10 Mistakes New Gardeners Should Avoid
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To be fair, I think making mistakes in the garden is inevitable and one of the best ways to learn! I make mistakes every single year, and every single year, I become a better gardener! I personally also approach gardening a little chaotically and am perfectly fine to make mistakes.
Also, let the record show that I’m not THAT experience of a gardener! At the time of writing this, I have 5 growing seasons under my belt. Compared to my grandfather’s 50+ years of gardening, I’m still a newbie! However, I think that makes me a bit more qualified to write this post, as I’ve made these mistakes (relatively recently), and they’re fresh on my mind! So read on, so you don’t make the same newbie mistake I did!
1. Planting without a plan
Planting a new garden can be so so exciting! And it’s tempting to just throw up a raised bed and fill it with seeds from two dozen seed packets you bought at your hardware store! But WAIT! Slow down a bit! A little planning can make a HUGE difference, and keep you from wasting a growing season. I encourage you to sit down with your computer and a pen and paper before you do anything else and write out a plan!
Ask yourself, what is the main goal of your garden?
Do you want a casual kitchen garden with lots of herbs and just enough fresh veg to last through the summer?
Do you want a low-maintenance food forest that you cultivate for years to come?
Do you want a high-production garden where you fill your pantry with food for the winter?
Or do you want something else altogether?
Whatever your goals are, write them down somewhere, and then start planning from there. Write out a list of what vegetables, fruits and flowers, and herbs you want to grow. Browse the internet for inspiration, and/or ask a friend with a bit more gardening experience to help you. And then do a bit of research, which leads me to point 2!
2. Do Some Research
Don’t be intimidated by this one! A tiny bit of research goes a long way! Start by finding out what growing zone you’re in, and go from there! When you know your growing zone, you can research growing each plant based on your location’s weather, as plants need to be planted at different times depending on your location. Find out a little bit of basic information about each plant, such as when to plant it. How big does this plant grow? Is it a perennial or an annual? Is it easier to grow from seed or from a start? And good news, most of this information can be found on the back of seed packets! A few minutes of research can keep you from planting garlic in June or putting a strawberry plant next to a sweet potato. And if you make a mistake, no big deal!
3. Planting plants too close together
A bit of research can prevent this, but even knowing how big plants can get often doesn’t deter new gardeners from planting too close together. My advice is that when in doubt, give your plants more space. When plants are too close together, it can hinder growth, which hinders productivity. Many perennials will also spread out and take up a lot of space that you may have not planned for. Plants like oregano, thyme, and strawberries will grow out and take up a lot of space. For example, 5-10 strawberry starts can take over a 4x8 raised bed within just one growing season!
4. Planting plants during the wrong season
Again, this can also be prevented with a little research upfront. The common kitchen garden is usually planted in the spring after the last frost has passed. However, not all plants like to be planted in the spring. Garlic, carrots, and shallots do best in the fall. Fruit trees and bushes actually also do better when planted in the fall (planting in the fall allows them to spend their energy on root establishment instead of producing fruit). A few minutes of planning before purchasing your seeds or starts can save you a lot of heartbreak and money.
5. Placing your garden in a spot that does not get enough sun
This is a common mistake and can be difficult to avoid depending on what kind of space you have available for planting. Some people simply do not have access to a nice sunny yard. If that’s the case, research plants that are a bit more shade-tolerant or supplement with grow lights if you're growing on spaces like a shaded porch or balcony. If you have a yard, opt for the sunniest spot you can find! For some people, this might mean planting in the front yard instead of the back! Just know that gardens usually struggle in shady-tree-covered areas. Plants just fail to thrive.
6. Using poor soil or not modifying your soil
Poor soil is often the hidden culprit behind a garden that is failing to thrive. Don’t be fooled by garden nurseries that say they have pre-mixed garden soils available. Oftentimes, this is just some variation of topsoil mixed with woodchips or sand to make them easier for scooping. It’s not a bad idea to always supplement your soil with compost of some kind. You can also use a soil test on your soil. I have a whole post here on how to amend poor garden soil, so check it out!
7. Not watering enough
Even though watering regularly seems like common sense, it’s often something that's overlooked. Young plants or freshly transferred plants will just die if not watered. Some plants will simply wilt when they need more water. I’ve encountered more than one new gardener who was unsure what was wrong with their wilting plants when it was clear to me, they just needed water.
However, it’s trickier with established plants, as they may not show any visible signs of stress. One hint is that they’re not producing fruit or growing. If your plant has sunlight, the right temperatures, and good soil, and is still not growing or producing fruit, it’s likely underwatered. Established plants will conserve their energy when there’s not enough water, so they won’t grow or fruit. My advice is to water daily when the plants are young and unestablished, and every other day if they’re established. Or set up some kind of irrigation system, so you don’t have to worry about it.
8. Planting foods that you really don’t like to eat
This is something that I did for several years in a row just because I was excited that I could grow it! Maybe you’re smarter than me, and won't do this though. For example, I kind of like squash, but it’s not my favorite. Despite that fact though, I grew between 3-10 squash plants every year until last year! My kind-of-like attitude towards squash turned to dislike when I was harvesting it in 5-gallon buckets and trying to find new ways to cook it every meal! This year was the first year that I planted only the fruits and vegetables that I like to eat! No more squash, no more kale, no more eggplant! I would much rather use that garden space to grow more potatoes and watermelons, which I LOVE!
9. Not having a plan for weed-control
Weed control is still something that I haven’t mastered. Every year, I think I have it under control right after planting, but inevitably, I lose control sometime mid-summer. I’ve done lots of things, but because of poor planning, I still struggle.
Many people opt for raised beds because it’s easier to control soil quality and weeds. However, it still takes regular maintenance. Weeds will find their way in. Mulching is one excellent way to keep a lot of weeds at bay.
Do you have paths between your raised beds? What’s the plan for keeping the weeds from getting too high? Think about this BEFORE you build them if at all possible. The cheap and easy option is to make the pathways wide enough that a mower can fit in between them. (I did not do this, and I’m a slave to the weed-whacker). You can also line your pathways with weed barrier and then woodchips or gravel. If you do this, buy a high-quality weed barrier! I did this a few years back, and within one growing season, the weeds had grown THROUGH the weed barrier and woodchips. Two years later, you can’t even tell that I had woodchip paths at one point.
Whatever kind of garden you plant, be sure to think ahead of time about weed control!
10. Not having a plan to deal with abundance!
I view this as a happy problem! If you’re drowning in an abundance of produce, congrats! You are a gardener! However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It’s simply impossible for most households to eat an entire 5-gallon bucket full of cucumbers before they go bad. Think out ahead of time, how you want to preserve your produce when it’s time to harvest. How much space do you have in your refrigerator, freezer, or pantry? How do you like to eat preserved produce? Frozen, so it can be added to stirfries, smoothies, or soups? Canned, so it takes up less space in your freezer? Dried, so it’s shelf-stable? Fermented, so it’s full of probiotics? There are LOTS of options! I personally opt for a mix of these methods, depending on the fruit or vegetable. Think about it ahead of time so that your hard work does not go to waste when it’s harvest time.
And that’s it! 10 mistakes new gardeners should avoid! I’m sure there are many more items that could be added to this list, but this is a great place to start! And don’t forget, mistakes are fine and really just inevitable! They are the best way to learn. Embrace your mistakes and do a little better next year! I make MULTIPLE mistakes every single year (sometimes multiple years in a row), and I still have a beautiful and productive garden!
To learn more about my gardening experience, see my post here: 2022 Gardening Lessons Learned and my 2023 Planting Plan
To learn more in general, I have lots of posts about gardening over on the homesteading page on my blog!
Let me know in the comments what mistakes you made in the garden this year!