By Colleen Vanderlinden, Planet Green
We were all new gardeners once upon a time. Oh, the mistakes we made. The plants we killed! The dumb choices we made. Mistakes and dumb choices will be a part of your gardening life until the day you set aside your shovel and pruners (or until they day they pry them from your cold, dead hands, in my case) and that’s a good thing. Mistakes help us learn. I can’t imagine gardening without them.
But beginner’s mistakes can be especially disheartening. There’s nothing worse than just getting started in a new hobby and watching everything you’re trying to grow just sit there pathetically when you dreamed of ripe juicy tomatoes and a garden full of flowers. With that in mind, here are the most common beginner mistakes I get questions about most often at the two garden blogs I write, as well as what to do to avoid them. In no particular order:
The Top 10 Rookie Gardening Mistakes
1. Clueless Watering
Many new gardeners kill new plants by either drowning them or letting them dry out too much, too often. There are a couple of things you can do to make sure you’re watering correctly:
- Know your plant’s moisture requirements.Some plants like to stay consistently moist, while others prefer to dry out a little bit between waterings.
- Check the soil regularly. Stick your finger into the soil up to the second knuckle. If it’s dry, it’s time to water.
2. Wrong Plant, Wrong Place
If you’re trying to grow tomatoes against a north-facing wall under a maple tree, you’re not going to have much luck. That’s an extreme example, perhaps, but knowing whether your plant needs sun or shade, or prefers dry or moist soil, and then giving it those conditions, will go a long way toward ensuring success in the garden. Make sure you’re buying plants that fit the conditions in your garden. This will also help you avoid many pest and disease problems, since stressed plants (including those unhappily growing in the wrong conditions) attract pests and are more susceptible to disease problems. This information can be found on plant tags, or in catalog descriptions.
3. Not Giving Plants Enough Space
That ‘Doublefile’ viburnum looks so cute in its little black pot. Surely, you don’t really need to give it 15 feet of space the way the tag says. So you plant it between a couple other cute little shrubs (that also said they needed at least ten feet of space) and within a few years, you have a tangled mass o’ shrubs on your hands. It’s not pretty. The same can happen with perennials, which often look so dinky in their nursery pots (and even more so when you buy them bare root) but, in a few seasons, are choking each other out competing for sunlight and nutrients. Pay attention to the instructions on your tag or in plant catalogs for spacing your plants properly. If you don’t like how much space there is between them for the first couple of years, simply plant a few annuals between them. They’ll fill the void, and within a few years, you’ll find that your perennials, trees, and shrubs have filled in enough that you don’t need to plant them anymore.
4. Not Knowing Your Zone
Finding your USDA Hardiness Zone, as well as your Sunset Zone, is easy and, once you know your zone, you won’t waste money ordering plants from catalogs that need cooler or warmer climates than you can provide.
5. Haphazard Fertilizing
If one dose of fertilizer is good, two must be better, right? WRONG! First of all, we’re obviously talking about organic fertilizers here, not any of that Miracle Gro garbage. But even with organic fertilizers, you want to make sure you’re using the amount recommended on the package. Ideally, you’re practicing deep organic methods and making your own fertilizers from compost and compost tea, which is hard to go overboard with. Too much of any fertilizer can cause fast, spindly growth that is more susceptible to pests and diseases – not to mention the danger of runoff into our water supply, where it wreaks havoc on the ecosystem. Just make sure to read the directions and stick to them!
6. Not Mulching
Mulching with organic mulches such as wood chips, leaves, or grass clippings, does several things. It reduces evaporation, keeping moisture in your soil where you need it. It discourages weeds, and helps keep the root zone of your plants cooler, which makes your plants less stressed. And, as it breaks down, it adds more organic matter to the soil. Mulch everything – vegetables, herbs, perennials, trees, and shrubs, with at least a three-inch layer of mulch.
7. Half-Assed Soil Preparation
This is a pretty common issue. Say you want to plant a vegetable garden. You clear an area of grass, and then plop your vegetable seedlings in, water, and walk away. As the season progresses, you wonder why your plants are just kind of sitting there. They’re alive, but they’re not thriving, and the bountiful harvest you dreamed of is just not happening. Soil preparation is important, whether you’re growing a vegetable or herb garden, or planting a border of shrubs and perennials. At the very least, you need to loosen the soil to a depth of twelve inches and incorporate several inches of compost or composted manure before planting. Ideally, you’d get your soil tested to see exactly which nutrients your soil is deficient on so you can amend it properly.
8. Sun/Shade Fairy Tales
I think every gardener has done this at least once and some (ahem) continue to do it, so it’s not exactly a newbie mistake. Say you want to plant a beautiful ‘New Dawn’ climbing rose. They need absolute full sun to thrive, and you have maybe half a day of sun before you yard is shaded by your house. It’s very easy to say “A half day of bright sun should be plenty!” and plant it anyway. The rose will live for a while, but the blooms will be much fewer, and most likely much smaller than they should be. Your plant will be more susceptible to diseases, especially fungal diseases. The same thing happens with vegetable gardens – most vegetables need at least six hours of full sun to thrive (though there are some that will grow with some shade) and the gardener is disappointed by poor yields. This is an easy one to fix: pay attention to the sun exposure recommendations for what you’re planting, and plant accordingly.
9. Not Knowing Your Site
Hand-in-hand with the issue of not being honest or fully cognizant of your sun exposure is the common mistake of not fully knowing your site before you plant. Every yard has areas that are more windy, or more prone to flooding in heavy rain, or that are just hot and dry and a pain to work with. When you plant before you know these things, what you get is a lot of frustration and dead plants. Spend a little time really getting to know your garden before you do a lot of planting. Spend a few weeks observing your site before you decide what to plant. It will save you a lot of annoyance later on.
10. Listening to “Experts”
It might be weird to finish a post about garden newbie mistakes with a tip about not listening to the experts, but I’m weird like that. When it comes down to it, after you’ve spent some time observing, planting, and growing your garden, you become the expert. No one, no matter how much they know, knows your garden as well as you will. They may tell you “you can’t grow lettuce in November in Detroit!” but they’d be wrong, because you know you have this one awesome little spot where the foundation of your house keeps the soil warm enough to grow well into November. Trust yourself. You’ll make some mistakes, but you’ll be a better gardener because of them.