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Garden Tips from a Newbie: What NOT to Do

TomatoesI’ll admit it. I don’t have the greenest of thumbs. My first little garden out in the yard did fairly well. I managed to produce an abundance of tomatoes (during a growing season in which blossom end rot ravaged most plants) and my Italian peppers kept at it well into fall. However, my cucumbers failed and my zucchini succumbed to powdery mildew.

By the next season, I had moved into an apartment and still wanted to continue my veggie experiment. I had a great idea—containers on my deck! Well, my great idea garnered dismal results: two misshapen cucumbers that started rotting before they were two inches long, enough tomatoes, a few tiny peppers, tough lettuce and herbs that bolted before I even knew what was going on.

So learn from me, all you new growers out there, about what not to do when starting your own gardens.

Don’t plant too early

Frost in gardenWith my first garden, in my haste to get started, I got my plants in the ground before the frost risk was past. I couldn’t help myself when I saw all the seedlings at the big box store—I had to get started. A week later, in a panic, I was googling “how to protect plants from frost” when I found out the temperatures were going to dip dangerously low at night. (Bed sheets will work fine in a pinch, by the way.)

Instead, start out well informed. Research what zone you’re in and make sure the plants you’re choosing are hardy enough to withstand your climate.

Don’t underwater (but don’t drown your plants either!)

This is especially important for containers, which can dry out quickly in the summer heat. Coming home to drooping crops after you’ve spent so much (backbreaking) time planting can be a real disappointment. However, after a good soaking, plants usually perk back up.

If you are using containers, make sure they have drainage holes, otherwise overwatering can lead to root rot and promote diseases.

Food needs food, too

Don’t forget about fertilizer! If you’re growing in the ground especially, test your soil to determine which nutrients are needed and go from there. Keeping your plants properly nourished will increase their resistance to diseases and encourage vigorous growth. However, using the wrong kind of fertilizers can result in lots of leafy vegetation and very little fruits. At the very least, buy a multi-purpose fertilizer targeted to your plant type and remember to use it.

My biggest problem is forgetting when the last time I fertilized was. This year, I’ll mark it on my calendar. Problem solved.

Don’t ignore diseases

Powdery MildewI wondered what was going on with “that darn zucchini” (which was mistakenly labeled as cucumber seedlings at the store I bought them from) in my garden when the leaves started looking funny. I didn’t particularly like zucchini at the time, so I left the plants to their own devices. Well, plants can’t fight powdery mildew (or any disease) without our help.

Thankfully, there are a lot of people with a lot of knowledge on how to prevent and combat many plant diseases, including the staff at your local garden center and friendly bloggers who post tutorials on reducing garden diseases. Ask questions, people like to help!

Pests don’t go away on their own

If you see creepy crawly things, find out what they are. Don’t assume they’re harmless and also don’t assume they’re harmful. Some bugs are beneficial insects for your garden. Lady bugs, for example, eat aphids and other insects which do destroy your crops. In my experience, I’ve preferred using a nontoxic insecticidal soap instead of chemicals to manage my garden pests.

Here is a great resource from Penn State that has information on the most common garden pests, with pictures. Learning what to look for is the first step in protecting your garden from pests.

It’s halfway into May and I’m itching to get the containers going on my deck. But I’ve learned from my past mistakes. I’m waiting, because here in Connecticut the potential for frost extends through mid to late May and I don’t have enough extra bed sheets at my apartment.

Have you made any “beginner” mistakes that you’d like to share?

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