5 Common Spring Planting Mistakes
When the weather finally starts to warm up after months of bitter cold, the urge to plant our gardens becomes overwhelming. In our eagerness to get started, it’s very easy to make some common gardening mistakes. I have made many of them at one time or another in my 35 years of gardening.
Here are five things you should avoid doing in your spring garden:
1) Plowing or tilling soil that is too wet
Waiting for soil to dry out in the spring is one of the biggest frustrations of the season. Ideally, you should till your soil only when it is moist enough to hold together in a clump when lightly squeezed in your hand, but dry enough to break apart easily.
If you till the soil when it is too wet, you can badly damage the structure of the soil. Clay soil, in particular, can form large lumps that makes gardening very difficult, and these lumps can take an incredibly long time to disappear.
This is one big advantage to using raised garden beds. Unless I’m mixing in fertilizer, I never have to till the soil in my garden beds. Plus, they dry out and warm up faster than level ground. I can often plant in my garden just a couple of days after a heavy rain.
2) Leaving mulch on during cold springs
For most climates (though not all), it’s a great idea to cover your garden soil with a layer of mulch over the winter. This keeps weeds from growing, adds organic matter, protects the surface of the soil, and attracts many earthworms during warmer spells.
However, a heavy layer of mulch can slow the soil from warming up early in the season. If your spring weather is very cool, you might want to remove your mulch for a couple of weeks before planting, to allow the soil to warm up more.
My climate is usually warm enough in the spring that I don’t have to remove the thin layer of mulch I normally keep on my garden – but we occasionally have cooler than normal weather. In that case, I sometimes temporarily remove my mulch in the spring.
3) Planting warm season crops too soon
We gardeners are an optimistic bunch. Once we’ve experience a few warm days in a row in the spring, we can easily be convinced that frost won’t return again until autumn – even if our “frost-free” date is still three to four weeks in the future.
If you have transplants to spare, and are willing to risk losing some, you can try planting the seedlings somewhat earlier than normal. Just be aware that warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers love heat, and don’t thrive in the cooler temperatures or cool soil of early spring. Sweet potatoes, in particular, hate cool weather. I won’t try putting them out at all until two weeks after my last spring frost.
If you want to get an early start for other warm season plants, I recommend two things: 1) choose varieties that are more tolerant of cool weather (like Stupice tomatoes), and 2) give them some extra protection. Grow them under row cover, a mini-hoop tunnel, or a product like “Wall-o-Water” until the weather becomes warmer and more stable.
Just be aware that crops started several weeks early (if they survive!) often mature only 1-2 weeks earlier than normal (even under protection), because they’re struggling under less than ideal conditions. I might start one or two plants early, but I wait to plant most of my warm season crops until after my last spring frost date.
4) Failing to harden off transplants
Many of us have nurtured young vegetable seedlings in our homes or greenhouses and then carefully planted them outside in our garden beds, only to have the seedlings become sick and/or die over the first few days.
These young plants have never been exposed to wind or direct sunlight. Their leaves can become sunburned, just like we do! Instead of turning red from over-exposure, like our skin, leaves often become bleached and develop sunken dead patches – or the entire plant could die. In addition, high winds can damage the young plants.
It’s important to “harden off” your transplants, by gradually exposing them to more and more sunlight, temperature fluctuations, or wind over a period of several days. You can do that in a cold frame or under row cover, or by putting your transplants outside in a sheltered location in partial sunlight for slowly increasing periods of time.
5) Planting garlic in the spring
Most people only plant their gardens in the spring, and don’t even consider doing any summer or fall plantings. This works just fine for many crops, though it often causes feast or famine issues for garden harvests.
But garlic is one of the few vegetables that needs to be planted in the fall in order to grow decent bulbs. If you plant garlic in the spring, it will rarely produce well. If you’d like to learn when to plant garlic in your own location, check out this Garlic Planting Chart.
It’s easy to let our “spring fever” get the best of us in our rush to get our gardens planted. But by avoiding these common spring planting mistakes, you can get your garden off to a successful start!