Growing your own food is amazing! But there are a few common mistakes that everybody makes at some point. Let’s take a look at the top five problems, and what to do about them.
1. Starting Too Big
Number one on our list of pitfalls is biting off more than you can chew. Almost every gardener I know dreams of expanding their garden each year. But hang on a minute – there’s an advantage to taking your time, and keeping things manageable.
Enthusiasm can quickly run out of steam when the reality of weeding and watering a large area sets in. When I was young I started out with a tiny plot in which I grew a few onions, some lettuce, and a few godetia for color – and that was it. Really not much at all. But I loved every moment of it, because I never felt overwhelmed. If you’re new, start small – perhaps with a bed of your own or an area you know you can dig, weed and plant without breaking your back or feeling out of your depth. Then, as your confidence grows, expand – bit by bit.
It’s a good idea to start with easy-to-grow crops that will give you a reliable harvest without too much fuss. For me there are a few standout veggies in this regard: beans, especially pole beans; potatoes; garlic and onions; salad leaves of all kinds; Swiss chard; and squash family plants, especially the ever-obliging zucchini. Our Garden Planner includes the option to filter the plant selection to just those that are easy to grow, making it easy to choose reliable performers. Master these no-fuss crops, feel great about growing them, and then branch out and expand your horticultural horizons!
2. Cramming Plants In
Such is the urge to grow that even experienced gardeners fall prey to the temptation to squeeze in more than they perhaps should from time to time.
Many seed packets are loaded with more seeds than you can ever grow, so no wonder it’s tempting to raise more than we really need – we hate to see things go to waste. But the problems begin as the plants grow and fill out. As each plant’s root system starts to compete with its neighbor’s for water and nutrients, plants fail to mature properly, resulting in stressed-out plants and a less-than-satisfactory harvest.
Don’t fall for this common mistake. It’s better to be cruel to be kind. Only select or leave the very strongest seedlings and discard the rest. It feels counterintuitive, but you’ll get bigger, better crops by doing this.
In my own garden, I make sure I know how many plants I need before I sow. I use the Garden Planner, which automatically spaces plants along rows or in blocks, calculating exactly how many will fit into that space. The colored area around the plants shows how much space the roots require for good growth. Or if you’re using the intensive Square Foot Gardening method, simply switch to SFG mode to see how many plants can fit into each square.
3. Ignoring Nature
Gardens aren’t detached from nature – they’re very much part of the local ecosystem. That means pests like aphids and whitefly are part and parcel of growing your own food, so don’t be disheartened when you spot them on your crops. Expect the occasional attack but fight back – using the power of nature!
A little forward planning can ensure Mother Nature’s on your side. One way to achieve this is to mix in several different companion planting flowers to attract beneficial bugs such as hoverflies, which will help keep pests in check by eating them. Be sure to include some early-flowering companions, and leave a few crop plants like onion, garlic and carrot in the ground over winter so they can flower in their second season. They’ll provide a superb source of nectar to attract natural pest predators while looking downright stunning in the process!
Many studies have shown that mixing up crop families helps confuse flying insect pests, but for some crops it’s necessary to use further protective measures. For example, brassicas – that’s plants in the cabbage family such as kale, cauliflower and, of course, cabbage – are a magnet for leaf-eating caterpillars, which can decimate plants in a few short days. To prevent this, grow these crops together in one area, then use netting or other protection to keep the butterflies responsible for those caterpillars off. In a similar way, carrots are often covered with fine mesh netting or fleece to prevent carrot fly.
4. Planting All at Once
The old phrase ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ is sound advice for gardeners too. Planting out all your tender crops at once can spell disaster in the event of a sudden late frost. Or imagine all your newly transplanted seedlings being mown to the ground in a bird or slug feeding frenzy – not nice!
Avoid this heartbreak by sowing seeds in smaller batches, say every two to three weeks. This ensures you’ll have backup options if disaster strikes, plus it has the advantage of preventing gluts by spreading your harvest out over a longer period.
On my Plant List in the Garden Planner I can see the window of time during which I can make these multiple sowings. And Garden Planner subscribers can receive email reminders every two weeks to prompt you to sow some more.
5. Neglecting Nutrition
Just like us, plants need nutrients to grow strong and healthy. Planting vegetables and then just hoping for the best is unwise. Soil quickly becomes impoverished the more you take from it in the form of harvests without giving something back.
The solution is to feed your soil, and by extension the plants grown in it, through regular additions of organic matter. This could be well-rotted manure or garden compost, for example. You don’t need to dig it in – just laying an inch or two on top of the soil around plants will do the trick, and it will help suppress weeds too. This nourishes the microbial life in your soil, which will help plant roots to access all the nutrition they need. Applying organic matter like this also helps to improve your soil’s structure, breaking down hard or sticky clay soils into a finer, crumblier consistency, while helping very free-draining sandy soils to hold onto valuable moisture a little longer.
Don’t neglect plants in pots either. They rely on you for all their nutritional needs and, once the nutrients in the potting mix have been used up, will need feeding with an organic liquid feed such as a tomato or comfrey feed.
Avoid these pitfalls and you’ll have a garden to be proud of. If you’re new to gardening, tell me: what are you most looking forward to? For me it was always – and still is – the excitement of seeing seedlings poke through, but I’d love to know what’s made you choose to get your fingers dirty. And if you’ve been gardening for years, why not share your top tips in the comments below?