It’s hard to beat the fresh taste of homegrown vegetables on your dinner table, and the satisfaction of knowing you produced them yourself. While a successful vegetable garden is within reach of anyone, avoiding a few common pitfalls will help to ensure a bountiful harvest. The following lists are some common mistakes I often see that stump even the seasoned gardener on occasion.
1. Planting too early. It never fails that somewhere in mid-February a warm front comes through and everyone gets bit by the gardening bug. Right on cue, the Bonnie’s plant farm trucks start rolling into the local garden centers delivering a multitude of tender tomatoes, peppers and other summer vegetables. Because of the sudden warm weather, everyone feels like it must be time to plant. Air temperature, however, is a bad indicator of when to plant. Soil temperature is the key to knowing if a tomato or pepper will survive the cold, not the air temperature. Most summer crops prefer soil temperatures at least 55-60 F. Closer to 65 F if you are talking about sensitive crops like okra and super sweet corn. Planting too early when soil temperatures are too cool will cause plants to stunt or other disorders such as leaf roll or misshapen fruit. Check soil temperatures with a soil thermometer or through your local county extension office to know when it is safe to plant.
2. Planting when it is too wet. Planting when the soil is too wet is about as bad as planting when the soil is too cold. The soil should only be worked and planted in when there is a slight bit of moisture. Tilling or planting in soils that are too wet will cause poor seed germination and transplant survival. To know if the soils are the proper moisture to plant, grab a handful of soil from the garden and squeeze it tightly together in your fist. Take a finger and push it into the soil ball you just formed. If it breaks apart into multiple pieces, the soil is perfect for working. If your finger pushes into the ball and it doesn’t break apart, it’s too wet to work and may need a few more days to dry out.
3. Not controlling weeds. Weeds can be one of the biggest headaches for both the beginning and experienced gardener. It’s always easier to try and keep the weeds out then to get them out later. Weeds compete for nutrition and moisture, and take up valuable root space from our intended crop. Prevent them through the use of mulches that include pine straw, wheat straw, wood chips, newspaper or some type of landscape fabric. Weeds can also be kept at bay by the use of both pre- and post-emergent herbicides. Make sure you read the label on all chemicals to be sure you can use it on the vegetable type you are growing.
4. Improper fertilization. Nutrition is vitally important to all types of vegetables. Too much or too little nutrition can cause major problems in the garden. Too much fertilizer can cause excessive vegetative growth and few blooms or fruit. It can also lead to an increase in your weed population. Too little fertilizer will make plants stunted and unable to produce a good crop. Start with a soil sample through your county extension office to determine the nutritional needs as well as the pH of the soil. In general, most vegetables need fertilization at planting time and then not until they put out their first small fruit. Additional fertilizer may be needed on continuous producing items such as tomatoes, okra, peppers and others.
5. Improper watering. Water is the most essential component of a successful garden. Just like fertilizer, however, too little or too much can cause more harm than good. Most vegetables need between 1 to 2 inches of irrigation a week to thrive. Frequency depends on the soil type and the amount of supplemental rainfall we receive. It’s far healthier for the plants and much more efficient to irrigate with either soaker hoses or drip irrigation. Overhead watering does work, but can lead to foliar diseases and also wastes a lot of water wetting non-target areas.