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Learn from other people’s mishaps to avoid this list of worst gardening mistakes beginners often make.
By necessity, being new to something means you’re going to make mistakes. That’s how you improve!
The same is true of gardening. However, you can also learn from other people’s trial and error in order to avoid making many common gardening mistakes yourself.
Below is a list of the top 11 gardening mistakes we often see new gardeners make:
11 worst gardening mistakes beginning gardens make
1. Planting mint in beds instead of containers.
Who doesn’t love mint, right? Well, there are actually a few people out there who don’t like mint.
But even if you absolutely love mint, we’d strongly advice you NOT to put mint plants in your in-ground garden beds. Why?
Because mint will send out countless underground runners and absolutely take over whatever bed you put it in… And keep going in search of new areas of your garden to conquer.
When my wife and I started our first garden over a decade ago, we made the mistake of putting a really delicious chocolate mint plant in one of our beds. Even though we’ve tried to pull every bit of mint out of the bed each year since, it still keeps coming back.
So if you want to grow mint, we strongly advise you to grow it in a contained environment, such as a large pot.
2. Improper plant spacing.
“I want more peppers so I’ll put two pepper plants in the same hole.” Nope.
This approach will work about as well as trying to wear the same pair of jeans at the same time with a friend. You might be able to get into the jeans, but you won’t make it very far after that.
If the instructions for a particular pepper variety say “plant 18 inches apart” that means the next pepper plant should be planted 18″ away from the first. Yes, the plants might look lonely at first, but by the time they mature, the space will be filled in. (You can also use vining plants like melons to fill in the gaps and utilize the sunlight in the meantime.)
By placing your plants too close together, you risk the following:
- increased plant stress;
- reduced fruit production;
- sick and/or diseased plants due to poor air flow, inadequate water, inadequate soil fertility.
So be sure to follow recommended spacing requirements for the particular plant variety you’re growing.
3. Not taking plant height, sun position, and microclimates into consideration.
If you plant an eggplant (or other relatively short plant) on the northwest side of an indeterminate tomato (or other tall plant), your eggplant will soon be shaded out for most of the day and fail to produce well. Considering both the mature plant height and the position of the sun during the growing season will help you grow healthier, higher-yielding plants.
Likewise, “microclimates” are equally important to consider. For example:
- One side of your house might be cooler and shadier than the other allowing you to grow cool weather plants like lettuce and brassicas better than on the hot sunny side.
- Maybe the sunny, south-facing side of your home will let you stretch your growing season far into the cool months with relative ease.
- Perhaps there’s a particularly damp spot in your yard that will cause most plant roots to rot but allow plants like elderberries to thrive.
Observe, plant, and grow accordingly!
4. Using chemical fertilizers.
Using chemical fertilizers to feed your plants is like taking steroids to get fit. Things might look good in the short-term, but you’re actually doing long-term damage.
We’ve written in depth about the long-term effects of things like synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in other articles, so we won’t take a deep dive here. Long story short: to optimize soil and plant health for the long-term, use the following methods/materials individually or in combination:
- well-made compost (preferably made from hot composting methods);
- worm castings;
- mealworm frass;
- cover crops;
- top-dressing soil with mulches such as wood chips, pine straw, straw, etc.
Remember, healthy soil is the foundation of healthy plants, food, and people so garden accordingly.
4. Using synthetic pesticides.
“Pesticide” is a broad term referring to insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other -icides.
Insects can seem scary and confusing when you’re a new gardener. What the heck is that thing? Is it going to eat all my plants and steal my car?!
Relax. 95% of insects are beneficial or benign. Yes, some of them can, do, and will cause harm to some of your plants. However, they have plenty of natural predators around.
One of your very best friends in controlling pest insects is predatory insects, and sometimes it’s hard to tell good guy vs bad guy — especially when you’re an inexperienced gardener. However, when you use synthetic insecticides, you’re also going to kill helpful predatory insects, not just the bad guys. When you use synthetic fungicides, you’re also going to kill beneficial fungi, etc.
Synthetic pesticides also tend to be more environmentally persistent (e.g. they stick around longer) and more harmful to non-target species such as birds, reptiles, amphibians. And humans and pets.
So four tips here, instead of using synthetic pesticides:
- use holistic integrated pest management approaches to control pests;
- plant different varieties of plants so pests that target one thing don’t have an all-they-can-eat-buffet;
- if you HAVE to use a pesticide, find an OMRI listed product approved for organic gardening.
- use mulches to prevent weeds and manually remove weeds (assuming they’re not edible weeds) when necessary rather than using herbicides.
5. Not covering your soil.
We all grew up with idyllic garden and farm images depicting fluffy, tilled soil, weed-free and exposed to sunlight. In reality, exposed soil in a garden or farm is the functional equivalent to an open wound on your arm.
And just as your body is going to try to form a scab as quickly as possible, nature is going to try to cover that disturbed bare soil with weeds/pioneer plants. Weed seeds in your soil seed bank are going to germinate as soon as they’re exposed to sunlight and the battle of you vs. weeds begins…
Instead of tilling your soil and constantly battling weeds, cover your soil with mulches like wood chips, straw (that doesn’t have herbicides on it), or pine straw. Not only will these materials prevent weeds and protect your soil, they’ll also be slowly broken down by soil microbes thus feeding your plants.
6. Right plants, wrong season.
It says “winter squash” so I’ll plant it in December, right? Maybe if you live in Miami, otherwise no. We’ve also gotten emails from people in cool climate regions asking why the tomato seeds they planted in their garden didn’t germinate. In February! Likewise, growing lettuce in July in the hot, humid southeast is not likely to yield good results.
In short: do a little research (or look at the instructions on your seed packet) to know when you should grow a specific variety of garden plant in your Agricultural Zone.
7. Choosing the wrong planting location.
We’ve mentioned microclimates above, but here we’re also talking about other considerations in locating a garden bed or specific plant.
For instance, if you put your garden beds under a large tree, not only is the shade from the canopy going to be a problem for most sun-loving garden plants, but the tree’s roots (and their fungal partners) are going to slurp up every bit of fertility and water you put in the beds, starving out your tender annuals.
Most popular annual garden plants need:
- full sun (6+ hours of direct sunlight daily),
- rich fertile soil, and
- even soil moisture (not too wet, not too dry).
If there’s not a spot in your yard that matches those specifications, plan to make one.
(*Note: Yes, there are also plenty of edible garden plants you can grow in shade.)
8. Treat plant diseases rather than prevent plant diseases.
What’s the easiest way to deal with lung cancer caused by cigarettes? Don’t smoke to start with.
Similarly, the best way to deal with plant diseases is prevention. There’s no silver bullet solution here and some plant disease is to be expected no matter what you do. (Healthy plants can fend off most pathogens.)
However, we strongly advise you to read our article Top 5 ways to prevent plant diseases to learn more about this important topic and save yourself some gardening heartache.
Money doesn’t have to be an impediment to starting a garden. Sure, if you have a bunch of money and you want to spend thousands of dollars making the most beautiful raised garden bed to grow $100 worth of tomatoes, have at it.
However, most people might be more inclined towards no-frills, low-budget gardening. You don’t have to have a raised bed with store-bought lumber. You can grow plants in the soil that’s already in your yard, assuming it’s not contaminated with lead or other dangerous substances.
You don’t have to buy expensive garden seedlings from a nursery. You can start your own plants from seed and likely even find free seeds locally. (Our local libraries offer free seeds to the public and there are also seed swaps in non-pandemic years.)
10. Not taking advantage of different seasons.
Summer is gardening season! Salesperson voice: “but wait, there’s more!”
We’re in Agricultural Zone 7b and we harvest plants from our garden every day of the year. Most people living in the US can do the same, although some climates require a little more work than others to grow plants in the winter.
In fact, our favorite seasons to garden are the cool/mild fall and spring months when pests and pathogens are mostly dormant and we don’t sweat or freeze to death while outside. So consider year round gardening depending on where you live!
Additional resources for cool/cold season gardening:
- 5 ways to grow a fall or winter garden no matter where you live
- Easiest garden plants to grow in the fall and winter
- When to start fall seeds
- Winter Gardening Tips from Master Gardener Eliza Holcomb
- Fabric vs plastic: which is the best row cover for your garden?
11. Give up after single bad experience.
One of the most experienced and knowledgeable gardeners we know has a funny saying: “you don’t really know a plant until you’ve killed it at least five times.” Everybody also knows that you don’t learn to ride a bike without falling down a few times.
So why would you give up gardening after one (or twenty) bad experiences? That’s how you learn!
There truly is no such thing as a “brown thumb,” and any “green thumb” is the product of lots of trial and error. So keep growing, learning from your gardening mistakes, and getting better and better with each season!
We hope the information in this article helps you avoid many of the common mistakes that new gardeners often make. Now go get outside and start growing!