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Five Garden Planning Mistakes to Avoid | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Avoid These 5 Gardening Mistakes!

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Five common garden planning pitfalls

The Editors

Growing your own food is so satisfying. But there are common mistakes that everybody makes at some point. If you just know what these pitfalls are, you can avoid disappointment at harvest time. In this article (with video), we list the top 5 problems—and what to do about them. 

1. Starting Too Big

It’s a good idea to always 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 climbing or pole beans, potatoes, garlic and onions, salad leaves of all kinds, chard, and squash family plants, especially the ever-obliging zucchini or courgette. Your first year, start with 3 to 5 vegetables and perhaps 3 to 5 plants of each!

Tip for our Garden Planners: The Garden Planner has the option to filter the plant selection to just those that are Easy to Grow. Master these no-fuss crops, feel great about growing them, and then branch out and expand your horticultural horizons.

2. Overcrowding

It’s human nature to want to grow more in the space we have so we have a tendency to cram in plants.

There’s a good reason for that: many seed packets are absolutely loaded with seeds – more than you’ll probably ever need in fact. Take this broccoli for example – there are 500 seeds in a packet. Can you imagine growing all of those before their sow-by date! So no wonder it’s tempting to raise more than we really need – we hate to see things go to waste.

What’s more, if you cram them in, the seedlings may appear to be really strong and vibrant at first.  But, as they grow and fill out, the problems begin. 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 grow your plants at the recommended spacing shown on the seed packet. If you have poor soil, it’s a good idea to leave a little extra space too. When you thin seedlings, only select or leave the very strongest seedlings and discard the rest. It feels counterintuitive, but you’ll get bigger, better crops as by doing this. And all those leftover seeds – store them till next year or share them with your friends.

Tip for our Garden Planners: To know how many plants you need BEFORE you sow, the Garden Planner will automatically space plants along rows or in blocks, calculating exactly how many will fit in that space. The colored area around the plants shows how much space the roots require for good growth. Or, if you fancy trying Square Foot Gardening, 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. If pests strike early in your area – say from early to mid-spring – 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!

Here are some of the best companion planting flowers to include in the vegetable garden.

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 n

Garden Planner Tip:  The Garden Planner will identify different crop families by different colored backgrounds which is incredibly helpful for planting and for crop rotation.

4. Planting Everything at the Same Time

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 pea 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 during the growing season. As well as ensuring you’ll have backup options if disaster strikes, this has the advantage of preventing gluts by spreading your harvest out over a longer period.

Tip for our Garden Planners: Look at your plant list which will show you the window of time during which you can make multiple sowings. The Plant List also shows the number of plants you need for each vegetable, helping you to raise just the right number of plants for the space you have.

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5. Neglecting Nutrition

Just like us, plants need nutrients to grow strong and healthy – they need something to both eat and drink. Planting vegetables and hoping for the best is unwise. Furthermore, soil quickly becomes impoverished the more you take 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. What this does is nourish the microbial life in your soil, which will help plant roots 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 seaweed feed.

In conclusion, avoid these pitfalls and you’ll have a garden to be proud of. And if you’ve been gardening for years, why not share your top tips in the comments below!

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Bill (not verified)

2 months 2 weeks ago

As an agronomist for some 40 years the biggest issue that I see in home garden soil reports is too much fertility. Using composted or fresh manure can be easily over applied spiking up phosphorus and potassium. This may result in tying up or interfering with the uptake of other nutrients. Using plant based compost will help reduce this problem. However you can't beat taking a soil test to really know what's going on with your nutrients in your garden. I use Logan Labs in Ohio.

Robin Shepperd (not verified)

2 months 2 weeks ago

Oh no! Please don't throw away those tasty, nutritious seedlings you pluck. They are edible! Put them in your salads and soups.

Phoebe Corell (not verified)

2 months 2 weeks ago

I love your videos, thank you. But I really LOVE that dog!

Kerry Aggen (not verified)

2 years 2 months ago

Please add a brief comment that Square Foot Gardening (SFG) uses and requires a specific soil composition - this is what allows for such close spacing. Also, perhaps a brief mention on where folks can find info on SFG. Thanks!

Gustav (not verified)

5 years 7 months ago

I have a question if its about 30-39degrees Celsius do i plant in the shade or not...i think the sun is to hot for vegetable garden....tip will be appreciated
thanx