As blossoms poked their heads through the soil last spring, this new growth prompted my husband and me to do something we’d never done before: plant a garden. In our excitement, we went all out for our vegetable garden. We planted carrots, green onions, watermelon, two varieties of green peas, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers, chili peppers, green beans, spaghetti squash, yellow squash, and zucchini. It didn’t take us long to figure out we were a little in over our heads as first time gardeners.
As spring grew into summer, I watched parts of my very first vegetable garden grow and thrive, as the rest of it sprouted weak, miniature crops that curled in on themselves and died. What did I do wrong? Apparently the mistakes I made are common among many (if not most) first-time gardeners. Here are five mistakes every gardener should know to avoid:
Mistake 1: Planting your Garden in the Wrong Spot
In our excitement to grow a vegetable garden, my husband and I bought every type of vegetable we thought we’d like to have. The problem was we didn’t have enough space to give each plant the right amount of room, water, or sunlight they needed.
When shopping for plants, make sure you understand what your plant is going to need to grow.
- Does your plant need sunlight or shade?
- Does it prefer dry or moist soil?
- How much space does it need between it and other plants?
You know what your yard is like—how much space there is, the type of soil, etc.—so make sure you buy plants that will work in those conditions. When you understand and provide the conditions your plants need, you’ll have better luck growing a full and plentiful crop.
You can find information for specific plant conditions on plant tags at nurseries, or in seed descriptions in catalogs.
Mistake 2: Overwatering
We all know that if a plant doesn’t get enough water, it will die, and so as novices we can fall prey to overwatering. Well, overwatering is just as dangerous as under-watering. While under-watering can lead to dehydration, overwatering can lead to rot, which inhibits the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients.
All plants need water to metabolize nutrients and to help them grow, but every plant is unique in how much water it needs. It’s important to know what your plant’s moisture requirements are. Some plants (like tomatoes) are heavy drinkers and need more water, while others, like beans, require less.
Real Simple shares an approach from Rebecca Sweet, a garden designer in the California Bay area and writer of the Gossip in the Garden blog. Sweet suggests that in order to stop guessing how much water your plants need, “invest in an irrigation system with a ‘smart’ controller…[that can] automatically adjust watering levels based on historical data and moisture sensors.”
If an irrigation system is a little too expensive, just give a little extra attention to the soil in your garden. Check it regularly and if it’s dry and crumbly (or especially rock hard!), it needs watering. If you can form it into a loose ball, then it has enough moisture.
Check out this chart from The Old Farmer’s Almanac to see how much water to give your plants and when.
Mistake 3: Not Giving Plants Enough Sun
When I plotted out my garden last spring, I knew certain plants (like my squashes) needed direct sunlight to grow. We didn’t have enough space in the sunlight for all the vegetables we wanted to plant and I thought, “No problem. A half day of sun will be just enough for the squash. These squash will be strong” and I planted them. Unfortunately, they weren’t strong enough and my spaghetti squash only grew to the size of a grapefruit before it died.
Certain plants, like my squash, are sun worshippers and absolutely need full sunlight to thrive. Other plants, like green peas, can thrive and grow in shady areas. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because one plant can grow in partial sunlight, so can another. Most vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight.
Hobbyfarms.com recommends that you plan your garden before you plant. Make sure you have enough space available in your garden to give enough sunlight to each plant. You can check the planting recommendations on seed packets to know which plants will need more sunlight. Give the sunniest spot in your yard to plants that require the greatest amount of sun.
Mistake 4: Planting too Close Together
Although your plants may start out small in your beginner garden, perennials take up more space with each additional season. However, there’s more than one reason to avoid planting your vegetables (or other plants) too close together.
When too close together, plants will compete for the nutrients found in soil, water, and sunlight. If you follow the spatial recommendations found on seed packets, however, your plants will be able to thrive.
Some plants, like carrots and green onions, are okay planted close together when initially buried. The reason they can be close is because not all of them will sprout. After the viable seeds have sprouted, it’s important to thin them out and give them more room as they grow.
Don’t worry about wasting vegetables. Most the small vegetables you pull out to thin your row of carrots, green onions, or other veggies are edible, so you can start using them right away while the rest continue to grow.
Mistake 5: Letting weeds grow too large
During my first year of gardening, I didn’t realize how quickly weeds (aka my arch nemeses) would grow and take over my garden. By the time I realized weeds were actually a virus-like problem, my husband and I only had one option: we had to completely dig out our plants that were riddled with weeds.
If not contained, weeds will choke out all the plants you love, leaving nothing behind but ugly grass and crunchy leaves. The best time to go out and weed your garden is when the first tiny weed pokes out of the soil. Catch them early in order to avoid more work later on. When weeds grow, their roots spread, making it more difficult for you to pull them out without damaging the roots of your plant. Also, the larger a weed gets, the more nutrients it will steal from your plants.
Unfortunately there is no cure-all for making weeds disappear for good. All you can do is tend to your garden and pull the weeds out (or even move the top layer of soil around with a hoe to upset the weeds) when you see them growing.
What mistakes did you make on your first garden? What’s your best tip for a beginning gardener?
Check out some of our gardening Insight articles to help you grow a better garden:
- Gardening Basics
- How to Plant your Canned Garden Seeds
- Growing Your Own Food
- Baby Steps: Nurturing Seeds and Seedlings