By now, we’re all familiar with the many trends that have dominated social media while we stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic: the “quarantini,” virtual yoga classes, and sourdough starter, among others. But none took root quite like DIY vegetable gardening. Because let’s be honest: Nothing compares to a vine-ripened tomato picked straight from your garden, and touched by no one else.
But just like that bread-making venture, vegetable gardening at home can be surprisingly easy to screw up. There’s way more to it than putting some seeds in the ground and hoping for a salad.
If you’re a newbie gardener, you may have run into some rookie mistakes. Don’t sweat it! Check out the most common blunders the experts see budding green thumbs make—and how to get the perfect harvest instead.
1. Not watering your vegetables properly
All plants need water to survive. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to apply that water.
“The biggest mistake I see new gardeners make is not supplying enough water to their plants,” says horticulturalist Jessica Walliser. “They water in a way that I call ‘splash and dash,’ where they just sprinkle a little water on top of the soil or on the leaves, and don’t really give the plant a deep, thorough soaking.”
In fact, watering “is a skill that takes time to learn,” says Niki Jabbour, a veteran gardener and author of “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener.”
Although shallow watering might keep your plants from wilting, a daily light watering can cause plants to form surface roots instead of deep roots, which help anchor the plant, Jabbour says. This will cause the plant to be susceptible to drought stress.
So, how should you water your plants?
“I like to water my vegetables deeply once or twice a week if there has been no rain,” Jabbour says.
“I recommend holding the hose at the base of a plant for 15 seconds, then moving on to another plant. Then come back to the original plant three or four more times, for 15 seconds each time,” Walliser adds. “This really allows the water to soak down to the roots.”
On average, plants need an inch of water per week. This can come from rain and/or water from a hose or irrigation system. Deep watering enables the plants to develop deep roots.
“It also helps to mulch the soil surface with straw or shredded leaves,” Jabbour says.
She suggests adding a 3-inch layer of mulch around tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash to help hold soil moisture, reduce weeds, and reduce the occurrence of soil-borne diseases like early tomato blight or verticillium wilt.
2. Getting the leaves wet
On a related note: Resist the temptation to turn on a sprinkler and leave.
“When watering my vegetables, I try to water the soil, not the foliage,” Jabbour says. “Wetting the leaves, particularly if you’re watering late in the day, can increase the risk of diseases for susceptible vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers.”
If you don’t have time to hand-water each plant at its base, consider installing a soaker hose or drip irrigation system. They’re relatively inexpensive and easy to install. If it’s still not in the budget, try to water early in the day so that the plants have time to dry and not have moisture left on their leaves overnight.
3. Not reading plant labels
Everything you need to know about plant care will be on the plant label or seed packet. This information will help you avoid surprises when it comes to harvest time.
Take tomatoes, for instance. There are different types of tomato seedlings, and you’ll need to know if it’s an indeterminate or determinate variety, says Jabbour. Indeterminate—or vining tomatoes—can grow 6 or 7 feet tall.
“Using a wire tomato cage to support it isn’t going to do much,” she says. “The plant will grow taller than the cage and eventually flop over and potentially damage the branches or developing fruits.”
Instead, Jabbour stakes her tall-growing tomatoes with 7-foot-tall wooden stakes and secures the new growth with twine every week or so.
“Tomato cages are best left to determinate varieties, or crops like peppers and eggplant,” Jabbour says.
4. Overcrowding and over-planting
Plant labels will also tell you how far apart to space your plants. Many new gardeners tend to overcrowd plants because they want to pack as much as they can into their new garden.
Vegetables need room to grow and breathe. Planting them too close can lead to diseases such as powdery mildew, and provides a breeding ground for pests.
Plus, there’s no reason to plant 20 varieties of tomatoes or other vegetables. Plant what you know you and your family will eat. This will save you time and money, and limit waste.
5. Neglecting to regularly harvest your veggies
Many crops will produce maximum yields only if they are harvested several times a week, Walliser says.
Beans, for example—as well as tomatoes and peppers—should be harvested regularly to encourage the production of subsequent harvests.
6. Not employing succession planting
Growing 10 green bean plants at a time will give you several bushels of beans you cannot possibly eat all at once. If you do not plan on preserving them, what are you going to do with the extras? Enter: succession planting.
Succession planting will give you a nonstop harvest nearly year-round, depending on where you live. Plus, it also makes harvest time more manageable.
Basically, you want to plant a few vegetables, wait a couple of weeks, and plant another row. That way, they don’t all mature at the same time and you constantly have access to fresh vegetables all season long.
“One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started gardening was not succession planting,” Jabbour says. “We planted all our vegetables in late spring, and as they were harvested, we never followed up with new seeds or seedlings.”