Grit Blogs > Of Mice and Mountain Men

Rookie Gardening Mistakes You Can Avoid

AllanBefore I start baring my gardener’s soul by admitting to the mistakes I’ve made, let me give you a little background as to how I came to be in a position to learn these life lessons.

In January of 2001 my wife, Marie, and I moved from the bustling city of St. Louis, Missouri, to the Great Smoky Mountains. How that occurred is a story in itself, but for now let it suffice to say that I had no experience in gardening. Marie has always liked flower gardening and she has at times pressed me into servitude when heavy digging or moving supplies were needed. But the only time I’ve enjoyed playing in the dirt has been when at the controls of a diesel powered piece of equipment. I’ll move dirt from here to there all day long with a Bobcat because those things are just flat out fun to drive, but working with shovel and hoe … well, that hasn’t ever appealed to me.

In the city we had a 1/8 acre lot. Here we have almost 5 acres. Most of that is steeply sloping , littered with boulders and covered with forest. We’ve got about 1 acre cleared and part of that is home to several buildings. The homesteaders out there are probably chuckling at me already. Like you, most folks around here don’t consider someone a “property owner” unless they have a minimum of 20 acres, but my little patch of ground is plenty big enough for our needs. So far!

Since coming to the mountains I’ve earned my living by building custom designed, solid hardwood furniture; and have been keeping quite busy with that. Far too busy to even be tempted to play in the dirt. But once the economy tanked, business dropped off sharply. All of a sudden I had an abundance of spare time and a shortage of cash. Gardening presented itself as a way of easing both situations. Reading magazines like Grit made it sound doable, even for me.

farm report

Having gotten started, I’ve gotten a fair bit of satisfaction from preparing the ground, watching for the first green shoots to push up and a good deal of pride in harvesting produce that ended up on the family dinner table. If I can learn to do this, anyone can. Here are a few pearls of wisdom I’ve come by the hard way. If you are considering taking up gardening, this may help you get off to a better start.

Rookie Mistake #1: Planning the Garden

I started out by tilling up a patch of grass about 5 feet by 12 feet next to my storage shed. My neighbors contributed excess tomato plants and left-over seeds and I began putting things into the ground starting at one end and working my way across. I gave no serious thought to how things would be in a couple of months. As it turned out I put my tomato plants along the sunward end of the plot - because I got them first - and my pepper plants ended up lounging in the tomato plant’s shadow. I had to dig up the peppers and move them. They didn’t like that at all, but I’m hoping they’ll pull through.

Next year I’ll give better thought to lay-out. Tall plants need to go to the back so short plants get their share of sun.  Climbing vines and such will go against a fence to reduce the need for trellises.

Rookie Mistake #2: Don’t Trust Seed Packets

I got a late start in planting the garden because it took a while to get the concrete-like red clay we have for soil here busted up and amended enough that I thought anything might actually grow in it. I did not do any research into what plants go in at what times. For instance; I put in two rows of spinach - in mid July of a year of record high temperatures – but despite watering diligently not a single spinach sprout ever poked it’s head up. Not one. Later I learned that spinach is temperature sensitive and needs to be planted during the cooler months. My peas were a similar mistake; they did come up, but withered and died in the high 90 degree temperatures.

The seed packets did not state that these plants need certain temperatures, they just told me how deep and at what spacing to plant.

Next year I’ll figure out which plants to put in early or late and which will grow through the whole season. Color coding my lay-out chart may help me find ways to reuse the early/late crop spaces for something else during July & August.

Rookie Mistake #3: Don’t Over Water

My primal gardener instinct said something like: “Water good. More water, more good.” And I was watering every day. Big mistake! First off nearly all of my radishes burst open and developed a black scale on the outside that was very difficult to remove. I later learned that this is a form of mold that grows when the ground is too damp.

Other effects of watering too much is that the root structures of all the pants will not develop as they should. They won’t need to because all the water they need is right there.

I’ve already begun weaning them off of the daily watering and getting them to the 1” of water per week, divvied up into two or three waterings per week (minus precipitation).

Rookie Mistake #4: Don’t Water in the Evening

I like watering in the evening; making the final act of my day tucking in my leafy children and bidding them a good night makes me feel good. But this, it turns out, is bad for them. I thought it would be better because it gave them all night to drink up as much water as they could instead of having to suck it up quickly before the sun burns the water back out of the soil. However, the cool, damp overnight conditions promote mildew and mold in the roots and on the leaves.

I have already switched to doing my watering first thing in the morning. Early enough to give them a chance to drink before the sun gets hot.

Rookie Mistake #5: Improper Composting

I could write a book on what I did wrong here. I figured, “How tough can it be; you toss all the yard waste and kitchen refuse into a pile and let it cook.” My very first pile actually ignited and smoldered into nothingness – really! Of course that may have something to do with the fireplace ash I tossed on the pile – there *could* have been a live coal in there yet that I missed. Maybe.

I also learned that letting a compost pile just sit untouched causes it to collapse into a tight, damp wad that excludes air (oxygen) thus promoting anaerobic bacteria growth and mold. By tossing or rolling the pile every few days the pile is aerated and promotes the aerobic bacteria that produce compost much faster. This also goes a long way toward preventing the dusty white mold growth.

Rookie Mistake #6: Thinking Small

morning harvest

Perhaps I should not list this final point as a mistake, for had I laid out a large garden and found I didn’t have the time or inclination to tend it properly we would have ended up with quite a mess. But because I wanted to be sure I wasn’t born with a black thumb before I went whole hog, we ended up with a small garden that produces a small amount of vegetables for our table. I cannot say that it has reduced my wife’s

need to venture down Food City’s produce aisle at all, but it has given us some tasty treats for our table and has given me the confidence to plan for a much larger garden plot text spring.

Thanks for Reading

Thank you for stopping in to read this, my very first blog post for Grit Magazine, and please come back again. Next time I’ll share why I think radishes are the perfect “crop” for a newbie gardener to try.

Until then, may the best laid plans be yours.

allan douglas
11/19/2010 9:33:17 AM

Hi Chuck_4! I’m told that the evening watering is a no-no because the water does not get a chance to evaporate off the plants and can promote mold and fungus growth. Who’d a thunk it? Thanks for reading! Jane_1, thanks for all the great advice! I’ve written it all down and added it to my notebook for next year. Thanks again! Jane_Umstead_1, LOL! I hear you! I got one eggplant off of my two… um… bushes? Ironically, it was the size of an egg. Disappointing! Thanks for the tip on cayenne! Thanks Robyn; I’m glad to be here – I’ve always loved the magazine. Actually we moved from MO to TN, sorry I wasn’t clear on that. But the red clay we have here is even worse than the MO mud we had there. But, I’m learning. And Cathy; you poor thing; all that work and so little to show for it. My heart goes out to you. But, good for you on not giving up. As long as alligators don’t eat your chickens there is hope! :-)


cathy_3
9/3/2010 5:28:37 PM

I have all but the last five years lived in the city. I have tried gardening for the last three years. The first year the weeds took over. The second I had some tomatoes. and this year a hand full of potato's for all my hard work., because I planted cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, watermelon etc. I think It might be my soil. I live in North Florida. I will not give up. I also have some chickens well 30 chickens and they are not laying. Maybe I am not cut out for the country life. Although I love it here. Oh yea I forgot to mention I had canned my tomatoes and none of them sealed I had to throw them out. Best of luck to everyone else.


robyn dolan
9/3/2010 11:39:49 AM

Allen, welcome to Grit! Enjoyed your post. Sounds like your MO dirt's as bad as ours. Here in AZ it seems like the watering could go on nonstop sometimes, with almost no effect. I need to get some drip lines going. Thanks for the tip about turning the compost pile, seemed like alot of extra work, but you put it in perspective.


jane umstead_1
9/3/2010 9:38:17 AM

Allan, This year I had my first substantial garden, too. Before, I just had a few toamto plants. I'm also a transplanted city girl. We moved to Amherst,VA when we retired and our 1 1/2 acre seems huge to us, too! What I learned.....Plant inside a substantially fenced area to keep out deer and a lively dog! -Do NOT actually PLANT morning glory seeds!! -Make sure the eggplant don't get overshadowed by the tomatoes. -Cayenne pepper discourages squirrels and chipmunks from sampling the tomatoes. -Search more throughly for those elusive cucumbers!!


jane_1
9/3/2010 8:52:16 AM

Continuing about water-- You really don't want to use a sprinkler to water your plants but water them directly at the root instead, which conserves water, gets it exactly where the plants need it and avoids getting the leaves wet. In a small garden, you can do that manually with a watering can, but I use soaker hoses (garden hoses made of water-permeable material so the water soaks out gradually). If you lay the soaker hoses out in your garden right next to each row of plants, you can connect the garden hose up to each one in turn for a couple of hours when you need to water, and you can do it any time of day without worry about fostering fungus or sunburn on the leaves. You did good for a first-timer!


jane_1
9/3/2010 8:41:23 AM

Hey, there, Alan. A word of caution here. Don't make the mistake of drawing over-broad conclusions from your mistakes. For instance, there are varieties of some cool-weather crops like peas and spinach that won't faint in the heat. I'm in VT, but we've had several uncharacteristic stretches of 90-degree heat, and the Wando peas I've planted every couple of weeks right into July have done just fine. Also, start thinking now about crop rotation. Tomatoes are incredibly vulnerable to various fungal diseases, etc., that can overwinter in the soil, so if there's any way to avoid it, don't plant them in the same place year after year. Try to give them three or four years in between. In a small garden, one way to solve the rotation/shading problem with tomatoes is not to plant them all in a row but singly here and there. Lastly, about watering-- I'm also a little puzzled about the idea of watering at night. It's actually not a good idea if you're sprinkler-watering particularly because the moisture stays on the leaves way too long, which makes a happy breeding ground for various molds and funguses. I'm running out of space here, so continued in a second post.


chuck mallory
8/30/2010 9:18:26 PM

@Allan, I think you did fine considering you went to a new place with a new type of soil. We have all gone through the same things. The one that puzzles me is the evening watering. My dad always insisted on it for our gardens, and it always worked. But maybe that was some particularly hot Missouri summers! What a nice addition to the blogs on Grit. I'll keep reading!


vickie
8/28/2010 9:46:26 PM

Allan, I should have said I blame it on my husband! Great post vickie


allan douglas
8/28/2010 2:52:46 PM

Thank you all for the warm welcome! Vickie: Deep beans huh? I'll try to remember not to do that one. May I ask what your reasoning was? Cindy: Thanks for the encouragement, I'll definately keep trying. Lots to learn though! Jackie: Thanks for the tip - one good watering per week. Most of the wood ash comes from local hardwoods: maple, cherry, walnut, oak, hickory. We never burn treated wood: bad stuff! But thanks for the reminder. We'll get lots of ash again this winter - how much is too much? Nebraska Dave: Thanks! I've been poking around in Grit Blogs for a while and I agree; LOTS of good advice here. I look forward to adding my voice to the chorus. Marie: In deed I do! I'm blessed in so many ways I can hardly count them all.


vickie
8/28/2010 5:25:50 AM

Mark, Good lessons indeed. I'll try to remember them! The first year we tried gardening we planted green beans so deep I'm sure they are coming up in China somewhere. I mean we took a shovel and put over top the seeds! His Dad never laughed so hard we told him the seeds were still not coming up. Of course we are still learning just like you this year after many years gardening I put the pepper plants in the shade of the corn. Not a pepper in sight. I least you moved yours. Welcome vickie


cindy murphy
8/27/2010 9:07:24 PM

Hi, Allan. Welcome to Grit. Funny thing about gardening (and kinda cool too)...no matter how experienced you are, there's always something to learn. Some things we have control over; some we don't (like the weather. This year...pfft!!). But ya just kept plugging along, learning from your mistakes, keeping your fingers crossed for the right amount of rain and sun, and enjoy what nature (and a little bit of work) provides. Enjoy the day. Cindy ~ A Lakeside View


jackie_3
8/27/2010 5:13:28 PM

Welcome to the world of gardening Allen! I am a Master Gardener...and I have always contended that no matter how much skill, knowledge or experience you have in gardening-- there is something to be said for plain ol' luck....good or bad. You've got the 1 inch of water a week right, but your garden will benefit more from one long deep soaking as opposed to several shallow waterings. It'll make those roots grow deeper and healthier. As long as the wood that the ashes came from wasn't treated with any chemicals, it is a great soil amendment. Look around for some articles on Bio-Char. Best of luck-- maybe you will be able to boast about your Fall garden! ~jackie


nebraska dave
8/27/2010 4:28:07 PM

@Allan, I think we all have tried to over plant our garden space, been disappointed with seed packages, over watered, under watered, had trouble composting, and made plans that were too big to take care of. Those spring time plants look nice and cute in the well dug garden plot but become big brutes trying to take over the yard by mid summer. The well manicured spring garden plot becomes a wrestling match between plants and weeds by the beginning of summer. Here on the Grit blogs there is advice that comes from those that have Master gardening degrees and those that have gardened for decades. I myself was a black thumb gardener just three years ago but now with a little help from my Grit blogger friends dazzle my neighbors with how large the harvest is when everyone else has problems with bugs, bottom rot, or critters. Grits blogs are just a great place to hang out. You will hear stories of success and stories of failure; stories of animal raising and stories of how to rid your property of bears; stories of how to raise chickens and how to use the eggs in recipes. There are philosophers and those that have fought city councils about chicken raising rights and won that have blogs here. After reading your first blog, I think you will fit right in and have a great time reading about what everyone is doing all across the country. Have a great gardening day.


marie_3
8/27/2010 3:44:41 PM

And,don't you feel blessed just having the opportunity to learn the lessons?