Mistakes for New Gardener to Avoid

ParmaJonMarch 19, 2012

Hello, I am new to the forum and new to gardening and to growing in the pacific northwest, However I have spent two season on small CSA veg farms recently.

From poking around gardening books and forums, it seems that gardening is quite a bit different than farming. Mostly because if I only plant a few tomato plants, I have too care a lot more about each of those plants than if I plant four 350 ft rows of tomatoes. I am also new to year round gardening such as is possible here in mild Oregon.

So, my first question to the forum is this: what troubles should I most avoid in my first year as a gardener? I know a fair bit about pest and disease management from my farm work, also I can manage those sorts of problems as they arise (assuming proper care has been taken in planning). I am most concerned right now with what people here have found their biggest problems as gardeners [i]that they have control over[/i] i.e. not weather or pest related. Does that question make since? I hope it does, for me the biggest thing right now seems to be planning succession schedules so that I can be producing food all year. Thanks for your responses and happy growing.

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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Hi and welcome! If you type 'newbie' in the search bar you'll get tons of great discussions to read if interested.

One of the best discussions was named "101 things for newbie gardeners to avoid" and I'll see if I can dig it up for you.

Here is a good one about tomatoes.

I am most concerned right now with what people here have found their biggest problems as gardeners

1. maintaining consistent soil moisture levels and avoiding over-watering in the process. Most of us way over-water and so create shallow rooted, water dependent plants.

2. over-crowding, over-planting. Forcing ourselves to increase our plant spacing for the good of the plants just seems to go against the grain. More is not always better. Many times LESS is more.

3. failing to monitor and maintain soil nutrient levels throughout the growing season, rather than overdosing at the beginning.

4. weeding is part of gardening. :)


    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 9:43PM
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Overcrowding is something I see a lot of gardeners doing their first few times around. It can lead to stunted plants, stalking(too-tall) plants, or masses of green so wide/large that it gets a little out of control and hard to maintain.

Make sure to give your plants enough room for their adult height/spread. It's better to give it too much space when you're getting the hang of how to grow a plant in your area, imo. Once you get a feel for how it grows you can get your spacing down. A few inches of space saved on one plant, a few on another, soon enough you can get a few more plants in the same amount of space.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 9:47PM
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I think one common mistake is to go for peppers and other finicky (at least here) plants right away. In the colder areas, go for greens, parsley and things like that first.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 10:01PM
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In my experience, peppers are only finicky when they're seedlings. Once they get growing, I've found it to be virtually impossible to kill one. Heck, I make bonsai out of my peppers at the end of the season, and that involves chopping them back so drastically it would kill even a tomato, and they just bounce right back.

Nothing short of pouring roundup on a pepper will hurt it once it's going, they're pretty much foolproof as long as you don't overwater.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 11:56PM
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I'll second the spacing issue. Many new gardeners underestimate how large a plant will get, and those seeds look so tiny out in all that soil. I always advise interplanting a variety of fast-maturing crops along with the longer ones - after you harvest the radishes and carrots and spinach, the tomatoes and broccoli will have started to fill out, and won't look so lonely.

The other thing many new gardeners, and some not so new, do is put in the whole garden at once in the spring and don't think about what to do as crops mature. There are essentially four growing seasons, and a well-planned rotation and succession will more than double the productivity of the space.

Thoughtful planning and good record keeping will increase your yields and reduce your labor every year. Regular weeding does the same thing.

Make smart investments. If watering properly is an issue, spend money on an irrigation system and a timer, if bugs are a problem, buy some garden fabric and take the time to install it properly. Buy well-made tools that you won't have to replace, and learn how to take care of them. Crappy tools are a waste of money, energy, and time.

Don't work so hard that you can't or don't want to be back out there the next day. Let gardening be a craft and a process, not a chore. use the methods you learned by farming on a smaller scale,because the efficiency will allow you the time to strive for higher quality and optimum growing conditions. The best farms I've seen were not run by farmers, but by mega-gardeners who try to give the same depth of attention to large-scale production that competitive gardeners give trying to grow the heaviest pumpkin or the longest carrot, but let the superlatives for which you strive be flavor and nutrition. A truly well-managed vegetable garden is as attractive as an ornamental garden, with the added advantage that it tastes good.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 12:45AM
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A lot of new gardeners get discouraged because they try to do too much, straight off, and end up with a huge plot of weeds. Starting small is better, then expanding your plot once you've got the hang of it.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 1:27PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Thought of another one - especially for this year.

Don't let the weather sucker you into planting too early. It is a waste of time, plants, and seeds.

Oh, and learn how to measure soil temps too. That, not air temps, is the best indicator for any direct seeding.


    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 1:48PM
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I also think it is a good idea to start small enough that you can care for your garden without a lot of stress. Gardening should be enjoyable and starting small lets you learn without getting discouraged.

Also, as you probably know, it is important to rotate your crops. If you plant your tomatoes in the same spot year after year, diseases will overwinter in your soil and cause problems. Then you will need to use a lot of chemicals to deal with the problems. It is easier to just plant in a new section of the garden each year. The rotation should have at least 3 years before planting tomatoes in the same place again

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 1:52PM
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learn what cool season/warm season crops are.

2nd the overwatering

no real way to learn but the hard way, but over/under fertilization. some insist on following the "use every 2 weeks" directions printed on some "bottles"

i could go for weeks, but im too busy making my own mistakes, most of which are posted in the comments directly above

too early?check
start too much? check
over crowding? check

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 2:41PM
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donnabaskets(Zone 8a, Central MS)

There are some truly good tips above. I would add that it's best to not get in a hurry with gardening. Slow and steady means less wear and tear on your back and knees, better soil prep for your plants, better care for them while they are growing, and better harvests too. Learn to enjoy the trip as much as the destination.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 5:05PM
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Seconding the need for a soil thermometer. A digital meat thermometer can take soil temps.

Also a corollary to "don't crowd the planting" - Thin ruthlessly. New gardeners are so happy with their newly sprouted seeds, they hate to pull them out when necessary.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 5:14PM
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Thanks all for the comments. Certainly a lot of good advice here. ltilton, I certainly had qualms about pulling up new seedling when I first started farming, but that was certainly scolded out of my by the farmer pretty quickly, and after sever days spent hoeing long beds of carrots beets and spinach, I learned the benefit of having a little working space around plants.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2012 at 3:48PM
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For your fertilizing go to SoilSecrets.com

    Bookmark   March 21, 2012 at 7:30PM
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Since you're likely also working with a new garden plot, I would recommend knowing your dirt. So many times the problem isn't the plants, but it's the quality of the dirt. (Extension office will test it for you.)

Be extraordinarily picky about what you amend with. Find out if the livestock were medicated (if using manure), find out if the straw/compost, etc was sprayed with chemicals and what they were used for. (Some sprays are toxic to weeds and people and composting doesn't break it down.)

Putting "free" composted material on your garden can have disastrous affects.

That said, feed your dirt well. Just be confident about what you're using.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   March 21, 2012 at 10:02PM
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Know your zone, be sure to plant summer vegetable in a timely manner and winter growing vegetable in the winter, If the vegetable need mild weather or hot summer or cold cool climate, read the back of the seed package. Norma

    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 2:39AM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

Adding to Norma's post, make sure that 'winter X' doesn't mean it's READY in winter and needed to be planted in late summer!

    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 3:45AM
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harveyhorses(7 Midlothian Va)

All of this is such good advice, this year I will NOT overcrowd. I might have to build another raised bed.
IGNORE the root bound box store reject plants that have been marked down to .10. Even of they have tomatoes on the vine. Unless they are a variety you have been searching for and that is not likely. (but that is how I got my first Cherokee)

    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 11:37AM
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Belgianpup(Wa/Zone 7b)

Get a professional soil test done. Our heavy rainfall leaches out a lot of nutrients like calcium, magnesium, sulfur and boron. You want to know what you should add and how much; you don't want to waste money on what you already have enough of, or add too much of what you've already got.

Put the garden as close to the house as you can, rather out in the back forty somewhere. The closer it is to you, the more likely you are to take care of it. Out back, it's too easy to ignore.

I'll echo starting small. It's sad to lose two or three tomato plants. Losing 50 because you couldn't keep up will make you cry and swear to never garden again.

Gardening is a real learning experience, and you're going to make plenty of mistakes, trust me! Get used to going organic from the start. If world/personal conditions hit the fan, you'll have to know how to do the most with the least.

You'll hear/read about John Jeavons and his Biointensive methods. They're not for the beginner, for the lazy, or for people whose time is limited.

I also agree with wider spacings for three important reasons:

1) More area gives the plant roots more space to spread out without competition to find nutrients in less than optimum soil.

2) More area lets the roots go farther to find moisture if you aren't able to water for some reason.

3) Here in the PNW the high humidity can contribute to fungus and mildew problems, and it multiplies when the plants don't have enough air circulation around them. Also, only water in the morning if at all possible. Watering late in the day helps keep the plants too humid.

Get hold of Carol Deppe's book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. It's in the library system. She gardens in Corvallis, OR, and has many local tips to share. Very good book -- I'm going to have to buy it!


    Bookmark   March 23, 2012 at 12:26PM
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Break rules, too much, too little. See what works for you and if it does not work what actuall happens.

Try different varieties to see what YOU like, or do not.

My main crops for my interest are corn, tomatoes and potatoes.

I have tried dozens of varieties and learned MUCH.

I have bought the nearly dead left-overs and cheapies to see what comes up and to beat the odds.
If you garden with a commercial mentality, quatity and regimental order, go for it.
It you want to try different strokes, go for it.

Life is short fill it while you can.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2012 at 11:27AM
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meldy_nva(z6b VA)

The most common newbie mistakes have been covered in the preceding posts: not enriching the soil, not thinning seedlings, not spacing adequately, not watering evenly throughout the season. I'd like to add: not mulching enough, not reading seed-packet info carefully, and not realizing that if you plant a 25' row of radishes (or whatever), there will eventually be a 25' row of radishes that needs to be harvested and eaten! We can grin about having a bushel of radishes, but it's not quite as funny if it's a couple bushels of tomatoes or zucchini or anything that you weren't planning to preserve in jars or freezer; especially if the harvest arrives during the time you had planned to be away on vacation.

On that note, I do suggest buying and studying carefully a copy of Bartholomew's "Square Foot Gardening", not just for mostly common sense on soil and plant spacing -which won't always be the same common sense required for garden rows- but because he advocates succession planting for a family garden, which is rarely found on seed packets. Believe me, it's a lot easier to stare at -and use- 4 cabbages than a forty-foot row of cabbages. :)

I also recommend highly learning about mulches (no, no, not plastic~ I mean the good soil-enriching stuff) and then using them heavily both around plants and for paths. Personally, I hate weeding, especially when it's a sunny 95*+ out. I've been gardening for most of my seven decades and can tell you that it's true that you don't have to spend more than 15 minutes a week on pulling weeds during the growing season, IF you mulch properly.

And last, remember that gardening really is fun, so don't make it hard to do: keep it small enough that you don't need to spend more time than you want to keep it both pretty and productive. You can always enlarge it next year.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 2:01PM
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Thanks all. some really great advice on here! we have been hit by a lot of rain lately, so I haven't been able to get my soil up and start working the soil, it just makes bricks when i try to spade it. It looks like I will not be planting a spring garden this year.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 8:22PM
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nancyjane_gardener(Zone 8ish North of San Francisco in the "real" wine country)

All of the above, but don't be discouraged being in the PNW!
I'm thinking you can probably go ahead and do some greens , carrots and radishes if it's still cool there.
I think there is a forum for the PNW somewhere on the forum! Check it out!
Possibly peas, snow peas, spinach, chard and other "winter" veges? Nancy

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 9:17PM
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Learn who is an experienced gardener in your area. Befriend them. :) Someone who has been working their garden for 20+ years will have a vast store of knowledge specific to your town/neighborhood: who always has great squash, who needs extra leaves in the fall, etc.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2012 at 10:33PM
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Failing to usderstand the importance of mulch is a big one I see. Many gardeners (even experienced ones) waste a lot of time on weeding their gardens. Mulch keeps the weeds in check, retains moisture in the soil, and provides a great environment for "good" insects and worms to thrive. Use mulch liberally, especially pine needle mulch. You won't be sorry.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 5:34PM
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Question re: mulching since you brought it up and I am a new vege gardening. I have all the paths mulched with pine needles and eucalyptus leaves and it works great to keep back the weeds. But, it seems the rolly poly love it. Whenevever I move any mulch out of the way the ground is packed with sow bugs.

I am wondering if I mulch around the veges won't it encourage more sow bugs right where I don't want them to be?

I am drowning many each night in beer traps and using Sluggo plus also but it is not making a dent in the population yet.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 11:43PM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

All good stuff - but please remember not to make one of the commonest mistakes of all: over-thinking. Some newbies seem to spend so long worrying about what is 'right' (no such thing actually - there is a wide range of ways of doing things in a garden) and what might go wrong that they get put off going out there and getting started. Get your basic tools: fork, trowel,rake. Buy some easy seeds: lettuce, beans, zucchini and get going. You can keep asking and learning but please just get your hands into the earth asap.

Above all observe constantly. That way you can catch any problems before they overwhelm you. If something looks odd to you come back here and ask. Now get out there and begin.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2012 at 6:04AM
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Thyme2dig NH Zone 5

This is all great info. I'm new to veg gardening this year. I've done a bit in windowboxes over the past few years, but this year have devoted some decent space to vegetables. I think I am on the right track so far from what I'm hearing from all of you. Haven't made a huge bed and I don't think I'll get overwhelmed. I also read the Sq Ft Gardening book to check into proper spacing so I won't be tempted to overcrowd. I've started a lot from seed indoors and the plants are doing great. I do plan to give away a lot of plants as part of my "not getting overwhelmed" strategy with too much to plant/harvest, etc. in the first year. I absolutely plan to mulch to cut down on weeding.

I do have a question that has not been covered yet and this might be the "overthinking" piece that Flora is talking about. When I plant out, how much do I need to think about plant placement in reference to larger plants shading smaller plants? I have read to be careful about lattice placement, etc. for fear of shading smaller plants. The area I am planting is full, blazing sun so I hadn't even originally thought about this. Is it an issue to really pay attention to? Thanks for any info.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2012 at 5:29PM
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feijoas(New Zealand)

thyme2dig, it really depends on your climate. In hot places, some shading from tall plants is beneficial. I actively avoid it as I need all the sun I can get!
I just think in terms of 'small, medium, large' rather than anything too specific.
As Flora says, too much thinking can stop action and it's the doing it where learning really happens. People who've been gardening for many decades are still finding out stuff.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2012 at 6:15PM
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imstillatwork(8-9 Oregon Coast / Ca Border)

The problem I see most is people not noticing change, or over-reacting to change. PAY ATTENTION, but don't expect changes overnight!

    Bookmark   April 1, 2012 at 10:58PM
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We had a large garden long ago, but now live in the country and started a new big garden this year. I went on freecycle asking for organic fertilizer and found people that had horses and aged manure. They used no chemicals, and they horse was healthy. We got about 400 lbs of manure from them. I knew we would need it because it is heavy clay soil. Then I got a soil test done and added ag lime to reduce the acidity. WE layed the manure down about 8 inches deep and tilled it in with the lime that was required. I have peas coming up and broccolli as well as cabbage and onions. They are all very healthy. I stress the importance of knowing your soil and feeding it. I also make weak compost tea to water the plants.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2012 at 4:50PM
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Don't get discouraged if you kill a few... or more than a few. And try and find out how to pick the right candidates for seedlings or pre-sprouted plants before buying them to help you in being successful!

I made that mistake on an impulse buy of my fuyu persimmon tree which had a several small branches on a bare root tree! When it struggled through most of the year only to finally give up the ghost it was quite sad for me, but I replaced "Percy" the next time and thought to Google first and learned that a bare root tree should be more root than branch so it doesn't have to work so hard to support itself and establish at the same time. This may also apply to some other plants as well since the above ground part is only half the story and the roots are the heart of the matter.

I learned I should have chosen one with a nice set of roots (open the bag if you have to, I did) and no branches at all, just trunk. That one leafed out almost immediately (the other never did) and is thriving in a big pot I put it in until I figure out where it will live permanently, since it will be better to only move it once. This way its portable for a while.

AND Seeds: sometimes its more efficient to germinate in a napkin in a bag first and plant when you know that they are viable. It seems to germinate faster by a magnitude for me this way, and also saves me the axiety of peering at the ground and wondering if it is weeds or my seeds that are coming up if I direct sow. It also helps, if you do direct sow, to mark the spot with some flag to help clear any confusion too.

If you have pets, get a small fence/border to discourage them. (Roundup isn't all that will kill peppers...a dog does a decent job of that too. My pooch seems to have a vendetta against them and my artichokes for some reason. I came home one day to a massacre! It wasn't pretty...)


Last: some plants will thrive much better if you don't let them get out of hand and unruly- don't be afraid to prune - my tomatoes and grapes are very forgiving even if I get overzealous. Also petunias seem to appreciate a nip and tuck too, or they turn to a sticky mush.

Trial and lots and lots of error is probably the only way to go though. If you don't kill anything, you aren't REALLY gardening. =)

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 5:56AM
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If you're growing anything in containers to add to your garden, NEVER fill it only with a bag of anything labeled "garden soil." Too many people ignore labels and overlook that this type of mix in a container will choke the life out of your plant. Many people do not understand that roots need air. They assume you're supposed to "firm" the soil around a new plant to remove all the air pockets so that the plant doesn't dry out, which leads to instant compaction. Using garden soil will create a compacted soil condition on it's own as soon as you've watered a few times. What follows is a plant struggling for air at the root level. Hence, if you're going to use containers you need to condition the potting mix you put in the containers by adding soil conditioners such as perlite or vermiculite which help prevent compaction of the soil, and you need to use it in a proportion of one part perlite or vermiculite to two or three parts of the other components (peat, potting soil, sand, etc. based on what you're growing). I've watched too many people put a bag of heavy garden soil right into their containers, place a new plant in, firm the soil too hard around the plant, water the container, and begin killing what they think is a well planted container. I've watched in dismay as people sprinkle over the top of garden soil a hand spade of perlite and move it around into maybe the top 1" as if they think that's all it takes. You've got to treat ALL the soil in a container differently compared to what you do in the ground (although it is true you need to aerate heavier soils and add conditioning amendments there too).

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 8:23AM
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Good tips listed above!

My amateur gardening tips include:

- Overcrowding! I'm about to dig up some dwarf trees due to this.

- Irrigation: I love the black poly tube, hate the soaker hoses (because they are inconsistent waterers and become brittle after a single season). Instead of using specific fixed rate emitters, I would invest a little more in variable emitters for each plant, so I can control the specific amount of water and (more importantly) be versatile for the next growing season when very likely something else might be in that plant's place.

- Relax and experiment. Some things grow better in your specific environment than others and it takes a few seasons to learn this. Failures are a part of gardening. Sometime the plants doesn't like the degree of sun/shade or soil that it's placed in. I enjoy buying those $0.10 discounted dying plants at Lowe's btw!

- Be brutal with pruning. The plant always looks better with a haircut.

- Container gardening is great for people with no land. I had more than 50 containers hidden behind the garage of my old apartment complex and would carry water to them (sometimes twice daily) in two 5 gallon buckets from the nearest faucet 100 yards away in 100+ degree heat. Also, you can easily turn a concrete slab into a garden with a pile of composting leaves (the lasagna gardening method).

- Plant perennials so they keep coming back year after year. My garden is evolving in this direction.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 3:55PM
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Enjoy the journey and take notes along the way.


    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 6:54PM
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zzackey(8b GA)

If you are buying transplants from the local stores, beware! The big box stores around here don't always carry the right varieties for our zone. Check out EDIS. It is the Agricultural center's online info site. You might be able to look up varieties that are good for your area. You can find lots of good info for gardening in your area. I wil warn you it is not one of the easiest sites when you use their search bar. It will pull up anything that has the word in it that you searched the site for. Not necessarily what you are looking for. Still lots of good info. Sign up for your local monthly agricultural newsletter from your local ag center. Good free info and some good classes are offered there. Happy Gardening!

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 7:13PM
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I am definitely a newbie! I have been wondering what caused our tomato plants to look like they came from the Jack and the Beanstalk story. Based on what I am reading it is likely overcrowding. Given how I planted them, it fits with the info here! oops - next year will space them out more for sure. There are many tomatoes growing despite the overcrowding. Is it likely that they will ripen as expected?

Thanks for the info!

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 9:17AM
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