Top Ten Vegetable Gardening Mistakes


Not ready for Martha Stewart: our front yard vegetable bed.*

Some of the worst meltdowns and temper tantrums of my adult life have their origins in failed vegetable gardening projects. I thought I’d list off my top ten vegetable gardening misadventures  so that you don’t have to repeat them.

1. Not paying attention to soil fertility
This is my number one mistake. Most vegetables suck up a lot of nutrients. They need lots of compost and a source of nitrogen (fertilizer, manure or a rotation of beans). The difference between our prodigious straw bale garden, which got a lot of blood meal and fish emulsion to get it going, and our obviously depleted front yard raised beds highlights this common error. I  have to do more soil tests and remember to add nutrients (most likely nitrogen) before even thinking about planting veggies.

2. Planting at the wrong time of year
It took us awhile to find the right sources of information to guide us as to when to plant in our quirky Mediterranean climate (see this calendar and this book if you’re in SoCal). Seed package directions are useless here (what’s a frost date?). But, in fact, all climates have their quirks. Even two sides of the same town might have different planting dates. You have to find experienced gardeners and sources especially in places with either year round growing seasons or very short growing seasons. Ultimately, all gardening advice is local.

3. Planting things that don’t do well in our climate
Yes you can grow almost anything here, but that doesn’t mean you should. Carrots don’t like clay soils and warm temperatures. Cabbage gets lots of pests here. Some veggies are best to outsource to the professionals at the farmer’s market.

4. Not having a plan
My brain, to put it politely, is non-linear. If I were to overcome that cognitive flaw and plan out how much and where things should be planted I’d have both a steady supply of produce as well as a more attractive garden.

5. Not labeling plants
What kind of okra is that? I have no damned idea. Too bad when I want to plant it again next year. All it takes is a sharpie and a plastic knife to fix this problem.

6. Not keeping a garden diary
The two most important things to know are when something was planted and when the first and last harvests took place. With this data you can plan out next years garden more easily. Some other things to note: how did it taste and were their any pest problems?

7. Not staggering planting
I guess this is why canning was invented, but it really would be nice to have a continuous supply of veggies rather than a ton all at once. Stagger planting by two weeks, for most vegetables and you won’t have the feast or famine effect.

8. Growing things we don’t like to eat
We had a hell of a lot of turnip gratin one winter.

9. Missing the harvest
This is the most heartbreaking for me. Suddenly there’s a bunch of tasty heirloom vegetables ready to harvest. But . . . I’m going on a trip, or I’m too busy to cook . . . or I’m just too lazy to cook form scratch. It reminds me of a quip beekeeper Kirk Anderson made about beekeeping. Beekeeping, Anderson said, is like going to the bathroom, “When Mother Nature calls you’ve gotta go.”

10. Meltdowns
Vegetable gardening requires the patience of the Buddha. Crap is going to happen and you just have to accept that. Bad weather, bug infestations, marauding skunks and absentmindedness will intervene in even the best planned vegetable garden. I have at least two major meltdowns a year. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to change.

Did I leave anything out? What mistakes have you made in your vegetable garden?

ETA: See Rule 11

*A note from Mrs. H. re: the top photo: Argh! Erik likes to be melodramatic with the pictures. Let me explain. This bed was indeed not a success. It needs soil inputs, and perhaps is hosting nematodes, so the seedlings didn’t thrive. This we realized way back in the spring. So we decided to just let that bed go for the rest of the summer and focus on the straw bales. That photo above is what a bed looks like after sitting neglected all summer long–it’s not the fruit of our best gardening efforts, or even the result of a pitched struggle. (But it did make a few tomatoes, bless it!) As soon as it cools down here I’m going to attend to that soil and bring it back to life.

Getting Hardscaping Right

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows' garden in Berkeley.

A water feature at Keeyla Meadows’ garden in Berkeley.

One of the many lessons I learned on the tour I took of Bay Area gardens as part of the Garden Blogger’s Fling is that you’ve got to get the hardscaping right before even thinking about plants. When I asked garden designer Keeyla Meadows about the large stones in her garden she told me that they were craned in above the house. It was clear that at some point in the evolution of her small backyard garden, she bit the bullet and got bold with the hardscaping.

While there will be no craning at our house, the point is a good one. Get the hardscaping done first, do it right and be bold. Putting plants in first and then building things like decks and seating areas is a recipe for disaster. Any construction project, even carefully done, causes a considerable amount of destruction.

Some other lessons I’ve learned from fifteen years worth of hardscaping mistakes at our house:

  • Design the hardscaping before even thinking about plants.
  • Open the wallet and get quality materials for any hardscaping project. It’s more economical to do it right the first time, rather than re-do badly done projects multiple times.
  • Go where contractors get materials not the big box stores. A recent trip to Home Depot reminded me about how ugly most of their stuff is.
  • Get materials delivered. I once dropped a very heavy load of Trex on a steep hill near our home and watched, in horror, as it slid a hundred feet down the road. Thankfully no one got hurt. But it was not fun to reload the car on a 100° day.
  • Consider long term maintenance. Choose materials that are durable and easy to maintain.
  • Every home needs a “hide the s@#t fence.” There needs to be a place to put potting soils, shovels, compost piles etc.

I’m just about to embark on a couple of building projects–extending the back patio deck, building permanent vegetable beds and the aforementioned hide the s@#t fence.

This time I’m going to get it right!

How have your hardscaping endeavors gone? What have you done right and wrong? Have you found hardscaping solutions that didn’t break the bank?

Failed Experiment: Bermuda Buttercup or Sour Grass (Oxalis pes-caprae) as Dye

The “dyed” t-shirt is on the left. The shirt on the right is a basic white tee. I could have achieved similar results by entropy alone.

Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”

There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.

Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.

So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?

My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.

I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance,  compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.

It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.

(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)

ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.

This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.

A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends.  I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.

Read on if you dare.

Continue reading…

More on our gardening disasters

We need to put the heart back into our garden. (Our Heart of Flax from way back in 2011)

I thought I’d chime in on the subject of this year’s garden failures. Before I do, I’d like to thank you all for your kind advice and commiseration that you left on Erik’s post.

First, I will agree that it really, truly has been a terrible year in the garden. Sometimes Erik gets a little melodramatic when it comes to the crop failure (e.g. the Squash Baby adventure) but the truth is we’ve never, ever had such a sorry string off disasters and non-starters since we began gardening.

And I think that’s something to keep in mind. This is unusual. When things are going wrong, it’s easy to forget how often they go right. That’s why it’s good to keep a garden journal, or a blog, or even just a photo collection to look back on, so you can track your progress more objectively.

So when I look back on this blog, and through our old photos, I can see the successes far outweigh the failures. Disasters are inevitable when gardening–that’s part of the game– but they are usually balanced by good times. This year, though, it seemed nothing went right.

What went wrong?

Continue reading…

Using a Whirley-Pop to Roast Coffee

Maybe not such a good idea to use an electric popcorn popper . . .

One of the perils of creating how-to books and blog posts is when one of your bits of advice blows up in your face after writing about it. Such is the case with my suggestion of roasting coffee in a hot air popcorn popper. Yesterday, my West Bend Air Crazy popcorn popper made good on the crazy in its name, started smoking and stopped working in the midst of coffee roasting.

In my guilt ridden imagination I can already see dolphins choking on the remains of my now useless West Bend Air Crazy. I can also imagine the letter from the West Bend legal team reminding me that I was using the air popper for something it was never designed to do. And then there’s the ire of West Bend’s Chinese factory workers cursing my privileged lifestyle. But worst of all is the wailing of wives and husbands angry that their partners had been suckered into the idea of roasting coffee at home with an air popper on the advice of some dumb blogger.

Let me make amends. My coffee geek friends use a manual, hand cranked stove top popcorn popper called the Whirley-Pop. Here’s why:

  • You can roast a much bigger batch.
  • You have more control over the roasting process (by regulating the heat on the stove).
  • No electronic parts, thus nothing to break down.
  • You can roast over a fire if your utilities go out. Having caffeine (if you’re the addicted sort) during a hurricane/earthquake/Mayan apocalypse is really important.
  • Root Simple is supposedly about “Low Tech Home Tech.” There ain’t nothing low tech about a plastic hot air popper.

There are a few disadvantages to the Whirley-Pop:

  • Not plug and play. You have to stand over the stove, regulate the heat and turn the crank.
  • Smoke can set off fire alarms–harder to take outside than the air popper.

My air popper might have lasted longer had I roasted coffee in it without the top on as one reader suggested. I could also have just ended up with a bad popper. Apologies to anyone who rushed out to get an air popper. Maybe it will work better than mine did.

At least with our high tech blog I can correct mistakes. It would be harder if Root Simple was a mimeographed newsletter–the Whirley-Pop of information delivery methods. But we’ll see what format the blog is in after this week’s Mayan apocalypse . . .