When we start our first gardens, we’re full of excitement and hope. But there’s another feeling not far behind: fear. What if we make mistakes without realizing it?
Unless you have a longtime gardener mentoring you — which is awesome if you do — you don’t know what you don’t know. While part of growing as a gardener is being willing to take risks and make mistakes — often failure is the best teacher — what if we could minimize the number of those mistakes from the beginning? What if we could skip some of the most common gardening failures?
In this blog post, I share five common mistakes I see first-time gardeners make. I made them all myself as a beginning gardener, and I want to prevent you from going through those failures like I and so many others have experienced.
Selecting Planting Dates for Vegetables Based on Generic Planting Guides and Charts
A common question for first-time gardeners is when to plant what. Well-meaning garden teachers create charts with planting dates and publish them online, not realizing that planting dates vary greatly — even within the same zone.
But zones only tell you what the average minimum temperature for any given place is. It doesn’t tell you your first and last average frost date; therefore, it cannot tell you when to plant.
How to avoid it: Don’t rely on any planting chart based on your zone. Instead, use charts and tools that base planting times on your zip code, which calculates your average last and first frost date.
Starting Seeds Indoors without a Grow Light
I see it every year — unsuspecting first-time gardeners excited about their sprouts reaching toward the window. I notice this possible death-sentence to the seedlings because it has happened to me. Those plants, even if they survive, will struggle to thrive. But first-time gardeners, like I was, are so overjoyed with the seeds actually sprouting that they fail to heed the warning signs of struggling seedlings due to a lack of light.
How to avoid it: Buy a grow light. You can get an inexpensive LED light if you’re just starting and you’re not growing more than a couple dozen seedlings. Or you could go all out and purchase a larger fluorescent light.
Planting Vegetables Too Close Together
When our plants are baby seedlings, it’s hard to envision the space they will command when they’re full-grown. The spacing recommendations we read on the back of seed packets seem like nonsense. There’s just too much space between the plants, right? Surely, could we squeeze a few more in and expect an even larger harvest?
Unfortunately, in most cases, no.
The problem is, when you plant your vegetables too close together, you risk lower yields if the soil fertility can’t sustain that many plants. And you risk disease exacerbated by a lack of airflow, among other issues.
Interestingly, this is the most common mistake beginning gardeners share with me. If that many beginning gardeners talk about it, it’s worth heeding their advice.
How to avoid it: Pay attention to the soil planting instructions on the back of seed packets or instructions you can find online for specific varieties. Seed catalogs are also a good source for this information. More is not always better. As a general rule, keep in mind that a single vegetable with ample access to water and nutrients will outperform two plants competing for the same water and nutrients.
Fertilizing Vegetables (even homemade and organically) without a Soil Test
You’ve probably seen all the fun ways to fertilize your vegetables based on the ingredients you have on hand. Coffee grounds, egg shells, banana peels, epsom salts (just to name a few). And we can usually find someone who has used one of these methods with great success!
Unfortunately, the only magic bullet of fertilizing an organic garden is compost (and I wouldn’t consider compost a fertilizer per se). The other solutions may work when a specific nutrient is lacking, but how do we know?
Our soil and our plants can actually have too much of a good thing! So while we’re trying to add nutrients, we might unknowingly contribute to an imbalance that could hinder our vegetable’s growth.
How to avoid it: The best way to know what your plants (and your soil) need is to have a soil test. You can more accurately provide supplemental nutrients without guessing at what your plants can use.
Panicked Pest Control
I remember one of my biggest fears as I prepared for my first garden — pests. I had read about the myriad of different bugs that could threaten my crops, but I had no way of knowing which ones would visit my garden.
I’m sad to say, I panicked my first year, using DIY pest control and even the dust in the red container.
I didn’t consider that pesticides — even natural ones — might kill beneficial insects that would have naturally found these pest insects and feasted on them. All I thought about was killing the bad guys.
Now, after five years of an organic approach to gardening, and only using organic pesticides as a last resort, I rarely have problems with pests. My natural beneficial insect population keeps many of them in check. I plant at different times of the year to avoid certain persistent enemies like the squash vine borer. I hand-pick when I can, and I use floating row covers to create a barrier against pests like the cabbage worm.
How to avoid it: First, get rid of any other chemical pesticide yo have on hand. With it gone, you won’t be tempted to bring it out in a panic. Then, take a step back and look at your garden as a whole, interconnected web of plants and insects. Understand that each time you apply an insecticide — even an organic one — you could threaten beneficial insects such as ladybugs, lacewings, bees, and a myriad of others.