The idea of digging up your garden can be intimidating. If you’re a green-fingered beginner unsure of how to plant a garden, fear of making a mistake can make you quit before you’ve even started. “Gardening isn’t always a cheap hobby,” says Lara Hermanson, gardener and co-owner of Farmscape, a municipal agriculture company in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Home gardeners can rack up large bills when shopping at a nursery, only to bring them home and miss out on items without knowing why.”
While the process of growing plants and vegetables from scratch may seem daunting, we’ve figured out the most common mistakes – and how to avoid them. Read on for 10 tips not to do, according to experts educating you about no-nos for beginners.
Mistake 1: Setting a garden goal that is too high
A bigger garden isn’t always better, at least if you’re a beginner, notes Megan Gilger, the gardening blogger behind Fresh Exchange. “It’s easy to stare when you’re browsing plant stores or looking online for ideas,” says Gilger. “Instead, use these ideas to advance a larger plan. Growing a great garden successfully takes time.” Gilger advises gardeners starting a garden from scratch to start small but think big. A garden is a long-term investment and in three to five years you should think about your goals.
Mistake 2: Not interplanting
Let all your buds play together. “Get rid of the idea that you can only grow one variety [of plant] in a bed,” says Gilger. Interplanting, or intercropping, is a gardening practice that encourages pairing of companion plants as well as bundling of taller and shorter plants. Mixing and matching can also carve weeds and bring in beneficial pollinators, she explains. Bonus: Planting is also said to reduce pests and diseases.
Mistake 3: Overcrowded plants
While mixing plants is okay, you still need to be mindful of spacing, notes Michael Giannelli of East Hampton Gardens, a garden and home store in East Hampton, New York. “[People] want the garden to be full and colorful right away – a big mistake,” he says. “Plants need room to grow and spread naturally.” Follow planting recommendations, which typically suggest 2 to 3 feet apart between plants. You can probably cheat a little by skipping the recommendations by a few inches, but don’t pack the plants side by side like sardines.
Mistake 4: Planting too much variety
As tempting as it may be to plant everything from acorns to zucchini, focus on growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers that will bring joy to your plate. “It seems easy, but you’re most passionate about growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers that you’re already reaching for at the grocery store or farmer’s market,” says Gilger. No need to fret over fennel if you think it tastes like blah blah.
Mistake 5: Missing the fruits of your labor
Get on the garden’s schedule. “Now that you have an abundance of cherry tomatoes and green beans, you have to eat them,” says Hermanson. “Don’t leave ready-to-harvest items on the vine. It’s like leaving a popsicle on the lawn and then surprised to find it covered in ants!”
Mistake 6: Misunderstanding plant growth
Developing an understanding of plant growth is key to maximum success in the garden. Arianna Iappini, gardening trainer at The Birch Arbor Gardens in Salisbury, Massachusetts, understands that “a beginner gardener may have trouble imagining that a 5-inch tomato seedling will eventually reach a height of 8 feet. Knowing plant height at maturity is critical to the care of all plants in the garden. As the plant grows, it casts shadows on surrounding plantings, which she notes can affect the overall environment. In addition, you should provide suitable support structures for large, climbing and climbing plants.
Mistake 7: Improper watering
“Don’t water like a wimp,” says gardener Jessica Walliser, co-owner of Savvy Gardening, an online resource. Go all out and water your seedlings properly. “Watering deeply and thoroughly once a week is better than spraying a little bit every day,” Walliser adds. “The soil should be wet several inches deep after you finish watering. If it’s not, you’re not applying enough water at any given time.” At the same time, overwatering your plants is harmful — too much water can lead to rotten roots and yellow leaves, says Giannelli. “A watering system that normally runs every other day might be fine for the lawn, but not for everything else,” he says.
Mistake 8: Plant seeds once a season
Optimize the garden’s production output. “Once the first plants are harvested, change the soil and replant for the late summer and fall harvest,” suggests Niki Jabbour, co-owner of Savvy Gardening. “Good choices for a second batch of homegrown vegetables include carrots, beets, peas, lettuce, spinach, kale, and green onions.”
Mistake 9: Not taking notes
Keeping a garden diary that documents the trial and error process is key to ensuring future improvements. Note the crops that were duds (and how they met their demise!), pest problems, and other side notes, like the time of day when the sun is most intense. “You think you’ll remember, but you won’t,” says Hermanson. “The notes from the past season will bring back all sorts of memories and inspire good ideas so you can grow on your accomplishments each season.”
Mistake 10: Fear of failure
“Even the most experienced gardener has challenges and kills plants from time to time,” says Iappini. “True growth comes from cultivating the lessons each season offers.” Don’t let that stop you from experimenting with gardening. Remember: practice makes progress. That’s why the reward will be all the sweeter when you harvest your first bounty.