How To Fail at Gardening – The 10 Mistakes I Made

Are you interested in learning how to fail at gardening? Chances are, probably not!

However, learning from the mistakes of others – and of course, from your own mistakes – is a great way to be successful in the future.

garden destroyed by frost (except for kale)
garden destroyed by frost (except for kale)

Take my situation, for example…

We moved to our home just a mere 10 years ago. We had no idea we wanted to be homesteaders then, let alone as self-sufficient as we are. We just wanted to raise our family, in a home with a decent sized backyard.

Who knew we would be able to turn that backyard into the ability to raise 75% of our family’s food each year? Certainly not us!

However, we have made so many mistakes along the way. And, as part of our learning, mistakes are AWESOME. They tell us what didn’t work, and give us the ability to try again.

If you want to have a productive growing season, avoid making these common mistakes.

1. Failing to Plan

The first mistake we made was we didn’t plan.

That seems to be our biggest mistake in any undertaking, the lack of thought through, and planning for the final project. We had come across some great books on square foot gardening, and thought “that’s really cool, totally for us”.

So, we put together 2 4×4 beds, and filled it with dirt from the yard. It was dry dirt, lacking any nutrients, and just plain not right for a garden.

What did we know back then, though? With two 4×4 beds, we figured that we had room for 32 plants, taking the square foot gardening very literally.

Did we plant 32 plants? Um, NO! We put over 200 plants and seeds total in those little beds, testing the ground to the fullest. It was actually amazing that we got 6 green beans and 2 carrots that year, given the amount of space those little plants had to grow.

Next year, we built more beds and tilled up some extra space to expand our garden even more.

My tip to you? Don’t get too carried away with your planning before you know for sure that you are going to have enough room for everything.

Heed those helpful little spacing guides on the back of your seed packets – they tell you everything you need to know about how densely your crops should be planted together.

2. Planting All Plants at the Same Time

Our next big mistake was thinking that we needed to plant all the plants at the same time. I had no idea that some plants needed different temperatures.

I tossed broccoli plants in at the same time as pepper and tomato plants, and lovingly planted rows of peas alongside the rows of green bean seeds.

As you can imagine, the broccoli and peas didn’t do very well, because they needed cooler weather to thrive, and the tomato plants fared a bit better. We got 20 tomatoes that year.

Don’t do what I did! Instead, research the best time to plant all of your individual seeds and seedlings, and then plant them.

If you have a hard time remembering which plants need to be planted at which times, consider drawing yourself up a nice little cheat sheet or calendar to keep track.

3. Not Respecting Water Needs

Did I mention that we didn’t think to water the garden ourselves? We thought that the rainfall was enough… (sigh)

Unless you live in the perfect world (if so, can I join you there?) The rainfall alone probably isn’t going to be enough to give your plants everything they need. Rainfall can be sporadic and iffy at best, especially in years where there is a drought.

Therefore, you should plan ahead for your irrigation needs. Figure out how much water each type of plant needs on a weekly basis and if you can, grow plants with similar watering needs close to each other. That way, you can make sure you’re providing them with the exact amount of water they need.

Don’t be afraid to cheat a little, either! Consider installing automatic sprinklers or drip irrigation lines to help take some of the manual labor out of watering your garden.

dead basil plant after frost
dead basil plant after frost

4. Planting Everything in Sight

Another mistake I made was buying about 10,000 different varieties of plants – even those I had never eaten or knew anything about.

When you have to Google, “what does a hubbard squash look like?” that’s not a great sign!

Only grow what you know you will actually eat. You don’t have to be a plant aficionado, but do your best to acquaint yourself with the basis of growing a certain type of plant before you plant it.

Similarly, don’t toss those plant tags once you plant. Those plant tags serve several purposes. One, they let you know what’s a weed and what’s a vegetable.

They also help identify areas in which plants have been seeded but haven’t yet germinated. That way, you don’t accidentally dig them up or walk all over your fresh plantings.

Also, make sure you aren’t planting anything that just won’t thrive in your climate. Just because you like okra that doesn’t mean it’s going to grow where you live! Pay attention to those growing zone requirements – they do actually mean something, you know!

5. Ignoring Your Garden Protection

Unfortunately, a vegetable garden, left unprotected, will quickly turn into a wildlife free-for-all.

Don’t do what I did, which was assuming that the mere presence of a family dog that occasionally roamed around in the backyard would deter any wildlife from visiting the garden.

I’m pretty sure I have a photograph somewhere of my dog sleeping on the back porch while a whitetailed deer nibbled on my tomato plants just a few feet away!

Instead, make sure you have a fence that can keep out all kinds of critters. A picket fence is not the best choice – remember, small animals can simply crawl over or under a fence and won’t be respected simply because of the principle that it is there.

Using an electric fence or hardware cloth will work – whatever you do, make sure you have a strong fence that will keep all kinds of wildlife away from your hard-earned harvest.

dead zucchini plants after frost
dead zucchini plants after frost

6. Neglecting Soil Health

When you plant your garden, please don’t just toss seeds into the ground and pray they take. Instead, do everything you can to foster good soil health before you plant your garden – and keep working to improve it during the growing season as well as year after year.

Test your soil prior to planting. You can buy a home test kit and do it yourself at home or you can bring a sample to your local cooperative extension.

This will give you all kinds of important information about your soil, including its nutrient content, pH value, and overall structure.

Once you know this, you know whether you need to add compost (always recommended!) or do something else to alter the pH or structure.

7. Dealing with Weeds Too Late

“I’ll weed next week,” you tell yourself, stretching out on the couch after a long day at work to catch up on some Netflix instead.

While that self-indulgent behavior is fine every once and a while, it’s definitely not something you want to catch yourself doing every week. It’s another easy way to fail at gardening, too.

The best way to deal with weeds is to prevent them from emerging in the first place. Having a healthy garden means finding ways to get weeds under control, hopefully long before they rear their ugly heads.

Putting down mulch, whether it’s an organic mulch like wood chips or straw or an inorganic one, like rocks or black plastic, is a smart move. It will not only help suppress weeds, making your weeding chores easier, but it can also help the soil retain moisture and nutrients.

Just know that even if you do take steps like putting down mulch, you’ll still need to do some weeding during the growing season.

Put weeding chores on your calendar like it’s a work obligation – this is the best way to make sure you stick to your guns and get it done.

Get out there and do a little bit every day – that way, you won’t find yourself overwhelmed by large patches of weeds that have to be removed in a single, hours-long weeding session.

8. Clumping Similar Plants Together

Another pitfall that people make when planting their gardens (and a very common one, at that) is mono-cropping. Monocropping is planting the same types of plants together with no diversity and no crop rotation.

If you plan on growing these same kinds of vegetables each year, you’ve got to move them around. Don’t plant them in the same location, as certain plants strip thes soil of vital nutrients. You’ve got to give the soil time to build itself back up before then.

Not only that, but certain pests and diseases can overwinter in the soil and impact the next generation of plants, too.

Instead, consider companion planting, which will deter pests and diseases and create more diversity in the soil biology. Your soil will become nourished rather than depleted over time – and it will be more difficult tofr pests to find your plants.

9. Relying on Miracle-Gro

My parents always used Miracle-Gro on their vegetable garden, and it had decent results. When I first started my own garden, I just assumed that was something I had to do, too.

That’s not the case!

In fact, using synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides on the garden can actually be detrimental. Too many chemicals will deplete your soil and add heavy metals and salts to your soil. They can also burn your plants.

Instead, use organic fertilizers like compost tea, worm castings, and even bat guano to nourish your plants. These fertilizers will help build your soil back up rather than depleting it.

10. Ignoring the Location

Far too many of us – myself included – make the mistake of plopping the garden wherever it is the most convenient.

Sure, you need your garden to be within easy reach of your hose, irrigation system, gardening tools, and other amenities.

However, you also need to put some thought into which location will provide your plants with exactly what they need.

Are you growing vegetables that require mostly full sunlight (spoiler alert – most vegetables need full sunlight to thrive)? Make sure the plot isn’t shaded by trees. Do your plants need moist, rich soil? Make sure they aren’t growing in cracked, dry ground.

Another issue with planting your garden too far away or in an odd location has to do with the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.”

If you can’t check on your garden on a daily basis, you won’t be able to catch serious problems. Therefore, you’ll want to consider all of these variables when deciding where the best location for your garden might be.

How to Be Successful at Gardening

The following year (our 3rd year in the house) we started to wise up.

We researched our seeds a bit better, and understood different planting times. We kept with the 4×4 beds, but added 9 more to our garden to give us more space and make it super easy to weed them.

We remembered to put poles in for the green beans to climb, stacked up the tomatoes with cages and our pepper plants loved the times we remembered to water them.

We got a “bumper crop” of veggies that year. I remember bringing in a 16 quart stock pot of tomatoes 3 different times, and the green beans that we harvested was enough for our family to enjoy all summer long. If only we had thought about sunshine exposure for our plants.

See, our garden was on the northside of our yard at the time.

Overlooking our beautiful garden that year were two old oak trees that shaded the garden most of the day after 1PM as well.

Sure, the sun didn’t beat down on the plants during the hottest parts of the day, but they were not getting enough light to really do well. At least we remembered to water the garden on a regular basis, right?

Finally, we moved our garden beds to the south side of our yard.

There were also no trees shading the area, so it got full sunlight each day. We remembered to water the plants daily if needed, and remembered to water them well so that they were fully saturated.

Our research and planning had gotten much better, and we felt very confident about starting our own plants from seeds that year. We bought one of those little seed starter kits from our home and garden store, and planted some seeds.

Of course, the seedlings had barely grown big enough to handle the outside, but we put them out there anyway when we felt the time was right. We had totally forgotten to harden off the seedlings and give them a fighting chance to survive.

That was an expensive year for us, because not only had we invested in seeds and seed starters, we wound up buying all our plants anyway since the seedlings didn’t survive.

We had to learn each year from our previous year’s failures.

The thing is, we didn’t give up. No matter what, we had to keep trying. Learning what worked and what didn’t work was the best thing for us. Each year, we took away both successes and failures and made it better the following year.

It really helped us understand the entire process, and gave us the tools we needed to be far more successful.

garden failures

5 thoughts on “How To Fail at Gardening – The 10 Mistakes I Made”

  1. Michelle Andrews Cusick

    One of our gardening failures: Planted potatoes in the shade of just 6 sunflowers. They shaded maybe 4 feet of a 25 ft row and were shaded only from 3pm on. Wouldn’t think it would make much difference, right? Wrong. Those taters in that tiny bit of late afternoon shade yielded about half of what the rest of the row did. It amazed us. We don’t make this mistake anymore. We LOVE learning as we go. Love keeping notes and Love trying to better things the next year ’round.

  2. Michelle Andrews Cusick

    Another one of our gardening failure (can you see a pattern here?): We planted legumes 2 years ago. We had a measly 4 ft. trellis. I think it was just some wooden stakes with line strung. We got enough beans to fill an old spaghetti sauce jar. That was from a 25ft. row. Seems like such a waste of space as i look back on it. But we sure did learn a lot from it. The next year we planted two 25 ft. rows with a trellis that went overhead and created a wonderful tunnel. We harvested two 5 gallon buckets of beans. Wow. What a difference. Once we got them all shelled…..i think we ended up with 3 gallon of beans.

  3. Nice article! If I could write down all my gardening mistakes …. ha-ha Very helpful article for the newbies in the garden, Heather! Well done!

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