Are you thinking of finally breaking ground on that garden this year? It’s an exciting prospect – growing your own food. But it can also be overwhelming. After several years of trial and error, I thought I’d share the top 7 mistakes I think new gardeners are prone to make – and how to avoid them!
Mistake #1: Starting too big, too soon.
It’s OK to site a large area for your garden, but you might want to give it a year or two before installing large, semi-permanent raised beds or planting fruit trees. Caring for a large garden is often a large time commitment and can become quickly overwhelming for a new gardener. Start by cultivating a small space this year, and plan to expand the following.
Case in point: my husband and I added some raised beds to our yard several years ago. Yes, they are beautiful – but several years in, I realize now we could have maximized the space better by building larger beds or doing away with the beds altogether.
Mistake #2: Selecting the wrong plants for your climate.
Every year I get tons of seed catalogs, but many of them are just worthless to me. Why? Because they are geared primarily for gardeners in the South, where watermelons and bell peppers grow effortlessly.
Take the time to haunt your local nursery and find a seed catalog that sells plants and seeds geared for your climate. (For the maritime Pacific Northwest, I recommend Territorial Seed.)
How else can you identify what will grow well in your area? Seek out local gardening blogs. Observe what’s being sold in your local farmer’s market and farms at various times of the year. Observe what your neighbors are growing. Check out a book about gardening specific to your area (for those in the Pacific Northwest, The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Pacific Northwest [pictured above] gets fantastic reviews and is priced around $15 on Amazon).
Mistake #3: Garden is comprised of many fussy varieties.
When I started gardening, I was quickly intrigued by all the possibilities. Just remember: each plant requires care, from seed to harvest. In considering what to plant in your garden, carefully weigh how much time and care it will need. DO pay attention to any notes about potential pest problems. DO consider if you’ll really want to harvest and process tomatoes from 50 tomato plants. DO read up on special care certain plants will need – such as fruiting vines, heavy feeders, or generally “fussy” plants.
What’s “easy” to grow? I like varieties that are fast growing and will give you a bang for your buck. Here in Western Washington, I’d consider most herbs easy (parsley is a personal favorite), as well as squashes of all kinds (try zucchini), beans (go for bush beans if you don’t want to worry about staking up poles), and greens (I like cut-and-come again types like kale, chard, and loose leaf lettuce).
In the past few years, I’ve appreciated adding a bunch of flowers around my garden beds. In many cases, they are extremely easy to grow, they look pretty, plus they attract bees.
Mistake #4: Overlooking perennials.
I have come to really love, love perennials! These are plants that will come back year after year. Plant them in combination with annuals to create a beautiful garden.
Perennials are a smart choice for several reasons. First, if all goes well you won’t have to replace them next year, so you’ll save time and money. Second, adding perennials means something’s always growing in the garden. Third, perennials can provide great food and shelter for many insects, bees, small birds, etc.
Some examples of perennials I have in my garden right now are mint, lavender, lemon balm, blueberries, gooseberries, and kiwi vines. I also love, love bulbs because they come up year after year. This means less work for you to do next year!
Mistake #5: Not making use of local (free!) resources.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Accept that you’re new and on a learning journey. In my area (Western Washington), I’ve identified a few great sources for asking questions, when I have them:
- Local Farmer’s Market. My market has a Master Gardener area. If you are planning on visiting, bring any samples of bugs, plants, or other things that might illustrate your question.
- WSU Master Gardeners Extension. You can call and ask these volunteers anything! I have called before, and found their advice to be helpful. (You can find a Master Gardener near you – this is for Washington.)
- Seattle Tilth. Seattle Tilth has an awesome FREE Garden Hotline you can call. I adore Seattle Tilth because I know they care about organic & sustainable practices.
- Nurseries & Seed Companies. Of course, always feel free to call the nursery you bought your plants from for more specific information. Some nurseries – like Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington – also offer classes.
Less formally, you can always chat with like-minded friends, neighbors, and even local bloggers.
Mistake #6: Expecting that everything will grow perfectly.
Please don’t take me to be a Debbie Downer, but it’s quite possible not everything you plant will turn out according to plan. The truth is, there are a lot of natural forces you are trying to deal with when gardening, and some are out of your control.
For instance, you may well see a fair amount of pests (particularly if you’re growing an organic garden). Instead of freaking out at the first sign of a bug bite in your lettuce, give it a little time. I’ve learned that sometimes a wait-and-see approach is best versus spendy/aggressive tactics.
Other things you might encounter include plants that fail to thrive or even germinate, problems with weather, soil issues, and plant disease. Some of these things you can work to fix, but other times no matter what you do – there may be loss. I encourage you to not get discouraged if/when this happens. Instead, see what you can learn from it. (And then next year, maybe utilize tips #2 and #3 a bit more in your garden plans.)
Mistake #7: Not taking time to smell the flowers.
It can be really easy to get caught up with how “pretty” our gardens look – do they measure up to those on Pinterest? It can also be easy to get caught up with how “productive” our gardens are – will I produce 500 lbs of food this year? While aesthetics and productivity are important, don’t let them cloud the simple enjoyment that getting your hands in the dirt and watching something grow can bring.
Making your garden a relaxing, enjoyable space can be simple and inexpensive. Here are a few things I’ve done to mine:
- Add flowers. The colors and scents can create such a beautiful, tranquil feel!
- Add bird feeders/baths. I enjoy having birds come to my garden (I know not everyone shares this sentiment though!). In addition to a couple inexpensive feeders, I’ve also worked to add plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
- Add chairs. I know this one seems obvious – but put a place to sit out there! Even an old lawn chair or bench you already have works. I am a firm believer that there should be a place in your garden that speaks to you and says “hey there, sit down a spell!”
- Add color. Find some fun garden decor – or make your own.
I hope that today’s tips have given you some guidance to avoid common mistakes new gardeners can make.
Now it’s your turn: if you’re new to gardening, do you have any questions or comments for me? If you’re an old pro, what other tips would you add to my list?