Seeds and plants are very forgiving. There is not a lot we have to understand in order to encourage them to grow. However, there are four common mistakes that can have a big impact on gardening success.
- Planting at the wrong time
- Damage during transplanting
- Improper watering
- Not monitoring for pests or disease
Planting at the wrong time
Each type of seed needs a certain range of temperature and moisture conditions in order to germinate. For instance, lettuce seeds want the soil to be cool and moist while bean seeds like the weather to be quite warm and fairly dry.
The instructions on the back of seed packages are important, although you can learn along the way how that translates best to your own environment. You can learn a lot from talking to experienced gardeners who have lived in your particular area for a while.
Timing for transplanting is a little different. First and foremost, you must make sure the plants have been hardened off. This means they must be given time to gradually adapt to the more severe outdoor life if they have been lived most of their life under any sort of protection. This could mean inside a greenhouse or under protective covers that limit life so the pots won’t get so dry at the garden nursery.
When you transplant depends not only the type of plant, but also on the size of the plant and the immediate weather. For any plant, it is best to transplant on a cloudy late afternoon or evening. The more mature a plant is, the harder the transition will be, so timing is even more important.
One cloudy evening won’t help a lot if there is going to be a lot of hot weather for a few days. Try to transplant when moderate weather is expected for at least a couple of days, even for heat loving plants.
Damage during transplanting
There is a natural tendency to hold the stem when transplanting a seedling. It looks like the sturdiest part of the plant. It is also the main part that will undoubtedly kill the plant if broken.
Sometimes if may seem like you only bent the stem a bit, but this cuts through the vessels that connect the leaves to the roots. It is a rare plant that recovers from this.
On the other hand, a leaf here or there or a few less roots are not usually a problem for most transplants that are ready for the outdoor garden. It usually works best to support the plant by the dirt at the top of the pot while gently dislodging it.
Place your fingers carefully around, but not too close to, the stem. While doing this, tip the pot to get the plant out. Now you can probably hold it mostly by the root ball to place it in a prepared hole. If too much dirt falls away from the roots, gently use the leaves. How this works will depend on the size of the plant.
When watering young seedlings, I think about spring rain. Germinating seeds and tiny seedlings with very little roots need a very regular supply of water. The water needs to be light, but frequent.
It shouldn’t wash them away or make them stick irrevocably to the ground, but it shouldn’t just dampen the surface either. There also needs to be drainage so that they are not in standing water.
Think of a newborn baby with a tiny, 10 milliliter stomach that needs to be fed a lot. The baby can only take in so much at once, but then is hungry again soon.
For more mature plants, watering should be done based on the current moisture of the soil. This is best determined by TOUCHING the soil. Stick your finger in it up to about an inch deep. Rub a bit of it through your fingers. For most plants, water when the soil is still slightly moist, but somewhat soft crumbly.
Plants are generally more forgiving about watering the more mature they are, and you may develop a more intuitive sense of watering needs over the years. However, eyeballing soil moisture is very unreliable.
Color and the top crust can be very misleading. Not only that, but over watering can lead to the same symptoms as under watering. That is because drowning, rotting roots cannot provide water to the plant. Finally, it can be normal for some plants to slightly wilt on very hot days and some pests make plants wilt. Do not assume they need water.
It is not only heat that might increase the water needs of plants. A lot of wind can ship them dry. But, again, monitor by checking the soil as the primary indicator.
To put it another way, no one can really tell you how often to water or how much to water. You need to develop the habit of checking on your plants and evaluating the moisture status of their soil.
Not monitoring for pests or disease
Plants can look good for a long time from the window while insects or microorganisms are destroying them. Make it a habit to walk about your plants, inspecting both sides of the leaves and around the stems for signs of infestation.
Find out what pests arrive at what time of year or with what weather in your area. Some insects or diseases can or need to be prevented. Some just need to be controlled. Ask your local gardening guru what they do, then tweak it to suit your situation.
If your climate resembles the high desert of southern Idaho, this list may be helpful for you. Exact time of appearance will vary.
- pill bugs beginning in early spring
- cabbage maggots mid spring, though you might not see signs of them for another couple of weeks
- squash bugs late spring to early summer, depending on the heat
- aphids begin late June to early July
- earwigs when there is a good mix of warmth and moisture
- cabbage moths, then worms, beginning late spring
- grasshopper beginning early summer
For more ideas about how to combat them, try reading 7 Top Insect Predators in the Southwest Idaho Garden and How to Combat Them
What type of plants might be easiest for a new gardener?
Most people who say they don’t have a green thumb just haven’t worked out a system for monitoring what their plants need. They make assumptions and kill them with love; or they forget about them for too long. Having a green thumb is more about desire and habits.
Here are some mindsets and tools that might help:
- Set timers or calendar reminders for tasks
- Make checking on your plants and garden part of your daily routine
- Plant more than you think you will need, then thin to the best plants
- Visit your local botanical garden for ideas about micro-climates and plant types
- Keep a gardening journal to help you remember what you have observed
There are basic plants that I would recommend to a new gardener, but even these can depend on variety.
- green beans
Keep in mind that even for experienced gardeners, not every crop does well every year. Also, you won’t gain experience with a crop unless you try to grow it! So give yourself permission to try things, but maybe just not too many new things in one year.