I personally don't believe there are people with “green thumbs.” Successful gardening of any type takes good planning and dedication to follow through. Your plants are like children; they need what they need when they need it and not when you have time to do it.
There are some basic necessities that every vegetable needs as it grows on to harvest, and without it, success is unlikely. Everyone wants a beautiful vegetable garden like the one below with a bountiful harvest.
After 20+ years of gardening, the following is my opinion of the most common reasons for vegetable garden failures. Following the list, I cover each number. So read through, or skip down to the numbers that interest you the most.
- No detailed plan.
- The plan is too aggressive
- Not taking detailed notes with dates.
- The timing was off.
- Not hardening off seedlings or plants.
- Soil problems/Wrong soil.
- Placement errors; Sun vs. Shade.
- Spacing plants too close together.
- Watering errors.
- Not mulching,
- Fertilizing errors, especially lack of fertilizer.
- Not protecting plants from wind, insects, and critters.
- Not stopping disease early.
- Cutting corners.
Let's take them one by one in detail.
No Detailed Plan.
It is imperative that you make a detailed plan for each vegetable you intend to grow. We'll use carrots for our example.
Some important details to add to each vegetable plan may look something like this:
Specific Type Chantenay Red Cored
Days to Harvest: 75 days.
Sowing Date: This will depend on your area.
Estimated Harvest: This will depend on the sowing date.
Sowing Details: 1/4" deep, seed spacing 2" apart or thin seedlings to 2" apart.
Keep soil moist for at least ten days after sowing.
Cover with a wood board or cardboard and check daily for sprouts then uncover.
Sun/Shade: Full sun. Will tolerate partial shade.
Soil Preferred: Rich, loose and well-draining.
Water: Consistent watering for best flavor.
Fertilizer: Low in nitrogen. Higher in phosphorus and potassium. (5-10-10)
Other Care: Cover the shoulders of all maturing carrots with mulch to keep the carrot shoulders from turning green.
Having a great plan ready to go will go a long way to your success.
The plan was Too Aggressive.
One of my biggest challenges, being the overachiever that I can be, is having to pare down my over-aggressive garden plan that I devised as I sat comfortably on the couch during the winter months perusing those seed catalogs.
Be realistic about the hours you can devote to your garden, and leave room for unexpected trips to the garden center or vacations you have planned. Only grow as many plants as you can reasonably care for. You want as many successes are you can get!
Keep in mind that the gardening season can seem very long and you don't want to tire out midseason just when the final goal of harvesting is approaching.
Not Taking Detailed Notes.
I never go out to the garden without my trustee notebook and pen (and phone for taking pictures). I note every step I think will be important to me later in determining why I had the successes and failures that I had.
The three most important things to add to every note you take – the date, the date, and the date. So you noted that the lettuce plants that you cared for lovingly keeled over. If you haven't written down the date, you won't know later on as you have time to study your results whether you planted them out too late and the heat got to them, or you planted them out too early and the freeze weakened them. A note without a date can be worthless. I've learned this the hard way.
Some important notes to add include when you started the seeds, when you planted something out and when you fertilized and with what. You should note any insect damage, and leaf yellowing or blotches or unusual weather events that may have caused a problem.
The Timing was Off.
When you're growing food, timing is key, and this is the most important reason for having that detailed plan in place before the rush of the season begins.
Some vegetables take quite a bit of time to come to the harvest stage; tomatoes (90 days), butternut squash (120 days,) whereas other crops, like lettuce and spinach, can be ready to pick as soon as 30 days.
If you're growing flowers and your timing is off, you may not get the blooms you were expecting. Unfortunately with growing food, you may not get a harvest at all.
I have had many failures over the years simply because I jumped the gun and started my seeds too soon or planted the seedlings out too early in the season. Mother Nature loves to throw in a last-minute early freeze to keep gardeners on their toes.
And it's really no fun to have to run out every night and cover up some crops that you planted out too early. Even if those plants survive the frigid nights, that experience may have weakened them for the entire season, and weakened plants are more prone to disease later.
Not Hardening Off Plants/Seedlings.
Hardening off a plant is both an art and a science. If you're growing any seeds indoors, it is imperative to slowly get them ready for the big outdoors so you don't shock and weaken the plants.
Hardening off seedlings and plants simply means to slowly acclimate the plants to the outdoor weather. The key here is slowly.
There are many ways to do this. A common schedule includes taking the seedlings out in the late morning for a few hours shielded from any intense sun, then bringing them back in for the night. Then you would increase the number of hours they are outdoors slowly until the plants are happily staying outdoors all day and night.
Soil Problems/Wrong Soil.
Entire books have been written about soil and its interaction with plant life.
Suffice it to say that part of your pre-planning must be jotting down the general type of soil that the plants you want to grow prefer. You can do a quick internet search to find out the best soil recommended for each plant you grow so you can have it on hand.
If you're going to grow some of your plants in containers, make sure you use “potting soil,” not “garden soil” or soil from your garden which will harden and kill the plant.
Placement Errors – Sun vs. Shade.
As with any plant group, some like it hot and sunny, some prefer the cool shade and some like it somewhere in between. This is another big reason to jot down each plant's preference and have a spot in your garden in mind beforehand.
Shade can be trees, bushes, structures, but can also be manmade.
If I see a plant that is wilting from the intense heat of the mid-summer, I fold a large piece of cardboard in half and tent it over the plant for a few days. Old umbrellas, draped sheets, anything can work for some manmade temporary shade. These sail shades are really in style.
Spacing Plants Too Close Together.
At the beginning of the season, your plants may look so small that you will be tempted to place them closer together than is recommended. But if you do that, you're compromising important airflow that the plant needs and you are subjecting the plant to an increased risk of disease.
Follow the spacing recommendations for the best results.
There are water-loving plants and there are plants that are pretty drought tolerant and actually prefer dryness. Where the plant originated from has a lot to do with its needs.
Note on your plan whether the plant prefers wetter or drier conditions and water accordingly. The general rule is that long soakings less often is always better than frequent light waterings. You need to get that water down to the plant's roots before it evaporates.
This is especially important in the heat of the summer.
Not only does mulch make your garden look tidier and keep the weeds in check, but it also helps to keep the moisture down in the ground and helps to stop it from evaporating before it's able to reach the plant roots.
There are many different types of mulches to choose from. For vegetable gardening, the best choices for mulch include hay or straw, pine needles, compost, leaves, and grass clippings.
Be careful when shopping for mulch.
Many commercial mulch products contain some recycle wood waste that could contain chemicals such as creosote and CCA (chromated copper arsenate) which is the chemical used in treating lumber for outdoor use.
This was a difficult part for me as I began to garden years ago. Nowadays there are a variety of different fertilizing products on the market to choose from. I recommend you add a specific fertilizing plan to your preplanning sheet with the times that it needs to be done.
Many beginning gardeners choose to start with a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) and use it on everything. This will yield an adequate result, but as you gain experience, you will want to have a fertilizer plan for each plant. Again, internet search is a valuable resource.
Not Protecting Plants from Wind, Animals, and Insects.
Tall plants can be damaged by high winds. A staking plan for those is helpful. Learn the specific insects or animals that might find your plants tasty and devise a plan to protect the plants.
Here at Sunset Hosta Farm, we also home senior rescue dogs. I have an occasional problem with the dogs especially Rusty, mistaking my plants for a fire hydrant. Some type of fencing may be necessary for you, too, depending on what you are growing.
Not Stopping Disease Early.
One of the reasons I choose to hand water, although it takes much more time, is that it gives me time to look carefully at each plant. Spotting the start of disease quickly helps you fix the problem before it takes over the entire plant or the plants next to it.
A good example of this is my tomato plants. If I notice that the bottom branches have grown and are beginning to touch the soil underneath, I quickly cut those branches off.
Leaving them touching the soil would invite them to develop tomato leaf spots on the bottom leaves. These appear as ugly brown spots and will spread up the plant if not removed.
I love being frugal on everything, but there are some areas of gardening I won't go cheap on.
One is seeds. I started with the seed trades online but found that a lot of those seeds were past their viability date and didn't germinate at all or the packets were just plain mismarked.
One year I ended up with a giant squash growing out of a container that was planned for the dwarf squash it was marked as.
Buy your seeds and plants from a reputable company.
Save the seed trades for your flowers (You'll want to add those too!)
Another area not to skimp on is your soil. A good quality garden soil for beds and potting soil for pots will also increase your chances for successful growing keeping your plants healthy and happy.
Another area is gardening tools. Buy good quality tools. They will last a long time if you clean them and put them away after each day.
Here is an area that is difficult to pre-plan for. However, the most important tasks that you will have deal with plant care.
Sounds simple enough, but when I'm out in the fresh air and feeling strong, I start more projects than I can reasonably handle, like building a trellis or spray painting some thrift store gem. I have done this on a nice weekend day to the point where my plants have been neglected – to their detriment.
My new rule is, plants First. When I start out on a day, the not-so-stimulating plant care comes first, whatever that may be. If I have time after that, I can allow myself to do the fun stuff I have planned.
During the growing season, you will most likely need quick answers to problems that come up. The internet is an invaluable resource, especially Facebook gardening groups. I highly suggest you join a few groups early in the season. They are wonderful for getting quick answers to your specific questions, especially when you add a picture to detail the problem.
If you got to this point in the article, congratulations! Your chances of success are just around the corner!
Have a great vegetable gardening season, and digest all of that information later on in order to make the next season even more successful!
Where to go next!
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