Mismanagement of water and soil are the two biggest mistakes gardeners make. Both are so basic to life that the best gardeners know this, and put a lot of effort into getting better.
How often have I heard from gardeners and farmers, “I have so much work to do”? They shun projects because they feel so busy with the work they already have. But it’s worth investing in projects that ultimately save you more work in the long-run and increase your productivity.
Mistake #1: Not Watering Your Garden
The biggest mistake I see is not watering your garden. Part of the problem is actually doing the watering yourself. It’s a recurring chore that—although easy and fun for some gardeners—entails a huge labour cost.
That’s probably why some people eventually give up on watering at all. Water is what our plants need to get big and produce a lot of food for us. It’s easy to understand that if plants go too long without water, they die.
The value of watering more or less is a bit hard to see concretely, but imagine this: Two gardeners plant identical gardens. They put in the same amount of labour to start the garden, weed the garden, and take care of the plants. But of the two, the one who waters more effectively will reap many more rewards for their effort.
I think most people can intuitively understand this or have experienced this in their own garden. Watering makes your plants grow, whereas no water equals no growth.
And Related to Mistake #1: Watering at the Wrong Time
There is another common mistake with watering that I see, which is less well-understood. Plants are actually quite dynamic and responsive to their environment. When it’s hot outside and the sun is bearing down, plants close up and even wilt in order to reduce the amount of water that evaporates from them.
When rain comes, the plants open up to allow water to be absorbed into their bodies. Through capillary action, the water fills up the plant. You can clearly see that in your garden after a good watering or rainfall.
Now, what happens when we go out in the middle of the day—when the big, bright sun is shining—and start watering our plants? They go from sun mode to rain mode as quickly as they can. When the watering stops, the sun evaporates the water quickly from the plants before the plant can react.
The best time to water your plants is early in the morning, when they can absorb the rain and then be ready for the day’s sun. The plant will dry out throughout the day, reducing the chance of mold.
I know, who wants to wake up early to water their garden? Well, the best garden on my street is tended by a person who I see waking up early in the morning to water her garden. She knows plants, and her garden reflects this knowledge.
So how can solar energy help with watering? By automating the task! There are so many timers, water sensors, sprinklers, water pumps, and whatever else you can imagine to build an automated watering system. It’s worth the effort because, aside from a little maintenance, you can sit back or sleep better knowing that your plants will be very happy. Happy plants equals happy humans.
Mistake #2: Leaving Soil Bare
The second biggest mistake I see gardeners make is leaving soil bare and exposed to the elements by not protecting it with other living plants. Agriculture comes from this bare-field culture, and most of the plants we eat thrive in this environment.
The problem is that bare soil depletes over time and reduces our ability to grow food. When we have bare soil, we encourage erosion from rain and wind. Bare soil also gets really hot when in the sun, which makes it hard for those microbes to live.
Nature does not leave soil bare for long. Bare soil gets quickly covered by pioneer plants, like the dandelion. With its thousands of light seeds that fly through the air for kilometers, dandelions will find bare soil and swiftly begin to cover it. That’s what happens in our garden, and it ends up requiring weeding or herbicides.
A soil covered with plants is not just protected from the elements. Those living plants are exchanging energy from the sun for sugars and nutrients from the microbes. If the food goes away for the microbes, then what do they eat? How will they be alive and thriving when we need them?
I still have some bare soil on my farm, and am continuing to work on strategies to keep soil covered. We experiment with cover crops that protect the soil and discourage weeds. We also use woodchips, cardboard, and compost mulches that keep the soil shielded. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages, and we can be happy knowing we are building top soil instead of losing it.
A civilization that destroys the top soil will destroy itself. We need the top soil a lot more than it needs us. But we can take a very proactive approach to soil building.