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Up to 90% of new gardeners give up because of these common gardening mistakes. Here are ways to avoid them and to successfully grow your own food
When I started up my plot at our allotment site, it was a grassy field with baling twine outlining plots. Everyone was a beginner, and the enthusiasm was thick in the air. It had taken hard work and determination to get the site going, and everyone was excited to finally start. That first year, the grass was turfed away from many of the plots, and gardens started taking shape. I was so excited to be a part of it.
Within about eighteen months, I found myself graduating from newbie allotmenteer to association secretary. I held that role for eleven years, and within that time, ninety percent of the people who started up that first year with me left. In the time since then, I’ve witnessed half of all new gardeners throwing in the spade within two years. After watching folks come and go, I have an idea of their challenges and advice that might keep beginners passionate about growing. These are some of the common gardening mistakes I’ve seen and advice on how to avoid them.
Common Gardening Mistakes
Before we continue, please consider the following as my opinion as an experienced gardener. I’m a fan of no-dig gardening, organic gardening practices, and not slavishly tending a plot every day. I love my garden, but I think you must have a life too! I’m sure that other people would have a different list of what they think the most common gardening mistakes are. If you have any biggies to add, I welcome your comment at the bottom of this piece.
The mistakes I continue on with are usually easily avoided by changing perspective, keeping things simple, or learning about a particular topic. I truly believe that if you can tackle these garden challenges, your success as a gardener will be on the rise!
1. Not Eating Crops
It sounds ridiculous to grow things that you and your family won’t eat, but it’s amazingly common. Whether it’s Brussels sprouts or turnips, make sure you’re not wasting space and time growing veg that’s just going to be wasted. Every year I see so much food being wasted at our site. Cabbages left to rot and swedes and beetroot swelling to massive sizes and becoming too woody to eat. Look at your recent shopping list, think about your favorite recipes, and make a to-grow list based on what you know will get eaten.
2. Sowing Seeds Too Early
It’s those weeks before spring, and you’re itching to crack open those packets of seeds and get them sown. Now, each packet states a sowing time that may stretch across two or three months. It could even say that the seeds can be sown year-round. As a beginner, you’ll be eager to get those seeds sown at the absolute earliest time. However, seed packets aren’t always reliable with early seed sowing times, and if you sow too early, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Check to see if there is information on sowing times for your Hardiness Zone and find out when the right time to start sowing outdoors will be for you and your soil. Here’s more on the first seeds to sow.
3. Sowing Seeds All At Once
Take advantage of succession sowing. All this means is that instead of sowing all the seeds in your packet at once, you sow a little every few weeks. Think of sowing a long row of lettuce and watching them all grow beautifully and then mature all at once. You’re not going to get through it all before they start bolting.
I’ve made this common gardening mistake myself, and you can’t imagine how sick you’ll be of eating salads, spinach, zucchini (courgettes), or anything else. You’ll be giving your hard-earned harvest away because it’s just not possible to take another look at it. Try to sow little and often for crops that don’t store well or that you’re not planning on preserving or freezing.
4. Not Using Mulch
When I first started gardening, I completely ignored the use of mulch. Mainly because I didn’t understand it and why it’s important. Mulch is any organic material that you lay directly on the soil to feed it with nutrients, protect it from erosion, stop weeds from sprouting, and lock moisture in. If you don’t use mulch, then your garden and back will probably suffer for it. I see it all the time in our allotment.
The mulch you use will be different based on your climate. Various types include straw, mushroom compost, garden compost, seaweed, cardboard, and well-rotted manure. I tend to use the latter for most of my gardening because it works in my wet and cool climate. One year I tried using straw, popular in drier climates and ended up with about a million slugs making themselves at home underneath. Ask gardeners in your area what they’re using and begin with that.
Last year, I started no-dig gardening, which means not digging the soil at all and using lots of mulch. It was my best gardening year ever. I did less weeding, watering, and work, and my harvests were better than any previous one. All I did was lay a couple of inches of compost on the soil and plant directly into it. Each autumn, I’ll continue to add a couple more inches of compost, and that’s it. You can even sow carrots directly into compost laid in this way, and they will not fork.
5. Trying to clear land by hand
If you’ve taken on a neglected plot or are starting from scratch, you may as a beginner, try to clear it by hand. Usually, with a lot of digging involved! It’s back-breaking work; honestly, it’s much better to use weed suppressants and mulches. You can reduce the amount of weeding you’ll need to do by stopping weeds from growing in the first place. The best and most eco-friendly way to do this is by using compost, seaweed, natural fiber carpets, plastic sheeting, and other weed-suppressant material to cover the soil. My favorite method is using black plastic to kill weeds.
6. Ignoring Situation
Situation is how the land your garden is on sits in relation to the sun, wind, shading elements, and other environmental factors. Ignore these, and you can end up trying to grow plants in hostile conditions. For example, if your garden only gets partial sun, you might have to grow edibles tolerating lower light conditions. On the other hand, you could have a plot that receives sun all day long but it’s exposed to high winds and other environmental challenges.
Find out which direction your plot faces, how much sun it gets, if there are any possible frost pockets, and if you need to build windbreaks before you start planting. A little prior planning can make the difference between a disappointing harvest and a bountiful one.
7. Not Knowing the Main Pests & Weeds
Pests and weeds will be different from site to site, and understanding what you’re up against will be key to succeeding at growing your own. When you begin gardening, the best thing to do is ask your neighbors about what they’ve been dealing with. Also, ask them about their most successful ways of combating weeds and pests. You can then do further research and find out if you’d like to try a different solution.
At our site, one main weed affects everyone – dock. The roots of this plant are long and thick, and even the smallest piece can sprout into a new plant. So imagine what happened when a few of our new members decided to rotovate their plots. Their entire patches soon became infested with this tough weed, leading to plot abandonment. It is not the best outcome for either the allotmenteer or the allotment association.
A personal challenge of mine over the years has been combating carrot root fly, which is a fly that lays eggs on the ground at the base of carrots. The larvae, when hatched, burrow through your carrots, making them completely inedible. I found that laying Enviromesh over the top of my carrots is extremely successful in keeping these pesky insects away from my crop.
8. Not Understanding Soil
There are many types of soil, but there are two main ways of categorizing it. The first is testing soil pH and understanding if it’s acid, neutral, or alkaline. These will determine which plants will like the taste of your soil and if they’ll grow well. Soil consistency and particle types are described as clay, chalk, loam, silt, sand, and peat. Each of these will have attributes that describe how free draining, and nutrient-rich the soil is. You can find out what type of soil you have with a soil test kit and by having a look at the soil itself.
If you find that you have challenging soil, you can amend it by adding garden lime and mushroom compost to neutralize acidity. You add higher acidity manures and compost to your soil to make it more acidic. Reaching your ideal soil type may take years, so the alternative is to build raised beds and fill them with soil and compost that reach your (and your crops’) expectations.
No-dig gardening, where you simply lay mulch on the soil, is often all you need to do to have great garden soil. It’s all about feeding and protecting the soil, and as a result, you’ll have bountiful harvests. A book I recommend on the topic is No-Dig Organic Home & Garden.
9. Only Growing Annual Crops
While seed sowing is exciting, it involves time and effort. While annual crops do need sowing every year, why not grow perennials, too, and reduce the work? Perennial vegetables are crops that regrow again yearly, requiring less work and time. I actually don’t grow spring onions anymore because I discovered Welsh onions, which are like giant chives. They can be used as spring onions, taste virtually identical, and you can rest assured that they’ll come up year after year with very little interference from you. Other perennial vegetables and fruits you can grow in a temperate garden are asparagus, raspberries, and rhubarb.
10. Working Too Hard
Many of us are guilty of working far too hard in the garden, especially in spring. You head to the garden and end up spending a full day digging, weeding, tidying, and planting, and by the end, it looks great. However, your body may not function properly for a few days. Then you get caught up in life and work, and two or three weeks pass before you’re able to work in the garden again. You visit your plot, and it’s like that full day of work never happened.
Weeds are everywhere; your seeds don’t appear to have grown (probably because of pests), and you feel absolutely deflated. Getting into a routine of working in your garden for thirty minutes to an hour a few times a week is far better than a full eight hours every couple of weeks. You’re better able to tackle any challenges as they arise, and you spare your body from overexertion.
11. Taking On Too Much
Sometimes, when an allotment plot becomes too much to take care of, I see folks giving up completely. It’s natural to want to have a large plot of land to grow on. However, it will be difficult to maintain unless you’re retired or don’t work a conventional job. So opt for a smaller space at first and then expand after that first season if you feel you could handle more. Another alternative is to find a friend who’d like to garden with you. You could take turns working on weeding, pest control, staking, watering, and all the other tasks that contribute to a fruitful growing space.
12. Only Growing Standard Veg
Sticking with bog-standard vegetables and methodology is one of the most common gardening mistakes. This is something that both beginners and more experienced gardeners should consider. Growing tried and tested varieties is great, especially if you’re growing what you like to eat. But as a green thumb, you have the opportunity to grow more unusual veg. Using them in new dishes can put a bit of a spark into your gardening and meal plans. Unusual varieties I’m planning on growing this year are the New Zealand yam, purple cauliflower, and achocha.
13. No Garden Advisors
When I first started getting into growing, none of my friends were gardeners. That meant I didn’t have access to other people’s experiences, advice, or help. If none of your current pals are growers, join gardening Facebook groups, clubs, and make gardening friends at the allotment. It’s amazing what you can learn from others; their stories will help motivate you to continue growing your own.
14. Spending Too Much Money
One of the most common gardening mistakes is throwing a lot of money at it initially. It’s so easy to go overboard on spending, and before you know it, you’ve spent hundreds on fancy garden tools, gardening clothes, plants, and magazine subscriptions. If you aim to grow fruit and veg to save money, this can be very bad. Here’s my advice on saving money on some of the main things that you’ll need:
Look at the selection of books at your local library first. The local one here has an excellent selection, and if you find a book that resonates with you, try to find a used copy online. Chances are that you’re going to take it to the garden with you and get it dirty anyway. If you’d like to get a copy of my book, you can find it here.
There are only a few things that I feel you absolutely need to get started growing your own, and these include high quality:
- Hori Hori knife for smaller holes/planting and weeding (best tool ever!)
- Garden fork for general digging
- Spade for digging holes (much better than a shovel)
- Garden rake for raking soil smooth
- Dutch hoe for easy hoeing
As for clothing, invest in a pair of durable wellies and thick-soled boots suitable for garden work. The rest should just be comfortable clothes you already have and that you don’t mind getting stained or damaged. I’d also recommend that you get a garden hat that protects your face from the sun, form-fitting garden gloves for ordinary garden work, and thicker gloves for when you’re pruning or doing heavier work. Don’t forget to use insect repellent if you have an issue with mosquitoes or midges, and wear sunblock on any exposed skin.
Saving on Seeds
You can save a lot of money on seeds if you attend or organize a Community Seed Swap. It works because everyone brings in extra seeds and swaps them against new ones. Beginners with no seeds are encouraged to come too and to leave a small donation (20p per packet) if they take any seeds or plants.
If you can’t find a seed-sharing event in your area, there are also online seed swaps and gardening society discounts with seed companies. Every year I arrange an allotment seed order for our members, and packets of seeds are often half or a third of the price you’d find being sold commercially. You can also find free seeds at seed swaps, in gardening magazines, or with friends and family.
On a recent trip to see how prisoners at our local prison grow food, I found that many of their crops were from free seeds from magazines. They were also collecting seeds from kitchen scraps — all the peppers you’ll see growing in the polytunnel in the video tour were grown that way.
Saving on Plants
This is where you can end up spending an absolute fortune. It’s easy to be tempted by plants in a garden center, and sometimes it’s actually more economical to buy plug plants than packets of seeds. However, in most cases, it’s more cost-effective to grow from seed. If the plant is challenging to grow from seed or a perennial, I’d consider it, but if it’s an annual that’s easy to grow, start it from seed.
15. Giving Up Gardening
You might feel overwhelmed or defeated, or maybe you’ve had a change in personal circumstances. Take a break, maybe, consider your options, get help from friends, but just keep at it. Every year in the garden is different, and there will come a time when you really have some bad luck. Stick to it, though, and know that everyone encounters challenges in the garden. Try to keep yourself focused on successes rather than failures, and just keep on growing. You might have made every one of these aforementioned common gardening mistakes, but you can learn from them and make next year even better!