5 Common Mistakes To Avoid With Your First Kitchen Garden
Kitchen gardens are so popular this year that seed companies have placed limits on daily orders — they have the seeds, but not the staff to keep up with demand! Whether you've got your seeds and starts (aka seedlings) ready to go or you're still in the queue, you can prepare yourself and your garden space for a great growing season. Here are five common mistakes that almost all new gardeners make when they first start growing their own food, and happily they're all easy to avoid if you plan wisely.
1. Don't plant too early.
Ignore deceptive springtime cues like spotting trays of tomato starts at the grocery store. Those plants begin their lives in cozy greenhouses, and they're simply not prepared for your barely-past-spring-thaw garden. Patience is your friend during what farmers call Mud Season — that period when winter is ending but spring hasn't quite arrived.
The Farmers Almanac has an online planting calendar that provides a date range for about 40 popular kitchen garden seedlings in zip codes across the U.S. Type in your zip code and you'll see average dates of first and last frost in your area (or a note that it's not an issue in climates like Puerto Rico and Hawaii) along with a chart of recommended planting dates. If the place you call home is record-breakingly warm or cold in a given year, it's smart to adjust the recommendation a bit in either direction.
2. Plan for a long harvest.
For most kitchen gardeners, having two pounds of beans or carrots every week for a month is the goal, rather than having everything ripen at once. It's a little more hassle up front (setting reminders on your phone is a good idea) but spreading out your planting across early, middle and late dates within that recommended planting range prevents these culinary frustrations. You might even need to spend less time weeding, as the plants you actually want to grow will be there to compete with those pesky weeds at every stage of growth.
To give your plants just what they need, you can adjust the location between your early plants and late ones, to take advantage of sunnier or shadier patches as the seasons progress. That said, if you're planting with one big batch of homemade pickles in mind, getting everything in the ground on the same day is a smart move — everything will be ready to pick right around the same few days.
3. Don't crowd your plants.
It's hard to resist — nobody has unlimited space, and it's hard to accurately picture how much room a head of lettuce takes when you're sprinkling tiny seeds or even placing plant starts. Give your plant babies a healthy start and thin them out well before they reach the "pandemic haircut" stage.
When you grow from seed, leave only the biggest, strongest-looking sprouts. Pinch off or snip above the soil level, so you don't disturb the delicate root structures of the sprouts you want to keep. (Some sprouts offer great nutrition along with flavor.)
For planting starts, the tag may offer a recommendation, but the rule of thumb is leaving abundant space for the mature plant size is. The key word is "abundant" — vegetables aren't harmed by having too much room to grow, and if it looks sparse as the plants develop, tuck in pollinator-friendly flowers like phacelia or milkweed (Monarch butterflies love milkweed).
4. Provide support.
Like human bodies, plants tend toward floppiness without proper support. Think of trellises and tomato cages not as armor, but as arch support — the framework isn't absolutely necessary, but helpful over a lifetime. Trellises reduce plant disease by increasing air flow (and making it easier to remove pests) and can more than triple your harvest by maximizing sunlight where it's most needed.
To design proper support, you need to picture the total weight of mature fruit on your plant along with the overall plant shape. A single tomato plant can supply up to 20 pounds of fruit in a few hot weeks. You can shape tomato vines onto rows of heavy-duty bamboo, PVC, or steel trellis, but this generally makes more sense for those with lots of plants and the time for regular gentle persuasion to get them to grow as intended. A 3- or 4-tier circular tomato cage is easy, but choose a heavy-duty one that looks overbuilt.
Delicate snap peas have different needs; as they're a cool-weather crop they need as much sun as they can get on all their little blossoms. My homemade bamboo trellis is going strong after eight growing seasons, but after a wind storm knocked it flat one April, I've learned to dig its vertical supports at least four inches into the soil. (The plants survived!) Using a trellis in a hip-height raised bed improves accessibility if mobility is an issue.
5. Nobody needs more than one zucchini plant.
Not to pick on our versatile green friend, but thanks to National Sneak Some Zucchini onto Your Neighbor's Porch Day (August 8), it's an approachable starting point to explain some plant biology. In a nutshell, frequent harvesting encourages many plants to keep producing — the more you pick, the more you have left to pick.
Related: How to Freeze Zucchini
Since zucchini have better texture when on the small size (about seven inches, or ½-pound), if you keep up with harvesting you can end up with upwards of 20 zucchini from one plant. Two plants leads to family whining and food waste anxiety (check if your local food pantries accept homegrown produce; many do). Three plants leads only to regret, for you and your neighbors.
And, consider balancing high-producing plants (pole beans, cherry tomatoes, raspberries) by selecting a few finicky heirlooms to play with, as they're less likely to produce bumper crops. Your nearest farmers' markets, county extension program, or independent nurseries can suggest options for your area.
Bottom line: A little patience and planning will get your plants ready for a great growing season.