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.