10 Mistakes You’re Making When Growing Your Own Food
Got into victory gardens during the pandemic? There’s more to good-quality, high-yielding plants than you may have thought. Here’s how to give your garden a glow up this year.
Last year, we saw the return of the victory garden. As many people discovered the joy of growing their own food (is there anything better than biting into a BLT made with slices of juicy tomato and crisp lettuce leaves you've grown in your backyard?), it's no surprise gardening keeps getting more popular. A recent study by Axiom Marketing found that 86 percent of homeowners plan to continue gardening in 2021, with 47 percent saying they're planting more and expanding their garden this season.
To say you're gardening, however, doesn't mean you've necessarily mastered the art of growing your own food. If you aren't getting the quality or yields of produce you're expecting, you might be making some mistakes that are holding you back when it comes to growing your own food. We talked with three gardening experts to uncover what you're doing wrong and how to fix it. Cheers to a summer full of enjoying and sharing your fresh bounty.
You’re jumping the gun.
Those first days of warmth in the spring seem to start a frenzy every year—we all get excited and run to the stores to buy plants and start a garden. But often, these plants so lovingly cultivated take a hit when a cold snap comes through or they are held in their pots too long before going out. There are also the gardeners who start their own seed way too early for the area in which they live. “The problem with all of these scenarios is that you start the season with plants that are already suffering,” says Joneve Murphy, farmer in residence at The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, where she oversees multiple vegetable gardens, a dwarf cherry tree orchard, and a greenhouse.
Plants that stay in pots too long become leggy, starved, and root bound. Plants that go out too early can become stunted and even burned by the cold. Most will recover and you will get a yield, says Murphy, but it won’t be as high as if they had gone in at the appropriate time as healthy, happy plants.
The first way to fix this is to find out what zone you are in and look up your last frost date. (Try this handy tool from the National Gardening Association.) Most seed packets tell you how many weeks before that date to start your seeds as well as when to plant, says Murphy. It’s also a good idea to look at the temperatures required for the plants you are putting in. A tomato plant, for example, can survive outside until frost, but will only begin to thrive when nighttime temperatures are solidly in the 50s (or above).
You think more is always better.
This is not always the case, especially when it comes to growing your own food. For example, you might think: If compost is good, then more compost must be great, right? Actually, compost is important, but too much can add too much organic matter to your soil, causing problems such as disease and poor drainage, says Murphy. (But you can easily fix an over-composting problem by having a soil sample tested through your local extension agency, she adds. This will tell you your organic matter percentage and you can use that to calculate the amount of compost needed for your garden.) People often overestimate needs with fertilizer, too. “Unfortunately, putting down more fertilizer than your plants need can cause runoff and impact waterways, [and lead you to spend] more money than you need to,” says Murphy.
You’re not interplanting.
“Encouraging biodiversity is the most important thing you can do for your plants,” says Mikaela Williams, farm manager at Oak Hill Café & Farm in Greenville, S.C. Mixing plant varieties helps to support the overall health and productivity of any plant and will yield better produce for longer. One of the most common interplanting methods is known as the “three sisters”—corn, beans, and squash, which grow better together. Here’s why: Corn takes a lot of soil resources and is very tall; beans are nitrogen fixers, which help combat the pull of the corn (if you go with pole beans, they can take advantage of the corn as a natural trellis); and the ground-crawling squash benefits from nitrogen fixation of the beans, as well as the tall corn blocking some sun during the day. As a bonus, Williams says having a full row of plants ranging from tall to ground crawling helps to suppress weeds and reduce maintenance. (She adds that she’d also plant some carrots in a row with the three sisters, helping to break up the soil, along with some herbs and flowers like marigolds for pest management.)
You’re not planning for weeds.
Most people don’t think about weeds too much until they are taking over their garden, says Murphy. The first place to start thinking about weeds is when you are planning and planting your garden; proper spacing of beds, pathways and plants will help with the efficiency of your cultivation. You should make sure that pathways between garden beds are sized appropriately for the tools you plan to use to maintain them, and the same goes for the garden beds themselves. For example, if you have a 5-inch hoe, then make sure all your plants are spaced at least 6 inches apart so that you can fit your tool between. “Want to plant them closer? Then buy a smaller hoe,” says Murphy.
Your hoe should be your best friend in the garden. Hoeing is meant to be done before the weeds are truly visible and is most efficacious when weeds are at their “thread stage,” when you can just see a tiny inkling of a plant on the surface and the root beneath is a small white thread. Work your hoe lightly through the soil so that you don’t disturb your plants and you don’t bring more weeds up from below. “When done on a sunny day when the soil surface is dry, almost all of your weeds will die before you see them,” says Murphy. Another benefit to hoeing? It can be a pretty zen-ful activity. [BTW, here are more all-natural ways to eliminate weeds.]
You’re watering too much (or too little).
Water is a huge issue for most home gardeners. “It is difficult to find the time to do it, and it often gets done at exactly the wrong time,” says Murphy. Most people water too often, going out every day and running a hose or sprinkler for a few minutes—but this can cause lots of problems. For one, it leads plants to keep their roots shallow, looking for that little bit of water every day, training them to need that and maybe more as the summer gets hotter, Murphy explains.
Instead, water your garden every four to five days for a longer period of time. A full inch of water (i.e., about the equivalent of running your sprinkler for a full hour) should sustain them for that four-day period. “This will help your plants to develop deeper root systems that will be better adapted to the hot weather to come,” says Murphy. If you are worried your plants do not have enough water, dig down a little. The surface of the soil may look dry, but if you find moist soil within the first inch or so, then you are fine to wait to water.
The time of day for watering is also important. Early in the morning is your best bet, but always avoid watering after 2 or 3 p.m., says Murphy. “Many people think watering in the evening is best, but that is not true. It leaves water on the surface of the leaves overnight, which creates the perfect environment for fungus and disease to move and spread, which it cannot do if the sun is out or if the leaves are dry.” Watering in the early morning will ensure leaves are dry when the sun goes down.
You’re planting everything at once.
Planting out your entire garden space at once can put it into a feast-or-famine cycle, where you have so much produce in the early summer you can’t eat it all, and a few weeks later you have nothing but squash and tomatoes. “The solution is to take your time making your garden plan and to plan for succession plantings,” says Murphy. Consider how much your family can eat in a week and plant a small amount each week or every other week for a continuous harvest.
You’re going too exotic.
As you flip through seed catalogs, it can be tempting to grow that very exotic and interesting-looking vegetable. (Romanesco or purple yams, anyone?) If you are just starting out, however, it’s best to stick to the basics, says Christina Albert, head farmer at Beach Plum Farm in Cape May, NJ. It can take a few growing seasons to dial in your gardening when it comes to watering, transplanting, bed preparation and critter control, to name a few, so it’s best to give yourself some early successes. Besides, heirloom and exotic varieties are often fussy and hard to grow outside of near-perfect conditions, says Albert, and they may not line up with your climate or soil type.
You’re neglecting pollinators.
Wild pollinators (think native bees, like leaf cutter bees or mason bees) can be the work horse of your garden. “Honeybees are great if you are lucky enough to have a hive nearby, but they don’t work quite as hard as the wild guys,” says Murphy. Larger bees will work almost any day that isn’t freezing cold or pouring rain, whereas honeybees will stay inside for a drizzle. This is important because many vegetables—including squash, cucumbers, pumpkins and okra—require pollinators to produce fruit. You can attract wild pollinators to your garden several ways, says Murphy: The first is to make sure you have flowers in your garden in all seasons, especially flowers that they really like (such as dahlias, snapdragon, or sunflowers). “This will not only attract them to your garden but will hold their attention until your vegetable plants are ready for them,” shares Murphy. The other way to attract wild pollinators is with an insect hotel (like this $23 option on Amazon), which encourage wild pollinators to lay their eggs in or near your garden.
You’re not controlling critters.
Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, deer… sure, they all look cute, but they can wreak havoc on your garden, along with dogs, cats, and bugs, too. “[These] are some of the most infamous culprits of garden upset and wanton theft,” says Albert. To protect your precious plants, observe your space during dawn and dusk and see who and what is coming and going through your yard or porch, then determine what type of barrier to install. Chicken wire and ground cloth are pretty sturdy deterrents to most of these critters, says Albert. Bug infestations in a small garden plot are slightly easier to control: Most of the time, simply picking off the pesky pests and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water will do the trick, she adds. (The hard part is determining which is a pest and which is beneficial.)
You’re not planning for your bounty.
Make sure you have a place to use all your produce. “It’s very easy to end up with more (or less) produce than you originally planned for, so it’s important to know where and how to use it,” shares Williams. Whether that’s cooking and eating it yourself every day, giving it away to neighbors, selling it, or canning it for later, think about how you can best use each type of produce you’re growing to avoid contributing to food waste. And whatever you do, don’t leave excess produce hanging on the plant; it will lead to decay and can bring in disease to the plant and surrounding garden, as well as encourage more pests.