I read lots of “common beginner mistakes” blog post and articles when I started growing food, but that didn’t stop me from making them! Hopefully, this post will help you avoid the mistakes I made and avoid some of the pitfalls we encountered in our first two years.
Overwatering is one of the most common mistakes new gardeners make and I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself. The roots need to be able to get oxygen and they aren’t able to do this if they’re constantly in water. My strategy for watering now is simple. I run my PVC irrigation until water comes out of the bottom sides of the bed. Then I know it’s completely saturated and I don’t water it again for a week. If the temperatures are above 90 then I bump that up to twice a week. It’s important to note this will not work if you don’t add at least an inch of mulch, which leads into my next mistake…
2. Not mulching/wrong kind of mulch
Mulching is one of the most important things you need to do in your garden! The difference it makes in soil moisture retention and soil life is remarkable. I know this first hand because I didn’t mulch the first year. The soil dried out the same day I watered and it led to lots of problems. Now it takes several days for the top of the soil to begin to dry out, no matter how hot the conditions.
I recommend using shredded leaves as mulch. You can use wood chips, but they take much longer to break down and can actually rob nitrogen from the soil. Plus, leaves are free and easy to come by. Worms also love to eat them which is great for your garden. I saw a noted increase in worm activity when I started using them.
My first introduction to gardening was through the Square Foot Gardening book. I loved the idea of interplanting things to help with pest prevention. However, I made several mistakes in plant placement as result.
My first mistake was planting peas in a checkered pattern interplanted with carrots. This ended up causing extra work because trellising the peas required building individual tepees for each square foot of peas. It was a disaster. I now plant my peas in a row along a trellis and don’t worry so much about making sure I’m following the square foot garden rules perfectly.
Another mistake I made was placing plants that require more care in the middle of the bed instead of on the edges. This made it more difficult and time-consuming to check for bugs and harvest. I now plant low maintenance crops in the hard to reach areas instead.
4. Using tainted horse manure
One of the biggest problems introduced to farming the past 15 years has been the introduction of persistent broadleaf herbicides. Horse owners don’t want their fields to have any weeds so they spray herbicides like Grazon that kill all broadleaf plants. The problem is that the herbicide is eaten by the horse and it passes right through them into the manure. It then stays in the manure for up to 3 years! I found this out the hard way by killing most all of my tomato plants with compost made with tainted horse manure as one of the ingredients. I learned my lesson and no longer use horse manure in compost. Horse and cow manure isn’t the only way this can bite you. It’s also been found in straw and hay bales commonly used for mulching. I highly recommend testing any compost you bring in from the outside and we recorded a short video explaining how to do so. It”ll save you a lot of time and heartache.
All of my first gardens were in the middle of the yard where I receive full sun all day. This is great in the spring and fall, but I quickly learned that the Oklahoma summer can be brutal on plants. Pretty much all of my food production stopped for a month or so due to the heat. As a result, I built raised beds on the east side of my house because they are shaded in the afternoon. I’ve measured the temperature difference between the shaded and full sun areas and it’s over 30 degrees warmer in the sun at 3 pm! This should allow me to grow many more tomatoes than last year since they stopped producing all through July.
My hope is that this list helps prevent someone out there from making the same mistakes I did! However, don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes of your own. They’re guaranteed to happen no matter how much you research and plan. The important thing is to learn from them and not make them twice!