With the changing landscape that is Covid-19, a LOT of people have returned to gardening, or put in a new garden for the first time this spring. Stories of empty seed racks and searches for local compost abound. Because feeding yourself is powerful in these uncertain times.

Because I’m part of several Facebook groups for local farmers and gardeners, I’m seeing a lot of newbie questions and common mistakes. So I put together a list of my top 10 things I wish beginning gardeners knew, in no particular order. This isn’t a definitive list. But it is a place to start if you’ve never grown a plant that you’ve then eaten in your life!

1. You can’t treat every seed the same way. Every seed has its own story, its own needs, its own history. Just like you wouldn’t assume that a Great Dane needed the same food or amount of exercise and space as a Chihuahua, you should not assume that you plant a carrot seed the same way you do a corn seed. For readily understandable information on how to grow each type of vegetable you might be considering, Barbara Pleasant from Mother Earth News has nice profiles on lots of different common vegetables. Just put what you are interested in growing in the search engine.

Beginner tip. If you’ve never had a garden before, start small, and plant only things you absolutely love, or that will give you multiple harvests from one plant. It’s much more rewarding to start this way than it is to plant 20 bok choi only to discover that you just aren’t gonna make that many stir fries during their short harvest window, or to wait months for that ONE cauliflower harvest.

Beginner tip. You can plant most seeds at about the same depth as the seed is large. So larger seeds are planted deeper than small seeds. There are exceptions though. Corn can be planted up to 2″ deep, and some seeds (usually flowers) actually need light to germinate, and so are scattered on the surface of the soil. The smaller the seed, the more quickly its gonna dry out and the more attention you need to pay to keeping it watered when they are small.

Giant Peruvian corn seen at the Heirloom Vegetable Expo in 2019

2. Timing is everything. You can’t just go out on May 10th, plant your entire garden, dust off your hands, and declare, “done”. Some plants like the cold, can take a light frost easily, and hate the heat. They can get bitter and go to seed quickly before you get much of a harvest if you plant them too late in the season (looking at you peas, lettuce, cauliflower, radish – to name a few).

Some plants like the heat, will be killed instantly at low temperatures, even if they doesn’t actually freeze, and will either die outright or simply not grow for months if you plant them too early. (Looking at you peppers and basil). Plants planted too early and not actively growing are subject to insect and weather damage from which they have a hard time rebounding.

I put together the graphic below several years ago to help people with this. There are many other online sources for this information, including some great planning tools from Johnny’s Seeds. I keep an inexpensive calendar every year where I take notes on when I plant and what’s worked well or not. If you’re in it for the long haul, this type of “gardening journal” can save you a world of hurt the following year as you learn the ins and outs of the seasons where you live.

Last frost date for the Walla Walla area is as late as the first week in May.

3. Not every vegetable should be direct seeded. Not every vegetable should be transplanted. Some plants take a very long time to mature. And so you can get a jump on that long growing time and get a bigger harvest by starting them from seed early and keeping them protected from weather and cold for up to several months before they are planted out. Or just buy them as starts from your favorite farmers market, farmer or nursery (but not too early). Common transplanted veggies – as indicated by the clock symbol on the graphic above – are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant.

Peppers, started on March 12th, 2020. Ready to be transplanted out about 8 weeks later.

But, not everything is better as a transplant. Some plants HATE to be moved and will generally do much better if you plant the seed directly into the ground. Root crops are the big ones. This is why you don’t see carrots and beets and radishes as transplants (or if you do, you just smile and walk away). Other no-go’s are large seeded plants like corn, beans and peas. The brassicas, things like kale, kohlrabi, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and the the aliums (onions, leeks, shallots) can go either way.

Melons, cucumbers and squash of all kinds almost always do better direct seeded (unless, like me, you have slug issues where the slugs do damage to the newly emerging seedlings. I plant these crops in my greenhouse about 2 weeks before I want them to go into the ground. Any longer than that and the plants are root bound and stunted and never really thrive after they are planted out).

Yes, you can sometimes find transplants of things like corn, but this is mostly a nursery or big box store taking advantage of newbie gardeners who doesn’t know any better.

Beginner tip. Don’t throw out those free calendars that come in the mail. Use it to plan out the best weeks to plant certain crops, based on your local last frost date. Don’t know your local last frost date? You can look it up by zip code here. Or better yet, ask someone local who’s been gardening in the area for a while. Our local rule of thumb here is “plant your tomatoes on Mother’s day”.

4. Food/fertilizer matters. Plants are amazing. They can take water and carbon dioxide from the air, plus the energy from the sun, and turn it into living growing tissue, that you can then eat. No animal can do that. But just like you can’t live on kale alone, no matter how nutritious it is, plants can’t live on water and air alone. They need certain other nutrients to be present in the soil. I go into this in depth in this blog post. But suffice it to say that if all you did was turn over that barren corner of your yard and plant seeds, your plants are probably not going to do very well if all you’re giving them is water.

Beginner tip. Plants need a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight a day, which is basically all morning or all afternoon in the summertime. Many need more than that – a minimum of 10 hours. (Which, by the way, is why it is SO hard to do a winter garden, even if you have a heated greenhouse. Just not enough light this far north – where we only get about 8 hours of sunlight in December). Even plants that can do OK in some shade, like lettuce and other greens, still need at least 6 hours. There is NO vegetable that will grow well in all day shade, so abandon that idea of a garden in the shade of the north side of your house.

Compost. The answer to most things in gardening. Image by Joke vander Leij from Pixabay

5. Spacing/thinning matters. I know, I know, it feels like such a HUGE success when you get that seed to germinate. It’s almost unbearable to then kill it by thinning. But trust me, that tiny broccoli seed, about the size of the tip of a pencil, really IS going to need about 18″ of space in order to thrive and not be shaded out/starved out by its brothers and sisters. I have tested this out over and over and over again, and seen that if I don’t thin the way I should have, I get small stunted plants that don’t produce half of what they normally would.

Beginner tip. If you are new to gardening and are confused by the spacing on the back of the seed packages, which comes from how plant spacing is done when farming with tractors, refer to a Square Foot Gardening spacing chart, which will give you a better idea of how closely plants can be spaced when planted in blocks rather than rows.

If the plant you want to grow isn’t on this chart, google is your friend.

6. Weeding matters. Just like when you don’t thin your plants, and so they are stunted and small, if you let weeds take over, you’ll have the same result. ALL of that plant matter is competing for the same sunlight, water and nutrition in the soil. Weeds, being well adapted to grow quickly when conditions are right, will often grow faster than the plant you are trying to grow, and shade them out.

Beginner tip. Don’t wait until weeds get big to take them out. Buy a stirrup hoe or a flexible curry comb and work around the plants when the weeds are at “thread stage”. This is when the roots are about as big around as a thread. If you cut the roots just under the soil line, they will quickly dry up and die. And your soil is usually easier to work at this early stage of the season, which means weeds come out easily. Wait until that lambs quarter is 2 ft tall, and you’re gonna have a fight on your hands. A weedy overgrown garden can be quickly demoralizing, causing people to simply give up over the amount of work required to get things back to thriving.

It might not look like a problem now, but just wait a few weeks and see!

And remember, excellence, not perfection. It doesn’t have to look like Martha Stewart’s garden, with nary a weed in sight. If you’re limited on time/help/physical ability, focus on the weeds that are closest to the crops you are trying to grow so they aren’t directly competing or being shaded out. I call this triage weeding. Then mow or weedwack down the rest, or drown them in mulch/cardboard. It’s the weeds that are RIGHT NEXT TO what you are trying to grow that matter the most.

7. Water matters. I’ve literally never lived anywhere that I didn’t have to water a garden all the time. So its always a foreign concept to me that people plant seeds in the ground, stand back and then just magically expect things to grow. I’ve heard that actually happens in the eastern part of the US. But for us westerners, who generally get 20″ or less of precipitation a year, water is life. And standing there with a hose wand sprinkler isn’t enough. You need to deep water your plants so the roots grow deep and strong. Depending on where you live and your disease pressures, time of day might be important.

Anything under 20 inches of rainfall per year, and you can expect to need to irrigate to successfully grow a crop.

Beginner experiment. Find a dry flat piece of ground. Stand and water it with your hose attachment for 60 seconds. Come back an hour later and dig down to see how far that water actually penetrated. Usually only about the first inch, if that. Hand watering is a huge time waster unless you have very few plants. Use sprinkers on timers, or a drip systems, to free you up for all that weeding you need to be doing. Wink.

8. Knowing your enemy matters. I see posts all the time that ask “what’s wrong with my plant”. It’s awful when you’ve done all that work, and now something is threatening your crop and you have NO IDEA what it is. Being a gardener is all about close and careful observation. And that usually means actually paying attention to the insects that are also on your plants. Because most of the time, the problem is a creepy crawly, not a disease. Knowing who’s doing the damage then allows you to research how to combat your enemy. Just indiscriminately dousing your plants with insecticides kills lots of beneficial guys in your garden, including bees and lady bugs, and depending on your enemy, it might not actually kill the thing you’re fighting. You MUST know what’s actually doing the damage in order to fight it. Online gardening groups or your local extension office can help identify what’s happening. ALWAYS include your location when posting online. As someone who has gardened in 4 states, I can assure you that what’s affecting your crop may not be something that’s affecting mine.

Beginning tip. Something eating your crop? Go out at night with a flashlight. A lot of the time, the damage is being done at night and you’ll never catch the critter in the act unless you go look at night. And no, dish soap mixed with water and a bit of oil is NOT the answer to every insect problem, nor is diatomaceous earth. See this post for common myths of the gardening world.

Baby squash bug. The bane of my existence. I’ve actually pretty much stopped growing winter squash because of this guy. Sometimes you just have to raise the white flag.

9. Mulching has its pros/cons. In order to combat weeds and hold moisture in the soil, mulch (ie piles of course organic matter) can be amazing. If you have a free or inexpensive source of wood chips, old hay/straw or other substance that can hold moisture and smother weeds, by all means give it a try. But know that sometimes, all that mulch can make populations of bad guys explode too. Slugs, pill bugs (aka rolly polly’s) and earwigs all LOVE deep mulch piles and can do a lot of damage to plants (I quit trying to grow sweet basil and sweet corn in Colorado, because the pill bugs and earwigs would do enough damage that I never got a viable crop).

Beginner tip. Mulch is often a big carbon source (wood chips, straw etc.). It can be fine when just on the surface, but when mixed INTO the soil, it can tie up nitrogen that would have otherwise have been available for your plants. Keep it on the surface unless you have a good 4 to 6 months of time for it to break down into the soil.

Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

10. Care for the soil. When I took a soil science class in college, we spent one day out of the entire semester on the microbiology of the soil. But that was 20 years ago. Just like we are starting to understand how our own gut microbiology can affect everything from our mood to our weight, we’re finally starting to understand that the soil microbiology is critical to how your plants thrive. Research is JUST starting to scratch the surface on this very complex topic, but part of why I choose to garden organically is that I want to preserve and support that microbial ecosystem that is utterly fried by conventional herbicides and fertilizers. But even back in the 70’s, the answer to most garden soil questions was “add compost”. And that’s good advice today as well.

If you want to know more about soil ecology as we most recently understand it, I can not recommend the book “The Hidden Half of Nature” by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé enough.

So, there you have it. You could literally read multiple books on every point above. THIS is why gardeners say, “so many plants, so little time”. Lastly, remember that really cool concept where you have this card, and you take it to this place with books, and they let you take them home and read them for free as long as you bring them back? Before the age when we all carried computers in our pockets? I highly recommend that old fashioned way of learning when it comes to gardening. Go you your library and look at the “gardening” section, and just check out whatever books look interesting to you.

© 2020 Miles Away Farm, where we’ve had some 20+ seasons of gardening under our belt, and hope to have another 20, because you never stop learning!