It wasn’t too long ago that I started my first garden. I researched what I thought I needed to know, but there were some things I just didn’t realize I needed to know. You know, one of those – you don’t know what you don’t know – moments.
Now that I have more experience and have chatted with lots of gardeners with at least a few years of experience, I’m here to help!
This is a round-up of questions and answers shared by many gardeners to help you avoid the most common mistakes. It’s what we all wish we knew when we first started. Learn from our mistakes and save yourself some time, energy, food and money!
Should I Buy Prepared Soil or Make My Own?
I recommend starting with a mix of equal parts soil and compost and about one third part manure. Do your research before buying each product by looking at the company online or asking for recommendations from a trusted garden store.
I don’t recommend using your own soil if you’ve used any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides around your hard, or if you don’t know if the owners before you did. If you aren’t in a rush, sheet mulching is my favorite option for preparing in-ground beds.
If you are starting with a large space, I highly recommendation buying in bulk from a local soil company that you trust. Most big cities have high quality soil companies that offer soil and soil amendments in bulk, either to be delivered or picked up.
Any experienced gardener will tell you the same thing – soil is THE most important part of your garden. Learn more about what to include in – and put on top of – your soil here.
How Far Apart Should I Space My Plants?
The seed packet gives you this information. The spacing varies depending on the specific plant and variety, and this will either be written under Planting Spacing (not the row spacing), or it will be written under Seed Spacing and then Thinning, or Final Spacing. For example, my Green Towers romaine lettuce says 1 inch under Seed Spacing and then 8-10 inches under Plant Spacing After Thinning. This means you would sprinkle down a seed per every inch at planting and then, after the plants are a few inches tall, select the strongest ONE to remain for the final spacing of one plant. Personally, I pay attention to the final spacing and my previous knowledge. I don’t love to thin my plants because, to me, it feels wasteful. I’d rather let as many as I can get full-grown, at least for now.
I’ve had gardeners ask me if they really should space their plants out as much as it says on the seed packet. This is usually with plants that get larger and they are unsure since it seems like so much space. For example, my Summer Squash seed packet says 18-30” for the final plant spacing. That would take up about 4 squares if you are using the square foot gardening method. If you only have one raised bed, that could potentially be half of your growing space. Even still, don’t ignore it! The spacing is referring to the plant at maturity. When the squash plant is full grown, trust me, it will need at least 30” between plantings.
If you are following the square foot method, use the seed packet as a guide for each square foot and be sure to look at the final spacing or thinning section for the spacing at maturity. If your packet says 3” per planting spacing, you can fit 16 seeds in one square foot. It helps to think of it as a multiplication array – 4 across and 4 down. Here’s a quick guide for the square foot method:
- 3” apart, plant 16 per square foot
- 4” apart, plant 9 per square foot
- 6” apart, plant 4 per square foot
- 12” apart, plant 1 per square foot
As with everything, this is just a guide. Learn as you go and see what works for your space and your needs.
What Can I Plant Now?
Planting seeds during the wrong time of year is a super common mistake for beginner gardeners, and I am definitely guilty of making it. I jumped in head first with whatever sounded delicious to grow and then I learned that some plants just can’t take the heat while others are sweeter after a frost. Head here to learn what you can grow when and save yourself some time (and food)!
Where is the Best Location to Put My Garden?
It’s easy to pick the prettiest spot in your yard and decide it is the best spot for your new garden. I think loads of gardeners have started out that way. Another common mistake is selecting your growing space during one season that won’t work during another. For example, in the winter that large tree in your backyard may not have leaves, but come summer, it will turn those sunny spots shady. Now that you know, you can avoid those errors. How? Observe your space and select a spot in full sun for your edibles.
Most edibles are annuals that need full sun. If you are growing perennials or you just aren’t sure, read up on the plant and variety to learn its needs. Seed packets and plant labels usually say if a plant needs full sun, partial shade or all shade. If not, you can research it online.
Which spot gets full sun is just one of the questions you will want to ask yourself before selecting the placement of your garden. Head here and read step 3 – prioritize. It outlines every question you will want to ask yourself before deciding on the location of your new garden.
Should I Buy Seeds or Transplants?
This is a great question to ask at the beginning of your gardening journey. The answer depends on what you want to grow. This article outlines the best plants to buy as transplants and which plants are best to buy as seeds.
How Big Should My Garden Be?
Whether you are starting with a raised bed or an in-ground bed, make sure you don’t surpass 4 feet for the width. This will allow you to weed, amend the soil, plant/sow seeds and harvest without having to step on the soil.
As far as depth goes, you want it to be at least one foot deep. You won’t always grow shallow rooted plants nor will you always grow deep rooted plants. Twelve inches gives you some flexibility, and you can always add more height if needed.
How Do I Read a Seed Packet?
It’s so easy to overlook all the information on a seed packet when you are starting out. I know I did it. I looked at the picture, read the front and, most likely, bought some without ever turning the packet over to glance at the back. Those little packets are usually packed with everything you need to know for the growing season of the plant, minus pest issues. Head here and learn how to read a packet and what all of it means!
How Do I Keep Rodents Out of My Garden?
There are loads of ideas online for how to do this but honestly, I think the only way to be sure is to cover your garden for awhile. It might seem crazy but it also might be the only organic solution.
If you plant seeds, use hardware cloth to cover the beds afterwards, so the squirrels and other critters can’t dig them up. Squirrels, in particular, love fresh soil or beds where soil was recently tilled. Apparently, they also LOVE beans, squash, cucumbers, eggplant and tomatoes. If possible, cover these with netting, chicken wire, hardware cloth, summerweight garden fabric or tulle.
Overall, I like using tulle the best – it allows you to see the garden but keeps out all pests. It has been especially helpful for me when growing Brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens and kale. If grasshoppers are an issue, you will need to make sure the tulle isn’t touching the plants, because they can chew right through it. I’m not sure if squirrels will do the same, but I haven’t heard of it.
If deer are an issue for you, this episode of Growing a Greener World walks you through what works and what doesn’t work for gardeners in deer country.
As you can tell, there is a LOT to learn about gardening, which means there are many mistakes to be made. Hopefully this will help you avoid some of them, but don’t be afraid to mess up. We all have at one time or another – that’s part of it!
As I’ve mentioned before, I love that I will probably never know all there is to know about growing my own food. For starters, there’s just not enough time (or space for me!) to grow everything. Learning as you go is part of the fun! Experiment, observe and ENJOY the journey!