AD It Yourself

10 Gardening Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

Practice grows progress
Vary your harvest a mix andmatch gardening approach can whittle weeds and keep pests at bay.
Vary your harvest: a mix- and-match gardening approach can whittle weeds and keep pests at bay.Illustration: Julia Abbonizio/Getty Images

The idea of digging up your backyard can be intimidating. If you’re a green-thumb novice who is not sure how to start a garden, the fear of making a mistake can make you quit before you even start. “Gardening is not always a cheap hobby,” says Lara Hermanson, gardener and co-owner of Farmscape, an urban farming company in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Home gardeners can rack up big bills by shopping at a nursery, only to get it home and have items fail, without knowing why.” 

Even though the process of growing plants and vegetables from scratch may seem daunting, we found out the most common mistakes—and how to avoid them. Read on for 10 tips on what not to do, according to experts who school you on first-timer no-nos.

Mistake 1: Setting too lofty of a gardening goal

A bigger garden isn’t always better, at least if you’re a beginner, notes Megan Gilger, the gardening blogger behind Fresh Exchange. “It is easy to let your eyes get big when wandering the plant stores or looking online at ideas,” Gilger says. “Instead use those ideas to spur a bigger plan. Growing a great garden successfully takes time.” Gilger advises gardeners who are creating a garden from scratch to start small, but think big. A garden is a long-term investment and you should think about your goals three to five years from now.

Mistake 2: Not interplanting 

Let all of your buds play together. “Break away from the idea that you can only grow one type [of plant] in a bed,” Gilger says.  Interplanting, or intercropping, is a gardening practice that encourages pairing companion plants, as well as bundling taller and shorter plants. Mixing and matching can also whittle weeds and bring in beneficial pollinators, she explains. Bonus: Interplanting is also said to reduce pests and disease. 

Mistake 3: Overcrowding plants

Although mixing plants together is A-OK, you still have to be mindful of spacing, notes Michael Giannelli of East Hampton Gardens, a garden and home shop in East Hampton, New York. “[People] want that instant garden full and colorful—big mistake,” he says. “Plants need room to grow and spread naturally.” Follow the planting recommendations, which typically suggest 2 to 3 feet between plants. You can probably cheat a little by skirting the recommendations by a few inches, but don’t pack plants side by side like sardines.

Mistake 4: Planting too much variety

Tempting as it may be to plant everything from acorns to zucchini, focus on growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers that bring joy to your plate. “It seems simple, but you are most passionate about growing the vegetables, herbs, and flowers you already find yourself grabbing for at the grocery store or farmers market,” Gilger says. No need to fuss over fennel if you think it tastes blah. 

Mistake 5: Missing the fruits of your labor 

Get on the garden’s schedule. “Now that you have a bounty of cherry tomatoes and green beans, you have to eat them,” Hermanson says. “Don’t leave ready to harvest items on the vine. This is like leaving a popsicle on the lawn and then being surprised it’s covered with ants!”

Mistake 6: Misunderstanding plant growth

Developing an understanding of plant growth will be key to ensuring maximum success in the garden. Arianna Iappini, a gardening coach at The Birch Arbor Gardens in Salisbury, Massachusetts, understands that “a beginner gardener can have trouble imagining that a 5-inch tomato seedling will eventually reach a height of 8 feet. Knowing plant height at maturity is crucial in nurturing all the plants in the garden. As the plant grows, it will cast shade on the surrounding plantings, and this can affect the overall environment, she notes. What’s more, you’ll want to provide adequate support structures for tall, vining, and climbing plants.

Mistake 7: Improper watering 

“Don’t water like a wimp,” says horticulturist Jessica Walliser, co-owner of Savvy Gardening, an online resource. Go all in and douse your seedlings properly. “Deep, thorough watering once per week is better than splashing on a little every day,” Walliser adds. “The soil should be wet several inches down after you’re done watering. If it isn’t, then you aren’t applying enough water at any given time.” At the same time, giving plants too much water is detrimental—overwatering can lead to rotted roots and yellow leaves, Giannelli says. “An irrigation system that usually goes on every other day may be fine for the lawn, but not great for everything else,” he shares. 

Mistake 8: Planting seeds once per season

Optimize the garden’s production power. “Once the first crops have been harvested, amend the soil and re-plant for late summer and autumn harvesting,” suggests Niki Jabbour, co-owner of Savvy Gardening. “Good choices for a second helping of homegrown vegetables include carrots, beets, peas, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and scallions.”

Mistake 9: Not taking notes

Keeping a garden diary that documents the trial-and-error process is key to ensuring future improvement. Make note of the crops that were duds (and how they met their demise!), pest issues, and other side notes, like the time of day when the sun is most intense. “You think you will remember, but you will not,” Hermanson says. “The previous season’s notes will jog all sorts of memories and inspire good ideas so you can grow on your successes each season.”

Mistake 10: Fear of failure

“Even the most seasoned gardener has challenges and kills plants from time to time,” Iappini says. “The real growth happens from cultivating the lessons each season offers.” Don’t let the presumption that you have a black thumb stop you from experimenting with gardening. Remember: Practice makes progress. That’s why when you harvest your first bounty, the reward will be that much sweeter.