Spring is so early this year that this article is barely in time. Crocuses are out and the daffodils are getting ready to bloom as I write this in mid-February. I know the following mistakes are all pretty common in new gardeners as I have made them all and watched other people make them in my community garden in Esquimalt. Perhaps, I am still in time to save a few backs.
Mistake number one: Is to go out there and clean up the whole garden and dig over all the beds on your first day out. A paramedic friend told me how common it is for him to be called out to gardens in the spring to retrieve gardeners who find they can’t stand up. The gardener has to be taken to hospital and unbent by professionals. I sprained my lower back one spring by spending too long digging beds. That took a very long time to heal.
The solution comes in two parts. You will need an alarm clock. Think how long you plan to work and set the clock to tell you when you are done. Change the position and intensity of your chores in that hour. It is better to do one good hour’s work every day than to go at it for too long on the first sunny day and regret it. This is especially true for people who have arthritis, chronic medical conditions or are just out of shape. There is an old saying about gardening, “Yard by yard, much too hard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch.”
Mistake number two: Planting out a whole packet of seeds at once. I did this once and ended up with a forest of Fordhook White Giant chard that even the rabbits wouldn’t touch. Think how much of a certain vegetable you are going to use every week and let that determine how many seeds you plant. Check to see how long the seed is going to be viable. Tomato seed lasts up to five years and you need very few plants. Onion seed and parsnips are good for only one year so when you have planted enough of them, give the rest of the seeds to another gardener.
Mistake three: plant your garden as if you were still living in Ontario. A lot of the gardeners I knew in Esquimalt would turn up in May and start their gardens only to disappear at the end of August. I started planting in February and finished planting in October. My garden had produce ready to harvest all winter and spring. Winter gardening is my favorite sort of gardening as there is no need to water, the weeds have stopped growing and my duties consist of turning up with a basket and harvesting the Brussels sprouts, spinach and huge overwintering cauliflower. That was my old garden in Esquimalt. My Denman garden has very poor soil and it is taking years to get it into good fertility. Here, I harvest tiny cabbages and Brussels sprouts the size of green peas. Use the West Coast Seeds planting guides to see what you should be planting every month.
Mistake four: Buying expensive seedlings at a garden centre. People even buy lettuce seedlings for God’s sake. There is nothing easier to start than lettuce and you only need to buy any sort of lettuce once. Let a few of each variety you want go to seed in the garden and harvest the seeds. You will have plenty to trade and give away. I just took a seed starting course and built a seedling propagator. It is like a tall book shelf with fluorescent lamps hanging down on adjustable chains for raising and lowering. It makes a great deal of sense but you can start most seedlings on a sunny window sill. A packet of broccoli seeds will give you 50 plants for the same price as a flat of six broccoli seedlings.
Mistake five: Wandering into the garden and starting to pull a few weeds in your nice clothes. In minutes, you are down on one knee wrestling a recalcitrant dandelion out of the soil and you have ruined your trousers. You also don’t have your gardening gloves on and now your hands are black. So, you need to have play clothes hanging on a hook by the back door. Change into grubby free store trousers and shirt. Put on your hat and gloves and rubber boots. I have a pair of knee pads I put on. The well dressed gardener has a holster for secateurs. I am not there yet.
Mistake six: This relates to mistake number one. People take on too much garden in the first year and make a bad job of all of it. It is much easier to make a good job of ¼ of your intended garden the first year than to break your back trying to sod bust an acre of land all at once. You also need to think of the future. Jimmy Tait came over to look at my garden and saw I had two tiny flower beds by my porch. She said, “Stop there because one day you will be old and you don’t want huge flower beds to take care of.” I think this was kindly meant but her huge gardens are what keep Jimmy so well. So if you plan to grow up to be Jimmy Tait, do as she does, not as she says.
Mistake seven: Leaving the ground bare is a big mistake. It harms the web of soil life and degrades your soil. Nature never leaves bare ground. Forests are self-mulching. Grasslands are tightly carpeted. Where you see bare soils, you see the hand of mankind or their goats. You can mulch your garden with just about anything but this makes a great habitat for slugs, who just love tender young seedlings, and pill bugs, who eat decayed matter until something better presents itself; that something being your strawberries. This year, I am going to try underplanting with clovers. This should work well under tall plants such as fava beans, next to rows of peas and under brassicas. The clovers will cover the soil to prevent erosion, fix nitrogen out of the air and provide blossoms for beneficial insects. I hope clover will deter the slugs and pill bugs.
Mistake eight: Planting too many plants in a given space. I always tell myself I can plant extra tight because I have raised beds. I got away with it when I had great soil but here, I really have to thin and space my plants properly. Plants do better with air moving around then and enough space to eat and drink their fill. The West Coast Seeds catalogue has great information on spacing and other tips and tricks for the garden.
Mistake nine: “If I plant this tree right by the house, the deer will never come this near.” A friend did that in Sooke and had all his little fruit trees ravaged their first night in the ground. Deer will get into your garden unless you fence them out. We have an eight- foot fence around our orchard and kitchen garden. No deer has ever got inside in the last three years. A friend in Victoria had a six-foot fence she thought would keep the deer out. Then she planted strawberries and the deer vacuumed them up. She was so angry that she chased a deer around her garden and nearly caught it before it fled over the fence.
Mistake ten: Failure to cater to beneficial insects. Your vegetable garden should have 5 to 10 percent of its area reserved for flowers to provide nectar and pollen for the good bugs. They like small flowers such as feverfew, mint, salvias, thyme, let some kale flower in the early spring, plant some aster and golden rod to flower in the fall. Calendulas, pot marigolds, are also good and their orange and yellow flowers cheer up any vegetable garden. Bachelor’s buttons are very good for parasitic wasps who feed on the nectar of the flowers and also at the leaf joints when there are no flowers. You need to water your insects especially in the summer. Put out ceramic plant saucers with water and a few stones in them as landing spots.
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