Starting a garden can sometimes become more of a challenge than initially expected. If you’re anything like most first-time gardeners, you’re bound to make a few mistakes as you learn along the way. We talked to Rick Lattin, a generational organic farmer from Fallon, Nevada, to outline some common issues and how to avoid them.
Differentiate between upright growing plants and vining crops (like melons or cucumbers). Vining crops usually require more space: three to five feet between plants in rows at least three to four feet and sometimes more apart.
Transplants have different spacing based on size and growing conditions of the specific crop. Tomatoes, the most common transplant, usually need an area of at least two feet in each direction. Peppers can be closer together. When planting small seeds like beets, carrots, and turnips, thin them to about two inches per plant–they will ripen faster and have less problems caused by overcrowding.
Other resources to check:
- Many seed packages have spacing info.
- A good seed catalog like Johnny’s seeds. They have online suggestions for growing a variety of plants, and their catalog has transplant and seed placement information.
- Your state’s cooperative Extension Services (available in all states). They have good gardening information and know the local conditions.
Over or under watering
The most important advance for home gardeners and farmers alike is drip irrigation. A system of tubes, valves, and emitters allows you to put the water where the plant needs it. You can easily find all the supplies you need at your local hardware or gardening store.
When you water, start with well composted soil that will hold water. Avoid watering in the middle of the day, and have your system on a timer so that its’s consistent. Check the soil on a regular basis by digging down a few inches and grabbing a small handful of soil. It’s best if you can make it into a small ball that sticks together and is not dry. If you can squeeze water out it is too wet, but if it crumbles and won’t stay together it is too dry.
Keep in mind that different plants at different stages require you to give them more or less water. Melons with their large vines require much more water as they start to yield fruit. Check your plants often to pick up on when this is happening and up your irrigation. On the other hand, as some plants start to fill with rife fruit it is often better to stress the plant a little by giving it less water. This helps bring out the flavor in some crops like tomatoes.
One of the biggest problems with over and under watering comes with not spending enough time in your garden. Get to know your plants–visit and talk to them daily if possible.
What to grow from seeds or transplants
The rule of thumb is that plants that grow quickly and are good at sprouting should grow from seeds, while anything else can do well as a transplant, which is essentially a baby plant sold in a pot or a pack of four or six.
Seeds: Most of the greens (lettuce, etc), carrots, beets, turnips, radishes and similar crops.
Transplants: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and cabbage also handle transplanting very well.
Both: Melons and squashes can be transplanted. But, the only melon that is very difficult to grow from seed is the seedless watermelon–they do better as transplants.
If you’re worried about your soil quality, get your soil tested by someone that can interpret the test for you and make suggestions for fertilizer. Most cooperative Extension offices offer soil testing for area gardeners. A rule of thumb: if you are buying compost rather than making it yourself, put a covering at least two inches deep over your soil and work it into the soil.
Home gardeners can improve their gardens by adding compost and letting part of your garden take a rest by planting cover crops (like oats, alfalfa, or garden peas) between growing seasons, then rake or plow the crop into the soil. This adds vital nutrients like nitrogen. Many organic gardeners use cover crops and composted chicken manure to add a greater variety of nutrients.
The most general thing to do for any bug problem is to keep the garden area clean and free from debris and hiding places for pests. Peppermint, Clove, Cedarwood, Geranium, Lemongrass, Rosemary, or Arborvitae essential oils also repel bugs naturally. Put 10 drops of any of these oils in a spray bottle with water (preferably when the weather is not very hot) and spray the areas of concern.
But when it comes to specifics, here’s how to get rid of three main pests:
Aphids. Use a neem oil based spray. This natural method is easy on plants, but gets rid of the aphids. Aphids can also be controlled to a certain extent by planting some “trap crops” like alyssum, dill, and yarrow around the garden that attracts the aphids instead.
Squash bugs. Squash bugs can survive cold winters and hide almost anywhere. Check for eggs on the underside of the leaves of the plants (they are usually orange in color) and squish them before they hatch. Organic growers also plant on the outside of the squash or pumpkin crops other varieties that the bugs prefer. (Believe it or not, squash bugs prefer Hubbard squash.)
Spider mites. They love dry areas and dust. Try to control by misting the plants–water bothers them. Keep cars that stir up dust as far as possible from your plants.