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Why Won't my Garden Grow? 5 Mistakes you May be Making

5 common gardening mistakes

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

Why Won't my Garden Grow? 5 Mistakes you May be Making

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

Why Won't my Garden Grow? 5 Mistakes you May be Making

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

Why Won't my Garden Grow? 5 Mistakes you May be Making

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:








9 thoughts on “Why Won't my Garden Grow? 5 Mistakes you May be Making”

  • Howard Hulsebus
    Howard Hulsebus April 16, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    There many mistakes a new gardener can make but the most important is the PH of your soil and do the plants need. Number two is the soil temperature for planting for each type of plant. As a thirteen year Mastergardener there is a lot to learn before wating your efforts an dollars.

  • Debbie

    I agree with most of this but would like to add a couple of comments. Over-watering is actually much worse than under-watering. Root rot is nearly impossible to fix while a little wilt is usually easily fixed with some water. Secondly, nothing is written in stone when it comes to gardening and different crops perform differently in everyone's yard. Where I might get 7-10 pumpkins from one pumpkin plant, my neighbor might get 1-2. It takes experimentation to get things right in your own garden so I hope people will keep persisting. Trying one or two crops to begin with and mastering those before adding others will help, although one may want to plant 5-10 the first year and see which do the best so they know what to try to master first. I have a degree in horticulture and it still takes some doing to get certain crops to do well in our garden....

    Also, for those living in arid climates, straw put around your plants will help keep water in the soil and reduce how much water is needed. If you grow potatoes, it will also keep many of the pests away. Not to mention it is great for building better soil!

  • Michael

    I have found that if you lay down a reasonably thick layer of plain newspaper topped with common hardwood mulch at the outset of the garden the weed problem is very much controlled. It's a bit of a time investment, but it pays dividends later in the summer (plus I hate weeding).

    I generally use a thickness of 4 sheets of newspaper and enough mulch to cover it completely. Even when using heavier layers of newspaper, I've found that the paper has completely biodegraded when I rototill the garden the following spring.

    The newspaper prevents the weeds from rooting into the soil underneath for the summer and the mulch/newspaper helps keep the soil from losing moisture during hot spells. During wet weather, the mulch prevents your garden from becoming a muddy mess. Plus the newspaper/mulch add organic content to the soil that results in higher quality soil and garden production in later years.

    I can see the abrupt transition from good black garden soil to orange clay (central Ohio soil) about 8" below the ground surface (the depth of the rototiller blades). When I originally planted the garden about ten years ago the spot was essentially pure clay with a sod overlay (I mean PURE clay - I was digging up 8" blocks of clay and smashing them down to break up the soil).

    Hope this tip works as well for you. Happy gardening. :)

  • Steve

    Compost! The key is compost. You cannot garden until you know how to make and use your own compost.

    • beprepared

      Thanks for the tip! Can you tell us how/when you discovered that compost is a miracle worker when it comes to gardening?

  • bruce

    a good idea is to get a soil test it will do wonders.

    • beprepared

      Thanks for your comment. I'm not much of a gardener myself (and I didn't write this post). For those who don't know what a soil test is, do you mind explaining?

  • Dan

    We have a VERY short growing season where I live. June 1 through about mid-September. Three years in a row now I've planted my squash seeds only to have it rain continuously for a week! I work crazy hours and can only plant on my days off so on "that day" it's all or nothing. Apparently, squash seeds suffer from being too wet. That is all I can figure. After the week deluge it got nice and hot. I'm thinking this was a bad combo. The week they were soaked it was also cool, so I'm thinking they all must have gotten moldy. Than it was hot causing the rot to accelerate. I dug into my squash hills and could not find a single seed!!! There was no evidence that birds or critters got them. Usually I can tell when this happens because there is a small hole from the birds or a much bigger hole from a critter. Nothing. Nada. However, wouldn't you think I'd at least find a couple of moldy seeds? Can seeds literally turn to compost in two weeks? I have replanted my squash seeds now but run the risk that even if they do grow, they might not have enough time to produce squash before the first killing freeze. Squash DO benefit from a killing frost (if it didn't get TOO cold) but they have to be really close to maturity for that to work. Something to do with when the vine freeze the squash benefit from all the extra water not going to the leaves making them 'sweeter." I have tried starting my squash indoors but squash really hate being transplanted it seems. It all depends on the rest of the summer how my squash will do. Any other far north gardeners(zone 3, kind of zone 2.5-ish) have any thoughts? Or just like any northern gardener, gardening is a major gamble: you either get a bumper crop if conditions are right or nothing if things aren't perfect.

  • J B

    Be careful using straw around your plants. Evidently some growers are using herbicides to control weeds in their fields which the straw takes up and it will adversely effect your garden plants. I lost several fruit trees due to herbicide laden straw.

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