maturity while another variety of corn takes 80 days to reach maturity. If you plan your garden well, you can take advantage of these different maturing rates and stagger your harvest throughout the season so your crop, in this case corn, doesn’t all come on at once. A lot of gardeners try to achieve this affect by sowing seeds at different times throughout the spring, but when varieties mature at different rates, you can plant the whole garden all at one time and still get the stagger harvest affect. This technique amounts to a considerable savings in extra work from multiple plantings.
11. Overdoing it on the Pesticides: trying to eradicate pests instead of managing them.
Up until this point, I have not been too particular about the order of gardening mistakes I’ve been discussing so far. But this topic I put towards the end of the list for a specific purpose:
Good pest control involves all of the previously discussed good gardening techniques.
It doesn’t matter if the pest is a bacteria, fungus, rodents, or weeds . . . or whatever, if a gardener uses good gardening techniques and takes care of his/her plants so they are healthy, garden pests will be much less of a problem to begin with.
In short, good garden management eliminates a whole host of plant pest problems right off the bat. And, of course, the opposite is true: disease, insects, and weeds all thrive on neglect. So with good management, pesticide use, if any, should be minimal (and may not be needed at all).
Pesticides are also expensive and often universally damaging. What I mean by that last point is they tend to kill good organisms in the garden right along with the bad ones. For example, spraying a general insecticide will kill bad insects in the garden but it will also kill bees which are a very beneficial insect for pollination. It will also kill praying mantises and lady bugs which are both excellent natural insect predators. Some pesticides are more selective in nature in that they only affect specific kinds of pests. These types of pesticides may be better in the sense that they harm a more specific target instead all the individuals within the system, but their selectivity usually comes with higher price tag.
Some gardeners simply plan on losing a little bit of their produce to some pest or other each year and just leave it at that. Losing a couple of beans here or there, for example, is hardly a big deal when compared to the 100 or so beans a gardener will have harvested by season’s end. Hosing a garden with toxic pesticides to save every single little bit of produce from your garden is a terrible waste; it is neither environmentally or economically sustainable.
The best pest management program is to simply practice good gardening techniques with pesticide use at a minimum.
12. Failing to Achieve Sustainability: not realizing that in order for a garden to be truly sustainable long term it not only needs to be environmentally sustainable but economically sustainable as well.
By now, most of us are aware of the harm that persistent synthetic chemical use can cause a garden and the surrounding environment. The organic movement was started decades ago and has become increasingly popular with time, which is wonderful. However, in the quest for organic alternatives to current conventional practices, sometimes the economics are overlooked. You can have a perfectly organic garden, which is fantastic from an environmental perspective, but if the organic products you’re buying and using end up costing a lot more money than you would have otherwise saved then that may compromise your ability to continue gardening in the future.
If you’re one who possess sufficient wealth such that money is not an issue for you then the economics of gardening may not be a necessary conversation. For most of us, however, the disbursement of our money is something that needs to be monitored so as not to jeopardize our financial security.
Consider two organic fertilizers: blood meal and bone meal. Blood meal and bone meal are both marvelous organic fertilizers but they cost three and a half to six times the amount of their synthetic counterpart. Is that economically sustainable? It may be to some but perhaps not to others. If you’re on a tight budget, a good rule of thumb is to find a balance. For example, maybe you can add tons of cheap or free organic matter to your garden, such as autumn leaves or grass clippings, and then mildly supplement your garden on the side with a half-dose or less of an inexpensive synthetic fertilizer. How you decide to manage your garden is entirely up to you. Just remember if you want to have highly productive garden but are feeling a lot of pressure from a really tight budget, there are ways to still be environmentally friendly and economically friendly at the same time.
Be sure to check out our podcasts on different types of organic matter and their uses in the garden.