While the actual experience of gardening will always be our best teacher, those of us who want our gardens to support local eco-systems can avoid some regrets (great and small) by using these practical tips.
If you are on a tight budget, also see these 10 Garden Mistakes That Waste Money.
Beginner Garden Tips To Avoid Blunders
We could read all the best garden advice and watch every how-to video and there would still be no better teacher than the actual experience of gardening itself.
Season by season, year by year, by getting out there and sowing seeds, growing plants, observing the life cycles of fauna and flora—and their intricate interconnectedness, we slowly and surely start to understand the garden and our place in it.
The whole thing is a lifelong journey unlike anything else we do.
But what about the bloopers? What about all the ways we make gardening harder than it needs to be? Or—worse—the things we do (often innocently) that waste time or money or end up causing lasting damage or other problems?
I’m talking about you, invasive plants! And you, tainted soil!
With all the highs and lows that come with varying climate and weather, pests and diseases, trial and error, the last thing we need is to (unknowingly) cause more struggles—especially the ones that bring lasting harm, not just to our own little patches of earth, but our ecosystems as a whole.
These are just a few tips I wish I’d known when I was starting out—they could have prevented a number of bloopers both great and small.
1Say Thanks But No Thanks To Fast-Growing Free Plants
If your neighbor says they “grow like crazy” and there are lots to spare, assume any free plants offered are invasive unless proven otherwise.
This is my top gardening regret of all time. When I was starting out, I was offered all sorts of free plants from well-meaning friends.
When we’re new to something like gardening, it’s natural to assume others with more experience know better.
But no! If only life worked this way. There are as many different approaches to gardening as there are gardeners.
And, if there’s one thing we know about gardeners, we treasure our plants. No one is giving away anything unless they are exceptionally plentiful—and that’s a key trait with invasive plants. They grow like mad and there’s lots to spare.
Every single invasive plant I accidentally introduced to my first garden was a freebie. I still have goutweed guilt and mint nightmares all these years later.
Don’t assume your gardening friend is well-informed. Kind-hearted, yes. But ecologically astute and up-to-date on invasive plants? Not necessarily.
It’s your job, should you choose to accept this mission, to identify and research everything you bring into your garden to be sure it’s truly suited to your region and growing conditions, benefits local wildlife, and is not invasive or unacceptably aggressive.
And, if that’s not enough, we also have to be mindful of any soil that comes along for the ride.
Not only can soil, mulch, and compost include things like destructive herbicide residue or unwanted seeds, we now have the added worry of invasive jumping worms that are spreading throughout North America. The possible transport of both the worms and their eggs in growing medium—or on the bottom of our shoes from one garden to the next—is a real threat to our natural habitat.
Our job is to be on alert for invasive plant and animal species and prevent their spread. And that can mean saying no to well-meaning friends.
2Save The Sunny Spots For Fruits
Give fruits and fruiting vegetables top priority for full-sun locations.
While we may grow all sorts of plants that like a lot of sun (six hours a day or more), it’s important to give top priority to plants that must have it.
Top of the list are any fruiting plants on a deadline. These are things like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, and squashes that, within the time available between last frost in spring and first frost in fall, need to grow, flower, be pollinated, fruit—and have time for the fruit to mature. If sun is not adequate throughout these stages, the harvest may be a bust.
Alternately, non-fruiting vegetables like leafy greens—all the food crops that do not require pollinators—neither require nor should have all that sun. These are crops that are edible any time and less likely to bolt if kept out of direct sun.
Other sun-loving plants like many flowering perennials may do best with full sun but can still flower with part-sun conditions—it may just take a little longer.
So, if space is limited, save the sun for the plants that can’t reach their full, fruity potential without it.
This explains full sun, part sun, part shade, and shade and provides tips to assess the sun conditions in your garden.
3Prepare The Destination Before Transplanting
Wait to dig up and divide plants until their new site is ready.
One of the best things about growing perennials is how, after a few years of growth, they are often big enough to divide and transplant, providing free new plants for other parts of the garden.
For best success, prepare the new planting site first. Then divide and transplant your perennials. This greatly reduces the stress on the plant because you can swiftly move it from A to B without delays. When done right, the plant won’t even know it was moved.
4Keep Your Garden Functional
Locate faucets where you need them and use good hoses.
There’s always this dance between keeping a garden “tidy” and functional. If you are constantly wrestling with water hoses and spending too much time unravelling, unkinking, and lugging them about, consider making some changes.
- Invest in food-safe, lightweight, less-prone-to-kinking hoses.
- Move faucets and rain barrels where they make sense.
- Add decorative hose guards to prevent plants from getting crushed.
Some changes may require the help of a plumber, but it’s also an opportunity to improve your set up and winterize pipes as needed.
Ultimately, we’re far more likely to take care of necessary, routine tasks if they are easy to do.
5Don’t Assume You Must Dig or Till
Plant directly without disturbing the soil whenever possible.
For decades we were told you need to dig up and turn soil before sowing or planting, either by hand or using a rototiller.
But is this necessary?
Of course we need to dig a hole to place plant roots in the ground, but, beyond that, depending on your soil, digging and tilling may not be necessary at all.
Why disturb the soil structure or use a diesel-fueled motor if you don’t need to?
If you can easily sow or plant with minimum effort, go for it. This is what no-dig gardening is all about.
Ruth Stout was a favorite free-thinking gardener who adopted no-dig methods years ahead of her time.
6Get To Know Your Plants & Animals
Identify what you have to make informed choices.
It’s never been easier to identify plants and animals in the garden. The old reflex is to see an unfamiliar, strange plant or cluster of insects and assume trouble is brewing.
The new, eco-friendly approach is to first find out what you’re dealing with, determine if it really is a problem, and, if so, is any treatment justified?
A free app like Google Lens on your phone lets you take a photo and instantly search for matches online. While not perfect (no ID app is), it’s a handy way to potentially find out what you have. From there, learn about its lifecycle and its place in the garden.
My two favorite garden remedies are doing nothing and procrastination. It’s amazing how many problems take care of themselves naturally over time.
One day you find “pests”. A while later their natural predators appear. Thank you, Nature!
For other things like invasive species (spongy moths are the newest concern here), there may be few if any current solutions other than manual removal. Other moths are beneficial to nature.
The first step is to learn what’s going on. Step two is to look at the bigger picture and make informed decisions.
7Mark Your Harvest Dates
Along with plant names, list estimated harvest dates on plant tags.
It’s very helpful to use plant tags or markers to keep track of plant varieties in the garden—particularly when you grow new and unfamiliar vegetables each year like I do. Take it a step further for fruiting crops by also listing the estimated harvest date on the tag.
As gardeners we tend to be incredibly enthusiastic about sowing and planting early in the growing season but lose interest as the summer gets hot and the weeks go by.
By having harvest dates listed right in the garden, you can snap to attention and know when to pick what—catching crops at the right time and avoiding food waste.
8Test Seeds First When Failure Is Not An Option
Before the main growing season, test old seeds for viability.
Most seeds remain viable in their first year. After that it depends on the type of seed and how you store them. But most of us also have seeds that are several years old or more and it’s impossible to know if they will sprout without sowing them.
Winter is the perfect time to conduct some seed germination tests indoors at home (it’s easy). Find out which ones are viable and replace the rest with fresh seeds so you’re good to go.
9Put Traditional Companion Planting Advice At The Bottom Of The Priority List
Give plants what we know they need—the rest sorts itself out.
Traditional companion planting tips are deeply rooted in folklore, not facts. The whole “carrots love tomatoes” thing is not helpful planting advice.
Instead of worrying about what you plant next to what, prioritize the essentials.
Every type of plant prefers certain soil, water, and light conditions with the right spacing so the roots have room to grow and access nutrients. Your seed packets and plant tags or a trustworthy garden site can provide this information.
By following the recommendations, everything sorts itself out. Plants end up right where they belong because you’re providing the conditions they need. That’s true companionship!
This article on Science-Based Companion Planting Tips For Growing Vegetables by Jessica Walliser offers additional ideas.
10Avoid Strange and Cringe-worthy Tips
If it sounds too good to be true—or seems bizarre or counter-productive, don’t do it.
There are so many odd, ridiculous, gross, and illogical tips shared daily in the gardening world that it’s impossible to keep track.
And, as stewards of the earth, we are setting the bar way too low if our only concern is: does this [product/spray/remedy/solution] work?
The other part of the equation is, how will this affect the eco-system?
Here are some examples of cringe-worthy tips that do not pass the test.
Use a clean diaper in potted plants to retain moisture
Ug! Whether it might work or not, the bigger issue is—diapers do not belong in soil or potting mix and the world does not need more diaper garbage.
So what if a diaper holds water: what they heck would you do with the diaper-infused potting mix at the end of the growing season? It certainly doesn’t belong in the garden.
Just use good organic potting mix —stuff that you can eventually add to your compost bin or a garden bed without any worries.
Make DIY weed killers using household products
Just because something is found in our kitchen cupboards does not mean it is effective or harmless when used in the garden. In fact, it’s very likely not. Stuff like excess salt (sodium chloride) and dish soap just do not belong in nature. Period.
It’s also important to accept that there are not quick or easy solutions to all garden problems. Sometimes things go badly and cannot be controlled. I’d rather accept this than mess things up further.
Repel mosquitoes with certain plants
If a garden has mosquitoes, what in the world could “repellent” plants really do?
If a plant is truly repellent (which in itself is questionable), where do we think the pests will go? It’s not like a citronella plant is going to send mosquitoes to your neighbor’s place! The whole idea is illogical. If anything, a plant with repellent traits will just keep the critters from that plant—and potentially bring them closer to us!
The best we can do to reduce mosquito populations (without doing other harm) is to provide habitat for natural mosquito predators and reduce sitting water so the mosquitoes have fewer places to lay their eggs. But, in the end, there will still be mosquitoes—which also happen to be a key food source for bats, fish, birds, lizards, frogs, and more.
Yes, the spread of diseases like malaria via mosquitoes is very serious but we’re not going to solve anything with “mosquito-repelling” plants.
There are lots more examples like this here: Popular Garden Myths We’ve All Fallen For.
Eco-Beneficial Gardening Books
Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants | Doug Tallamy
Garden Allies: The Insects, Birds, & Other Animals that Keep Your Garden Beautiful and Thriving | Frederique Lavoipierre
The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife (How to Create a Sustainable and Ethical Garden that Promotes Native Wildlife, Plants, and Biodiversity) | Nancy Lawson
The Pollinator Victory Garden | Kim Eierman
A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators: Ontario and Great Lakes Edition | Lorraine Johnson, Sheila Colla | All the information gardeners need to take action to support and protect pollinators, by creating habitat in yards and community spaces, on balconies and boulevards, everywhere!
These tips are all founded in the idea that we can aim to grow a garden that leaves the earth better than we found it. I hope you’ve found some inspiration.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
Kitchen Propagation Handbook
7 Fruits & Vegetables To Regrow As Houseplants
by Melissa J. Will
Learn how to grow houseplants from avocado, oranges, lemons, ginger, and more using leftover pits, seeds, and roots.
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