We have a great customer story that puts good gardening advice into real-world context. One of our high-volume regulars wrote to thank us for her seed order, and what began as a "Hey, how's the family, James?" turned into an "I'M GONNA KILL MY DAD" rant. You see, she'd offered to help him set up his vegetable and hanging basket garden, which included digging post holes, building and filling raised beds, and installing drip irrigation.
"He had his design in mind, but in spite of my advice—bigger, taller, better nutrients and drainage—he stayed his course. Within that first season, he began complaining about his plants not thriving. At the end of the season, he blamed his failure on the seeds we'd bought. But I pointed out that my own garden was producing better than ever before, and all our seeds came from the same order."
Our friend enjoyed the opportunity to compare his practices to her own. They shared similar native soils and lived only a mile from one another as the crow flies. "He's a complete science nerd. I assumed he'd tested his soils, but he didn't until he began his 'autopsy' in September... at which time he announced, 'my soil had almost no nitrogen!'" She feigned shock but otherwise kept her mouth shut. She told us she hadn't been optimistic about the heavy clay topsoil and "weird-looking" compost he bought from a guy on Craigslist, and she suspected the only reason the deer didn't hop over the too-short fence was that they probably thought it was a kennel for tiny, rabid dogs. "It was a beautiful fence, but last week he ended up nailing vertical 2x2s to the top edge so he could string saggy-looking wire and tinsel strips to scare them away. My mom was (expletive) ticked (not the actual word) off!"
The takeaway? No matter how set in your ways you are, and how much you've come up with your own vision for the perfect garden, place function on the same level as form—and do a little homework before you break ground. For your own sanity, avoid these all too common mistakes new gardeners make.
1. Going it alone
The best way to get into gardening is to find a mentor in your area to help you plan your layouts, set up a planting calendar, and advise you on sources for soil amendments and other supplies. The best mentors won't just tell you what they've done right. They'll tell you how they screwed up as they gained gardening experience. Here are some good (but often-overlooked) questions to ask:
- If you could start over, what changes would you make?
- Which garden pests and disease are the most significant problems around here?
- Does the local water quality (municipal or aquifer) adversely affect soil chemistry?
- Can you keep an ear out for used equipment? (Tip: Gardeners often outgrow or upgrade their seedling equipment; you can often get lights and mats on the cheap).
Whether your mentor is a member of a local gardening club, the neighbor across the street, or the kid who can't file her taxes on time yet knows when and how to grow melons in a northern climate, you'll benefit from their past disasters—and we all have our war stories.
2. Rushing the design process
If you're a budding veggie grower, plan a garden that's twice what you think you need—especially if you need to build a deer-proof fence. Some of the most popular vegetables take up quite a bit of room, and it's wise to rotate garden patches to rejuvenate the soil and break disease and pest cycles. Ornamental gardeners can always create pockets of color and greenery around the property, selecting deer-resistant varieties if necessary.
Here are a few possible design elements that make gardening easier and allow you to expand once you're really sucked into the hobby. Not all are must-haves, but you'll be glad you thought of them:
- Access to plants for weeding, delivering compost, and harvesting flowers and veggies
- Room to store regularly used tools, equipment, and supplies
- An area close by for a composting system
- Ability to provide light shade for cool-season plants
- 1/3 reserved space for rotating veggie crops (kept under a cover crop or mulch)
- Close to power and a water source
Don't forget to make gates wide enough for wheelbarrows! Consider building raised beds if you have a tough time kneeling on creaky joints. Look for plans or products where the beds are raised on sturdy legs or deep, tall beds filled with gravel or another cheap, draining substrate under woven landscape cloth and 18" of your ideal soil mix.
Galvanized steel livestock troughs are fantastic for this purpose, and complement both rustic and contemporary designs. They come in various heights, have a drainage plug (raise them just a little at the opposite end or add more holes) and are usually far less expensive than purchased or self-built cedar beds of the same size.
3. Not installing irrigation
Most plants do best when they're watered at soil level with low-pressure irrigation. Heavy water droplets erode soil and spread soil-borne fungi and pathogens, and overhead watering isn't good for foliage. Plus, running sprinklers without timers will earn you dirty looks from neighbors and local government agencies if you live in drought-stricken areas. Worst of all, hand-watering and hauling hoses around your yard is a massive pain in the butt, especially if you want to go on a mid-summer getaway.
Most plant problems stem from over- and underwatering. Your neighbors might act all high-and-mighty about wasteful watering, but more than anything, they want you to stop asking them to take over when you go on vacation. Drip irrigation systems can be as complex or simple as you'd like, and there's usually a line of products to suit any gardener's budget.
4. Choosing the wrong plants for your area
Many perennials adapt to a wide climate spectrum, but some don't survive long, frigid winters. Some annuals—many grown for their fruits—need a long summer to produce. Unless you're planning on building a greenhouse or cold frames to extend your season, locate your home turf on the USDA Hardiness Zone map and compare your growing zone to those listed in seed catalogs or on packets. You can look up a plant variety's "days to maturity" count and compare it to your regions' growing season (The number of days between the last spring frost and the first hard fall frost). Go local for the most accurate growing season specs; that's what your mentor's for!
5. Waiting until the warm days of spring
Have you discovered that your growing season has about as many days as the Detroit Lions' total wins since they traded Bobby Layne in '58? You can extend your season by starting seeds indoors, in cold frames, or a backyard greenhouse. Of course, you can purchase starts at your local nursery, but the costs can add up to the point at which you're better off investing in some basic supplies:
- Nursery cell trays with plastic domes for larger quantities of seedlings
- Peat pots or CowPots in which to start seeds and transplant seedlings (pot and all) in your garden beds
- Heating mats to place underneath trays (nursery flats or plastic drainage pans) for consistent germination temperature control
- Overhead full-spectrum lighting on a timer for proper germination and growth
- Spray bottle for gentle misting of seedling soil
- Sterile seedling mix that reduces moss and fungal growth in humid growing conditions
You can start most plants indoors six to eight weeks before your last spring frost. Some, but not all, require a few extra steps to coax germination but aside from daily watering and giving up a little counter space, indoor starts are fun and easy.
6. Ignoring soil chemistry and quality
There's little point in creating a beautiful garden if your plants end up looking like they were roadies on Rob Zombie's latest world tour. Use a soil test to make sure your beds contain the right nutrient levels and pH each spring and fall so you can supplement as needed. The correct balance (or reasonable ballpark) increases your garden's resistance to diseases and helps you get the very best from your ornamental and vegetable plants.
We recommend amending your soil with compost and minerals in the fall, and testing once again in early spring after the organic materials have had a chance to break down. This gives the most accurate readings. Many gardeners overdo the fertilizer, and too much nitrogen is...well, it's crap. We like the Soil Savvy kit, which you can get from Amazon for less than thirty bucks.
7. Planting in puddle-prone soil
Your garden might look like it has fantastic topsoil, but if you dig down a few inches and find wet, dense dirt, you're due for some double-digging. This garden-building step will serve you for years to come. Don't rely on a two-stroke garden tiller—they’re great for mixing amendments into already cultivated soil, but they're awful at evenly breaking new ground at the required depth.
If you can dig down 12'' to 16', that's ideal for the densest soil, but 8" or more is just fine if water never pools on the surface. Unless you live on a beach or gravel pit, where you need to build up. Hire a local teenager to do the heavy work for you, but don't ask your daughter. She's done enough.
Once you've dug those trenches, mix the old soil with plenty of aged, high-quality compost and some peat moss or coconut coir. Throw in aged manure, fresh rabbit poop or worm castings, and follow the advice above for testing and amending the soil.
8. Forgetting to mulch
Mulch reduces weeds, retains moisture, and can help regulate soil temperatures. Keep mulch a couple of inches away from plant stems, so they don't rot or get "dinged," and if you're using acidic mulch such as pine bark or shavings, keep an eye on your pH levels. Organic mulches break down over a few seasons, and commercial-grade plastic sheet mulch can last for many years.
If you're going for the trashy look, plain corrugated cardboard, layers of black-and-white newspaper, and paper shopping bags work great along veggie rows or under a layer of decorative bark in your ornamental garden.
When you're putting your garden to bed in the fall, try covering the soil with old fallen leaves (except for black walnut; all parts of this species inhibit plant growth). In the spring, you can work the leaf litter into the soil. Avoid grass hay, as it tends to have a lot of weed seeds. Rice straw is best, and you can reuse it when you need to mulch around growing plants in late spring.
9. Buying poor-quality seeds
Seed germination rates sharply decline after a couple of years, requiring gardeners to double up their plantings. That's a lot of wasted space in your indoor start setup and your outdoor garden—not to mention a waste of time and resources. You want to "overbuild" your garden because you're in love with raising your own flowers, fruits, and vegetables...not because you planted dried up and dusty seeds.We've been in the seed business since 2006 thanks to loyal customers who understand the healthiest, most productive plants come from resilient, productive genetics. And by genetics, we don't mean GMO. Our suppliers carefully select the best breeding stock, supplying us with fresh seeds every season—but only as many as we can sell in a year. Let us know if we can help you start your gardening addiction! We're always happy to offer advice and suggestions, and our gardening blog is always full of inspiration and tips!