New Gardeners Tend To Make the Same Dozen Or So Gardening Mistakes, And Some Established Gardeners Make The same Ones. Here’s The Top Gardening Mistakes & How To Avoid Them
We all make mistakes in life, and that is also true in the garden. Most mistakes don’t matter that much, all it means is that our plants don’t grow and we have to start again. It’s frustrating but there’s no real harm. We can learn from it and not make the same gardening mistakes again.
And I’ll let you into a secret. I frequently make mistakes in my garden. In a sense, it’s understandable as the garden is a dynamic environment. Things keep changing. From the rain and temperature to the type of plants we grow, change is inevitable. But armed with a bit of common sense AND a few tips on how to make the best of our garden we can avoid most mistakes and have a fertile, healthy garden that grows beautiful flowers and tasty crops.
1. Gardening Mistakes: Destroying Soil Structure
I’m going to start with the most serious gardening mistake I ever see. It’s the one that tends to persist for years if it’s made so the one you really must avoid at all costs.
The good news is that it’s not difficult to avoid this mistake.
The soil is s living entity.
I don’t mean it’s like a cat or dog. It’s not a single living entity. In fact, the soil is mainly made up of inorganic material that is derived from rocks. The rocks break down to form sand, silt, clay and other soil particles. But between these particles are millions of living organisms. The largest are things like rabbits, foxes and badgers that dig holes in the soil and live in it. Then there are moles and mice and earthworms and a host of other smaller living animals and organisms.
The very smallest organisms are the soil bacteria, fungi and viruses. They make up the soil microorganisms and are vital to the plants that grow in the soil.
Soil Spaces, Air and Moisture
For everything to survive in the soil the gaps between the soil particles have to be able to sustain life. The soil particles tend to hold on to moisture and make it available to the plants and other organisms. And between the soil particles, there are gaps that are filled with air. This air contains the oxygen that most plants must have to survive. Very few organisms survive without air. Those that do are called anaerobes and tend to cause the soil to go sour. Those that need air are called aerobes.
When it rains the water runs into the soil, forces the majority of air out and then drains away. If it doesn’t the soil is waterlogged and few plants survive these conditions for more than a few days. The exceptions are aquatic and marsh plants.
As the water drains in our soils the air is drawn into the soil spaces and this helps replenish the air in the soil.
When we have a good mix of soil particles and organic life in the soil we tend to have a good soil structure that contains enough air spaces, nutrients and moisture.
Poor Soil Structure
Poor soil structure in the garden is most commonly caused by either removal of the topsoil or damage to it by compaction, especially in wet weather.
Too frequently builders and developers remove the topsoil from building plots. This leaves the relatively infertile subsoil exposed. It rarely has good soil structure, especially if it has had heavy machinery on it.
Soil compaction is the second most likely cause of poor soil structure and, as indicated above, can be present in addition to topsoil removal. However, even where the topsoil hasn’t been removed, poor soil structure is possible.
In most cases, poor topsoil structure is the result of smearing or compressing the soil with heavy machinery OR our boots. Just walking on the soil when it is wet can cause a lot of damage. In both cases pour bots or machinery compresses the soil and squeezes the particles together, destroying the air spaces. This excludes the air and prevents water from penetrating the soil.
The above image was taken on a building site and is an example of how bad it gets. Despite the fact that a hedge and beds had been planted in the area due to be grassed was repeatedly walked in during very wet weather. The result is a muddy mess with large puddles and no soil structure. This area was due to be lawned a few days after the photo was taken. I’ve no doubt that if the grass is laid it will not thrive, indeed it might quickly die.
How To Improve Soil Structure
Firstly don’t compact it. That means no rotavators or feet on the soil when it’s too wet. If you need to harvest crops when it’s wet work from a path or put boards on the soil. Making temporary paths from old scaffolding boards or similar spreads the weight and prevents a lot of damage.
Grow deep-rooting plants, and/or those with fibrous roots, to try to open up the structure. These can be as break crops or as main crops depending on your situation. For example, potatoes are sometimes used to break up poor soil. But if you do this don’t expect such large yields as you’d get in soils with good soil structure.
Add compost to the soil. Ideally as a top dressing and let the worms pull it down. It’ll take time but will eventually improve the soil. If you can adopt a No-Dig regime so much the better.
Have patience. It takes time to rebuild the soil structure. And by that, I mean years, not weeks!
2. Gardening Mistakes: Sowing & Planting Too Early
To every thing (crop) there is a season!
OK, so I’ve slightly misquoted this text. But it’s largely true. For every crop here is a time. An optimum time when you should sow, plant and harvest. Get it right and you’ll be rewarded with abundant crops. Get it wrong and your crops will suffer from all sorts of problems.
I’m a bit blase about many of the planting and sowing dates because I’ve spent a lifetime learning the rules, where they can be bent and when I can break them. But for most of us, we need to keep to the rules. And that is especially true of sowing and planting dates.
Different crops can be planted at different times of the year. There is no time of year when we are compelled to start our planting year, though many people start in the spring. I’m writing this at the end of December. It was the winter solstice a few days ago and technically the days ate getting longer. Though, of course, it’s hard to see the extra daylight each day as its just minutes a day at present and a cloudy day hides it on som many days. But give it a few months and things will start to look better and the plants will begin to notice.
Some plants can be sown in my area now (late December), peas and broad beans are good examples as they are very hardy and will tolerate cold weather. They aren’t so keen on waterlogged soil though, so if yours is waterlogged then don’t sow them in the soil. Your choices are to leave the sowing for now OR to sow in pots or modules ready to plant put later. The third alternative is to grow them in containers from start to finish.
The main thing is not to try to dig or work very wet soil. It will give you the soil structure problems I discuss above.
And just because I said Broad Beans can be sown now that isn’t true of fine beans, Borlotti beans, runner beans and most other sorts of beans. Most beans need much more warmth than broad beans. Sow the others now and they’ll die unless you grow them in a heated greenhouse .. and even if you do, your problems have only just started.
Plants generally need heat and light to grow well. Indeed some also need cold and poor light to “vernalise” them. For example, rhubarb needs a period of cold in winter to stimulate good growth in the spring and summer. And plants without any light, or very poor light, suffer as well. Give seedlings poor light and they etiolate, i.e. become drawn or leggy. That’s not a great way for a seedling to start life.
But we can turn poor light to advantage. Cover your rhubarb with an upturned bin and it will etiolate the stems ready for an early harvest. Commercial rhubarb growers in the Rhubarb Triangle have exploited this for years and still produce the earliest forced rhubarb in the UK. You can try it as well.
Each month I publish a page about what to sow that month. It’s based on my location in South Devon, just a mile from the sea. Generally speaking, if you live further north, or at a higher altitude, the dates will need adjusting for your location. Your sowing dates will be later than mine .. but you’ll be forewarned in time to act. The reverse is true if you live in a milder part of the country to me. Keep an eye on local experienced gardeners in your area, they’ll know how your local microclimate affects dates.
Sowing dates are given on seed packets. Of course, they are not specific and the seed companies don’t know where you live and what your local conditions are like. So they are only a rough guide.
The thing is with seeds that a slightly later sowing will often catch up one that’s too early. The early one tends to have seedlings sitting in cold wet soils that makes them slow to grow away. Whilst the later sowings romp away much quicker. That also means that if you start seeds in modules or seed trays you can get the advantage of earlier sowings by planting them out when conditions are ideal. That way you get the full benefit of the earlier sowings.
Another tip is to warm the soil up a bit before sowing. A cloche or sheet of plastic over the soil for a week or two before you want to sow both keeps the worse of the rain off and warms the soil. Just don’t overdo it by sheeting down the plot too early so that the soil is bereft of rain and too dry. It’s no good starting early only to find you enter a drought when everyone else still has moist soils.
Keep an eye out for my next What to sow this month articles. They’ll forewarn you of what to sow next.
3. Gardening Mistakes: Planting Too Much Garden
The size of our garden is usually fixed. You can’t just add on an extra acre or two. It’s the same with allotments. And most new gardeners I talk to want more space.
But having too much space just encourages us to try to grow more than we can cope with and far too many beginners plant too much garden.
They do it in the belief that you need loads of space and need to grow dozens of different things. You don’t.
My advice is to start small. Just grow a small plot to begin with. Discover what you can cope with. Until you understand how much digging, planting, weeding and harvesting your plot entails it’s better to start small.
We’ve all done it I suppose. I certainly have. And I should have known better. One year when I had my commercial place I decided to grow a few extra lettuce and extra celery. By a few extra I mean an extra 100,000 lettuce and an extra 20,000 celery. That was on top of the 150,000 lettuce I’d already decided to grow in the spring.
To be fair we coped with cutting these crops ad we made a fair return on them. We even kept up with side shooting 8.000 of our 10,000 tomatoes each week. But we never managed to do any of one house one week. And when you get behind they take even longer. Week two we made an extra effort and managed to sideshoot the first 8,000 and started the last 2,000. But it was getting like a jungle in there and we only got halfway through. By week three that greenhouse was a jungle. Half the plants had side shoots 18 inches long and we struggled to remove them. Sideshoots that long are referred to as walking sticks! And by week four they were a metre long! True walking sticks.
So, I understand why people try to grow too much. I’ve been there.
But there’s another way for new gardeners. Start small. Only cultivate a small patch to start with. If it’s small you get fewer weeds and its easier to cope with. That gives you more time to propagate a few more seeds in modules and once they are ready you can pop them into any spaces that appear as you harvest crops. That way there’s never any bare soil and you get fewer weeds. And fewer weeds gives you more time!.
Of course, some crops don’t need too much labour. It’s why after I finished cutting lettuce in my tunnels I used to then plant with peppers. Once the peppers are in the ground they just need watering and feeding. And I’d automated that. So the next job was harvesting them once they’d grown a really good crop of fruit. Once picking started we did it once a week. It simplified the amount of labour we needed.
Of course, I could have grown a lot of chillis instead of peppers. But chillis are small and it takes ages to pick a tunnel of chillis whilst peppers take a fraction of the time. And we had 6-7 tunnels of peppers most years.
It’s all about the amount of time we have to cope with what we are growing. For me, it was a full-time job with very long hours. But most gardeners have limited time they can put into growing crops. And I had three tractors and lots of equipment. It’s certainly easier than using a spade and fork.
And that brings me to the last point in this section. Why dig when you can go down the No-Dig route. No Dig has been shown to produce better yields and doesn’t entail so much hard labour.
Gardening is meant to be a pleasurable pastime. Hard labour is what they used to give convicts. So are you into gardening for pleasure or for hard labour?
4. Not Giving Seeds, Seedlings and Young Plants Enough Warmth
Each spring I see social media posts from people struggling to get seeds to germinate. They say things like, “I sowed tomatoes in my unheated greenhouse over a month ago and they still haven’t germinated.”.
Sadly, in cold weather, tomatoes and many other warmth-loving plants aren’t going to germinate until they get some warmth.
Other posts say things like “I potted up my tomatoes and put them in the greenhouse four weeks ago but they haven’t grown. Have I got faulty compost?”
In this case, it’s not the compost that’s at fault. It’s the cold. The fact the tomatoes are still alive is actually a miracle as they really need warmth to grow.
The thing is all the warmth-loving crops need a lot of warmth. When I grew commercially I germinated tomato seed in seed trays in a propagator set at 21C. They will germinate below, or above, this temperature, but below 18C they will be much slower. And if it goes above around 25C germination will again slow down, and go much above this and the seed will die.
5. Filling Drainage Holes In Pots
Google “filling holes in flower pots”, “effective ways to seal a drain hole in a clay pot”, or similar, and you’ll get millions of pieces of advice on these topics. I’m not joking, there are millions of pages of advice on filling and sealing drainage holes in pots. And most of them are totally ill-informed and unnecessary.
Let’s get back to basics on this one. They are called drainage holes for a reason. Pots need drainage. They need drainage because most plants can’t tolerate waterlogged soil. They need oxygen at the roots to enable respiration. One of the functions of compost is to allow gaseous exchange. Different plants need different amounts of freedom from waterlogging/gaseous exchange, for example, poinsettias need more than hostas.
The only ones that don’t need freedom from waterlogging are aquatic plants. They sit in water and thrive. So that’s the only time when sealing the hole in a pot makes sense.
Improving Pot Drainage
Pots and containers have normally been designed with holes in them to aid drainage. Sometimes, in plastic pots, the holes are pre-formed but need punching out. If so, unless you are growing aquatics, do it. Punch them out. Not doing so is one of the worse Gardening Mistakes I ever see.
In the old days, we were often advised to add a “crock” to the bottom of the pot to allow better drainage. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. But it really isn’t needed if you have adequate drainage holes. Old clay pots only had one hole and that could get blocked, but modern pots have multiple drainage holes so this is no longer a problem.
Today, just add your compost to the pot, gently firm it and that’s it. There’s no need to add a pot liner of any sort. Once the compost is firmed and watered it isn’t going to all run out of multiple small drainage holes!
No Plastic, Polystyrene or Other Rubbish Needed
I often see people saying that we should add a weed-suppressing membrane, plastic liner or even polystyrene to the pot. It really isn’t necessary. In fact, it could cause a lot of problems. Firstly slugs love to sit between the plastic liner and pot. Slug hotels of this sort are bad news.
Secondly, where the pot sits on the soil it’s good if the plant is in contact with the soil as it allows soil fungi to enter the pot. This can improve plant growth immeasurably.
As for part filling the pot or container with polystyrene, it’s total madness. The reason often given is to decrease the weight of the pot or to save on compost.
If this is the objective there’s an easier way. Use a smaller pot!
Adding polystyrene to pots gives us long term issues. If we want to recycle the compost through the compost bin, or just use it to mulch the garden, how do we handle all the little pieces of polystyrene? They are a nightmare.
6. Allowing Weeds to Swamp Crops
50 years ago my father brought home some scrap guttering.
He then laid them down each side of row crops and they directed light showers towards the roots.
They also stopped weed growth from competing with crops and saved a lot of work. My dad was proud to be a “lazy” gardener who never did more than was necessary to keep us well supplied with food.
I’ve another twist on the gutters. I drill drainage holes in them and grow greenhouse crops in them earlier in the year. These have grown peashoots and mangetout before being put to more good use
7. Ignoring the Need For Sunshine
Plants need sunlight to photosynthesis. Without it they die.
And most fruit and veg need a lot of good strong direct sunlight and as much of it as they can get.
The Gardening Mistake many gardeners make is to ignore the need for plenty of sunlight. Hence I see questions such as what’s the best way to shade my greenhouse, or what veg are best for under tress on the north side of the house. Another favourite is the assertion that lettuce need shade.
Greenhouses generally don’t need shading. If it gets too hot in a greenhouse or tunnel then increase the ventilation and/or douse the floor with water. Both will decrease the temperature. Shading will decrease the temperature of course, but it will also decrease the rate of growth and can cause serious physiological problems.
The only time I would shade a greenhouse is if it were being used to grow specialist crops that usually grow in shaded situations. So, some orchids or other plants that grow in forests, or other places where they get a lot of shade from tall trees need shade. But these are exceptions.
Though I’ve said plants need lots of sunlight some do manage to grow with less than others. An example would be woodland primroses, bluebells and foxgloves. They thrive in these shadier situations, but there is a proviso there is a minimum levels of light without which they cannot grow. So bluebells and primroses are spring flowers and by the time the trees are getting decked out with a canopy of leaves the plants that grow on the woodland floor are flowered and setting seed. Once the light decreases due to the shade cast by tree leaves they enter a period of slow growth and even die back for the rest of the year.
These woodland plants take what light they can get in spring and then senesce.
Lettuce and sunlight
If it is true that lettuce need shade then the half a million I used to grow each year must have suffered. We either grew them under greenhouses where we used to clean the glass to improve light transmission (if you think window cleaning is hard work, try cleaning half an acre of glass) or we grew them in the middle of a field in full sunlight.
Of course they did very well in these conditions as lettuce want as much light as they can get. They don’t get scorched or sunburnt by sunshine, they thrive in it.
Vegetables to Grow Under Trees or in the Shade
As for the veg to grow under trees on the north side of a house. There are no fruit or veg I’d recommend. under trees the conditions are not only shaded but its often drier and they will also have to fight for nourishment.
As few plants are less intolerant of these conditions than others, but few will thrive under a tree in mid summer. True, it depends on the density of the canopy, but few plants will thrive in these conditions.
Some years ago I moved in to a house with a nice looking greenhouse that was slightly shaded by neighbours trees. As an experiment I planted a few tomatoes. As a retired commercial tomato grower I know a few growing tricks. But these tomatoes FAILED. They flowered but were etiolated (leggy ) plants and the flowers failed to pollinate. Rather than the 6-7 bound of fruit each plant should have given we had as few ounces. Admittedly they were tasty. But it was a waste of time. The lack of light defeated me. Don’t let it defeat you as well.
More Gardening Mistakes
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be adding a dozen or more Gardening Mistakes I see every day. Keep watching to learn more.
For more information on the terminology used here, see our Gardening Dictionary