Avoid these gardening mistakes

5 Gardening Mistakes to Avoid so You Can Grow More Food

There are some gardening mistakes that even experienced gardeners make. And these mistakes are usually due to the same misguided advice being repeated again and again online and in gardening magazines. But once you know what they are you, can easily avoid them and grow more food.

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Some gardening advice is thrown around so often that no one even questions it anymore. Any time I hear those “tips” being dolled out to gardeners I want to shake my fist in the air!

It’s completely understandable why people make these mistakes—you would think these stores and sites would be trying to help gardeners.

But the result is gardeners making avoidable mistakes that end in frustration.

This post covers 5 gardening mistakes that you might be making, but that are easy to avoid once you know what they are.

  1. Watering too much.
  2. Trying to eliminate all pests.
  3. Buying the wrong vegetable starts.
  4. Not mulching your vegetables.
  5. Starting too big—or too small.

The rest of the post will dive into each of these problems. But before you scroll down, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet that builds on this post by giving you 11 gardening tips for the beginner gardener that will help you boost your garden and grow more food.

1. A Common Gardening Mistake – Watering too Much

Avoid the gardening mistake of watering too much

I do water my plants when needed—especially when they’re brand new. But I also go weeks without watering. I follow a simple rule: I only water when the plants need it.

Have you’ve seen this advice before?

“Make sure to give your plants 1 inch of water each week.”

This seems to be the go-to advice on watering that pops up on every plant description and on gardening sites.

But this leads to a common gardening mistake—watering too much.

What you should be doing is observing your garden—both your vegetables and your soil. Here are 2 simple tests you can do.

  1. Stick your finger in the soil. (Ideally under a layer of mulch, but more on that later.)
  2. Look for wilting.

If you stick your finger down into the soil and it feels cool and moist right on the surface, then your plants don’t need watering.

When the surface is still nice and moist, then your soil has all the water your plants need.

But you should also look for wilting, which is often a sign of water stress. If you see this, then your plants likely need a top up. But wait until the sun is no longer shining on your plants—they may stop wilting on their own, and this is a good time to give them water.

Wild Tip

When you do water, make sure to water your plants deeply. You don’t want to just get the surface of the soil wet. You want the water to go down deep into the soil at least 8 inches (20 cm). The exception is when you’re watering seeds, which are up near the surface.

If your plants are wilting and the soil is still moist, then there are likely 2 causes:

  1. Something has damaged or eaten the roots.
  2. Your plant was recently planted and hasn’t had time to grow enough roots to get the water it needs.

In both cases you can water the wilting plants. But if the roots are too damaged, the plant likely won’t recover. If your plant was recently planted, then it just needs some help to get established. Once it stops wilting, (assuming the soil is moist,) then you can stop giving it extra water.

I can go weeks without watering my vegetables even without rain. If the soil is moist and my plants don’t show any signs of water stress, then they don’t need watering.

The benefits will be healthier plants with deeper roots—and better tasting fruits and vegetables.

2. Don’t Try to Eliminate all Pests

Don't make the gardening mistake of trying to wipe out all pests

I don’t like aphids, but I also don’t try to eliminate them. Instead, I wait for my little helpers (like this ladybug) to show up and do the job for me. This one was already munching some aphids and keeping them from eating one of my lupines.

One of the biggest gardening mistakes people make is trying to eliminate all pests. The result is people spending a lot of time, energy and money fighting a never-ending battle that they can’t win.

Plus, a big reason people grow their own food is to avoid all the toxic chemicals that are sprayed on produce sold in the big box stores. So why spray your own vegetables and fruit?

It’s not that you shouldn’t deal with the pests—you should. But you should do it in a way that works with nature and brings the pests into balance.

Balance should be your goal—not elimination.

All the garden pests are prey to something else. Aphids, for example, are eaten by lacewings, ladybugs, and many other predators.

But what happens when you eliminate all the pests? There’s no food for the predators to eat. They either leave, or they never show up at all, and your battle continues.

So to avoid this gardening mistake, you should do what you can to attract the predators of your pests.

A simple option is to plant flowers—lots of flowers! Flowers attract many beneficial insects, including predatory insects.

Planting native plants, adding shrubs and trees near your garden (north side in the northern hemisphere or south side in the southern hemisphere), and adding habitat features like rock piles will also help bring in predators of your garden pests.

But it will take time. So you also need to be okay with your lettuce having a few holes in it. Your vegetables and fruits don’t need to be spotless. Give the predators time to show up before you take action against the pests.

Start now by adding some flowers to your garden. The sooner you do, the sooner you will start attracting the predators that will bring your garden into balance with the pests.

Learn More

Want to learn more about how to reach a balance with pests? These blog posts can help you:

  1. Control Garden Pests without Toxic Chemicals
  2. How to Create Habitat Features for Pest Control

3. Buying the Wrong Vegetable Starts

Don't buy the wrong vegetable starts

These are my little tomato seedlings—they won’t be ready to plant for a while still, but that’s fine. My area is still getting frosts, which would kill them. These little seedlings will still be small by the time it’s okay to plant them. But I often see large tomato seedlings for sale in the stores long before they can be planted!

I could go to a big box store in my area right now and find large tomato starts for sale. In fact, they’ve been available for several weeks.

There are also peppers and other warm-loving vegetables being sold.

So why is this a bad thing?

We’re still getting frosts here, and all those warm-loving vegetables will die if they’re planted today.

This leads to a common gardening mistake—buying vegetable starts too early.

You might think that if the plants are for sale in the stores, then it must be the right time to plant them. If the stores had their customers’ best interest in mind, this would be a safe assumption. But the truth is, they get their plants delivered in big truckloads all at once—that includes cool-weather and warm-weather vegetables.

You can buy these starts, but make sure to look up planting guides for your area before you plant them.

Here are 3 sites that can help you figure out when to plant your vegetables:

  1. Urban Farmer
  2. The Vegetable Garden
  3. The Old Farmer’s Almanac

There is one more thing you need to watch out for when buying vegetable starts—buying large vegetable starts instead of small ones.

At most stores, you’ll see a mix of sizes of vegetable starts. Some will be in clusters of small cells, but others will be in individual pots—sometimes even large 1 gal or 2 gal pots.

You might think those large pots would be better. But the opposite is true.

The plants in the small cells also tend to be small. But here’s the important thing—they’ll have far more roots compared to their top growth (the green part above ground) than a large plant in a large pot.

Generally, the smaller plants will suffer far less transplant shock and will catch up and surpass the larger plants.

Plus, it’s much quicker and easier to plant small plants!

The big stores like people to buy large plants and buy them early. But doing so will just cause you frustration and waste your money.

4. A Common Gardening Mistake: Not Mulching Your Plants

Not mulching your plants is a common gardening mistake

I was slow to mulch my vegetables last year. I was counting on spring rains, but instead we got an early drought. The result was dry, crusty soil. The same weather patterns happened this year, but this time I mulched early and the soil is staying soft and moist.

A far-too-common gardening mistake is not mulching your vegetables.

I remember volunteering at an urban garden. The garden wasn’t mulched at all. And the result was that nearly all my time in the garden, and the time of the other volunteers, was spent pulling weeds and watering.

Week after week of watering and weeding.

Does that sound familiar?

When you don’t mulch you, leave your soil exposed. This creates the perfect conditions for weeds to come in.

Plus, the sun just bakes the soil, which means you have to water a lot more.

A much better option is to add at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) of mulch around your plants until there is no bare soil left.

Just make sure you plant your plants in the soil and not the mulch. Just pull the mulch back when planting, and then return the mulch after you’re done.

If you’re direct-seeding your vegetables, leave the mulch back until the plants grow a bit. Then you can add the mulch back around them.

Wild Tip

Large seeded vegetables like beans and peas can push up through a 1-inch (2.5 cm) mulch layer. Though they will likely be slower to come up.

I will add that it’s easier to plant starts in a well mulched garden than direct-seeding. Though you can make either work.

Mulching provides other benefits too. But in the short run, what you’ll notice first is that mulching will result in less weeds and less need to water.

Don’t make the same gardening mistake made by the urban garden where I used to volunteer —please mulch your garden!

5. Starting too Big—or too Small

Avoid the gardening mistake of starting too big or too small

When my wife and I used to be renters, we still tried to grow food. Despite the limited space, I still made sure to use containers that were big enough to fit a fair number of plants.

I love the advice to just start and grow something—even if that is just a single tomato in a pot. But unfortunately, this can also lead to frustration. Worse yet, it can make people shake their heads, declare they don’t have a green thumb, and give up.

On the other end, people can go a little overboard and build a massive first garden—and they quickly get overwhelmed.

These are both common gardening mistakes. And while it’s possible to make either work, I see far too many people getting frustrated and quitting.

So what should you do?

I can hear the question in your mind.

Okay, I can understand why starting too big might be a problem. But too small?

But here’s the thing.

When you only plant a single plant, that plant has to go it alone. All plants naturally grow in communities with other plants.

The plants in these communities support each other through a variety of means, but at the most basic level, it’s the simple fact that they support more life.

A garden made up of strong communities of life is a more resilient garden.

If you only have space for a small container garden, then please get the biggest container possible.

And here’s another reason. The smaller the container, the more it will be impacted by both heat and cold. This will mean you will have to water your plants far more often and protect them more carefully from frosts.

When I was growing food on an apartment balcony, I used 2 containers side-by-side, that each had a mix of peas, greens, herbs and flowers. These containers weren’t very big, but they were big enough to support their own little ecosystem.

Keeping this sort of mix of plants alive is actually much easier than growing a single tomato in a single pot.

But on the other end of the spectrum is the massive first garden filled with every type of vegetable you can image.

If you’re just starting out, then please start with a nice, moderately-sized garden—even a simple 10 x 10 foot (3 x 3 meter) garden can let you grow a lot of food.

Then make sure to start with a small number of vegetables—say peas/beans, some greens like lettuce or chard, a couple tomatoes, and a single zucchini.

Add some flowers like alyssum or nasturtiums and your garden will be off to a great start.

Just don’t forget to mulch it!

By avoiding the common gardening mistake of starting too big—or too small—you will make your life easier and save yourself from getting frustrated and giving up.

To easily fit your vegetables into your new modest garden, I recommend checking out the great book Square-Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. This book will walk you through the spacing requirements for most vegetables, which will help you plant your new garden.

Gardening Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

Gardening should be fun!

I want my gardens to be places I go to relax, not to work hard.

I want to end this blog post with a final tip. Your garden isn’t a farm, and unless you’re trying to sell your produce, you shouldn’t treat it like one.

Far too much of the advice out there for growing food is based on maximizing harvests in the short run regardless of the negative impacts.

A market garden is very different from your kitchen garden, and you don’t need a massive, blue ribbon-winning tomato.

Your goal should be a garden that provides food for you and your family and that fits within your busy schedule.

When you mulch your vegetables, limit your watering, and aim for balance with pests you will have space to relax and slow down.

This will give you time to observe your garden and learn. In the long run, that, more than anything, will make you a better gardener.

You will make mistakes, but I hope you can now avoid the common gardening mistakes covered in this post. Just don’t let the mistakes you do make keep you from moving forward. Treat your mistakes as learning opportunities instead.

I’ve made a number of mistakes over the years, and I know I’ll make more in the future. But every time I do, I become a better gardener.

What about you? Please leave a comment sharing a gardening mistake you’ve made and what you learned from it.

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If you like this post, please share it:
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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Nikki says:

    Good write-up and solutions to the mustakes. I’ve done nearly all of these and more in my 10+ years of gardening. We fenced off how big we eventually wanted the garden rather than what we could handle at first, which meant it was too big and overwhelming (and weedy) for many years. I’ve missed mulching before the last spring rain. I used to buy the biggest plant at the store, thinking I was getting the most bang for my buck, and then killed the tomato plants by transplanting them into soil that was still too cold. Watering is my least favorite garden chore, so I can’t say I’ve overwatered any except seedlings that I started.

    • Daron says:

      Thanks for sharing Nikki! Yeah, I think all gardeners have been there–I know I have made a number of mistakes over the years but that is of course a way to learn. What makes me sad though is when people make mistakes and get so frustrated that they give up and declare they can’t garden. I believe everyone can garden and I hope this post will help people stick with their garden.

  • Shawn says:

    Saw your post in Permies and had to check this out. I’ve certainly made all of these mistakes in the past (except maybe overwatering because I’m lazy!). I’m glad to see this, though. With the sudden renewal of interest in food raising this year, hopefully this will save a new gardener or two from frustration and help encourage them to stick with it.

    • Daron says:

      Hello Shawn–thank you so much for the comment! I think we all have 🙂 I really do hope this post will help some new gardeners–thanks again!

  • Cam Haines says:

    One of my mistakes was using un composted horse manure in the garden. I thought I was so smart spreading fresh manure all over the garden, but man the amount of weeds that came up that year was almost unbearable. Later I found out you should compost the manure to kill the in bedded seeds. Ugh!

    • Daron says:

      Good advice to avoid that! Some manures like chicken manure is also too hot when fresh and can damage or even kill your plants. In general composting manures first like you said is a good idea. Thanks for sharing!

  • I feel like I have done all of these in the last 3 years. haha! I had a Rosemary plant that I loved when I was starting out and completely watered it to death.. oops! Live and learn.

  • CJ says:

    Daron I love reading your blog and this article has prompted a question. How do you manage direct seeding and mulching? I am a suburban newbie to permaculture but have enough veggie scraps and leaf fall on site to create soil self-sufficiency. I’ve also begun seed-saving to create landraces. It’s all in infancy, but so far so good! But I’m stumped by how to direct seed and still protect that soil. Where I left mulch from the winter and seeded few sprouted (logically, I realize) but exposing the dirt to seed attracts digging squirrel, seed-eaters, etc. When you direct seed, at what point can you mulch and not handicap the seed growth? Thanks for any advice! –CJ

    • Daron says:

      Hey CJ–yeah you hit the nail on the head with that question. I have been struggling with it too. Some direct seeding is easy with mulch–large seeds such as peas and beans can just grow right through an inch or so of mulch. But smaller seeds are where you can have a challenge. 1 strategy I use is to pull the mulch back and add in compost that I then direct seed into. This works but does have some issues that you mentioned. I have been experimenting with using very light mulch over seeded areas to see what grows through them. So far even carrots have come up through very thin mulch. But all that being said I’m actually planning on shifting to growing my warm weather veggies and small seeded veggies (except for carrots) as starts that I then transplant out into the garden. This will let me keep the mulch thick and after weighing the pros and cons for my own garden I think being able to mulch right away is more important to plant success than direct seeding. But I will still be direct seeding peas, beans, carrots, squash, melons, corn and any other large seeded or picky veggies that don’t work well with starts or can handle some mulch. Hope that helps!

  • Editor says:

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