Rex’s Tips: Biggest gardening mistakes

Garden Soil: A friend of mine, who lives on a sand hill, told me he hired somebody to bring in a truck load of clay to balance up his soil. I looked at the soil, and was skeptical he had any clay. So I did a soil test using my quart jar, a sample of soil, and water method. The test revealed he had about 40 percent sand and 60 percent silt. Whatever he had brought in, it was not clay.

The point of this story is, be certain of what you’re paying for. The silt was OK, but it was not what he wanted. Personally, I think it was a mistake to have clay brought in. He would have been better off to have brought in a truck load of compost, or manure, or other humus material.

Being a weatherman:  As a gardener, you need to understand the weather, at least the weather where you live.  The weather is both your best friend and your worst enemy—and you can’t do a thing about it. But you can use it to your advantage, or plan to deal with the weather if it’s adverse. One of the most common mistakes home gardeners make is to plant too late in the season. The weather gets too hot too fast, and the crops do poorly, or in the case of tomatoes, they don’t produce any tomatoes. There are only a handful of crops that should only be planted after it gets hot; all the cucurbits (melons, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, etc), and…I can’t think of any others. Yes, frost is a consideration, but if you understand your local weather, and watch it, and make good judgments, you can usually error on the side of early, and come out just fine.

Biggest Gardening Mistakes:

Undernourising: The biggest mistake gardeners make is under-nourishing their garden. If you haul out hundreds of pounds of produce during the growing season, you better put hundreds of pounds of compost, manure, or fertilizer back into the ground for the next season. Here’s how you know if your garden has enough nutrients:

Plants should have deep green color. Leaves should be large, tomato leaves should be 4-6 inches long, broccoli leaves should be 10-12 inches long, beet leaves should be 8-10 inches long, corn leaves should be 4-6 inches wide.

Fruit should be large, tomatoes should be as large as your hand, ears of corn should be 10-12 inches long, beets should be 3-4 inches across, onions should be 3-4 inches across, and broccoli heads should be as large as your hand. Do you get the idea?

Mature corn | Photo courtesy of Rex Jensen

All plants respond to fertilizer, and some plants really respond to it. Corn is fun to grow because it responds almost immediately to whatever you give it. When corn is about two feet high, give it a shot of nitrogen, and do it again as it begins to tassel out, and you’ll see the difference. My dad used to say, “You can just hear the corn growing.”

Potatoes take more nitrogen than you think, it really makes a difference, and the increased production is pronounced. In fact, there isn’t much that doesn’t respond to nitrogen, it is the foundation nutrient of most plants. Strong, fast growing plants tend to overpower weeds, and they can withstand the ravages of pests – like squash bugs – and the fruit is larger, more tender, better tasting, and has a more desirable appearance. Weak, slow growing plants produce poor fruit, poor flavor, are often bitter and unpalatable.

Missing the planting window: In Orem, I always planted my garden, including tomatoes, the first week of April. Only twice in 11 years did I lose some tomatoes to frost. There were years we had frost, but I simply covered the tomatoes with a plastic bucket, or a box, or some plastic, and they made it through the night without any damage. In most cases, there are only one or two nights when frost will be a problem.

Because plants will still put down roots, even if the tops aren’t growing, when the weather does warm, the plants are better prepared to take advantage of the warmth, and will have a growth burst.

For fall planting, you must calculate your planting times to account for the shorter days, cooler temperatures, and frost. As the days shorten and cool, plants slow down, and fruit may not mature before frost comes. Tomatoes, for example, can be planted in the fall, they will set on, but probably will not ripen before it freezes. This is why tomatoes are planted in the spring.

But melons and corn can be planted for a fall harvest, and all the cool weather crops can be planted in the fall because frost will not affect them. Broccoli, beets, carrots, lettuce, green beans, and even onions make good fall crops.

Erratic or improper watering: If you have well drained soil (not too much clay), you can water deep, and fairly often. But watering frequency and amounts must be adjusted as the days get longer and warmer, and your plants get larger, then you must back off of the watering as the weather cools in the fall and the days get shorter.

Too much water is also not good. A good rule of thumb for watering in Washington County is this: if sufficient water is given, you shouldn’t have to water more than twice a week. If your soil is quite sandy, maybe three times a week. Watering everyday is generally not a good idea; if you’re doing this; your soil needs more humus and organic matter.  Alfalfa fields can be watered once every two weeks because the alfalfa is thick and shades the ground, generally this is not the case in gardens, and the soil is exposed to the sun and will dry out faster.

With too little water, plant leaves will turn yellow, begin to wilt, and fruit will ripen prematurely. Know your soil, know your weather, and observe what your plants are doing.

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Copyright 2012 St. George News.

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