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Getting Started,  Plan - Design - DIY

15 Mistakes to Avoid in the Garden

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Every “mistake” made in the garden is a learning opportunity! While encountering challenges and stumbling over little pitfalls can be very frustrating, it is also one of the best ways to adapt and improve – in both your outlook and skills! So let’s move forward together with that mindset, okay?  

Even the most experienced gardeners have mishaps. Some are self-inflicted, and some by the hands of mother nature. That is one of the many wonderful things about gardening ~ it is a hobby that enables lifelong learning, patience, and passion! If you stick with it, you will be rewarded in more than just nutritious homegrown food.  

We have personally experienced all of the things listed below at one time or another in our gardening journey! Whether you’re new to gardening or have been at it for a few seasons, I hope I can help you learn from some of our mistakes. Because while I am here preaching that it is totally okay to make mistakes, why not help you avoid some right from the get-go?

Let’s get on with it then!

The Preventable Mistakes

1) Being afraid to make mistakes

The number one mistake you will ever make as a gardener is being afraid of making mistakes. I may sound like a broken record here, but bear with me! I could have also reworded this one to say something like “being afraid to take risks”, or even, “over-thinking things”. When it comes to gardening, perfection is not the goal. That’s not the way nature intended it!

Not all of the tips, tricks, and methods that work for one garden or gardener will translate well or work the same for another. Everyone has their preferences and opinions, along with their own unique climates to contend with. While there are certainly some “best practices” and things to avoid, which we’ll discuss today, so much of gardening is creative and individual! It’s a pretty personal journey. Some of the things I share in this blog are what we have come to prefer, but maybe you want to try to do something differently. And that is 100% okay!

We started gardening back before the days of Insta-advice, gardening blogs (that I knew of), and endless google articles. We sort of figured it out as we went. Things were messy, but fun! The rise of easily accessible information is awesome, and can certainly help you kick off with a strong start. However, there always seems to be a bit of conflicting information out there too! Don’t let yourself get too worried or confused over this. The best remedy is to dive in and get your hands dirty. Try what makes sense for you and your situation, and give it a shot!

2) Giving up

If things don’t work out as planned, assess and re-adjust. Do not allow yourself to feel like you’ve failed! Encountering one or two little mishaps doesn’t mean you have a black thumb, or that you’re cursed to never have a flourishing, productive garden. Don’t give up!

Instead, do a little research, talk to a friend who also gardens, or even reach out to me here to see if we can figure out what went wrong! Use the frustration as fuel to come back and kick ass next time.

This especially applies to things that theoretically should have worked well in your garden but did not, for some reason or another. For example, if you have issues growing tomatoes or squash, but you know damn well they grow in your area! Yet if you attempted something pretty unrealistic, like plant a banana tree outside in Minnesota, well… Yeah, you might wanna just give up on that one. We will talk more about growing for your zone in number 9.

I am practicing what I preach in this regard as we speak! We have had a crummy couple of attempts at growing cucumbers in the past. They did okay, gave us a few cukes, but certainly nothing spectacular. So we basically gave up on them, and didn’t attempt to grow them at all in the last couple summer gardens. But guess what? We really like cucumbers. And if I am giving you this advice here, I need to take it myself! So we ordered seed for cucumber varieties that are known to mature early and in cooler conditions (which is what I think was part of our issue – our cool foggy summers) and have a bunch of cuke seedlings getting ready for spring in the greenhouse now! We’re giving it another go.

A hand holding a 4" seedling pot, which has a small cucumber seedling plant in it. The seedling is about 6 inches tall and has several sets of leaves. The photo is taken in a home greenhouse, with trays of other small homegrown seedlings in the background on wood benches.
Hi, little cuke baby! Long time no see! Are you gonna play nice with us this year?

3) Being afraid of change

Sometimes, to reach a desired result, some things have to first change to get there. This may include killing some plants along the way. Yes, you read that right.

When we first moved into this house, there were not too many established plants – but there were some. Randomly placed here and there, and most of them were not what we consider desirable or useful – not edible, not native, not flowering for the pollinators. So, many of them had to go, including a couple small trees that were pretty sad looking anyways.

If a tree, shrub, lawn, paver patio, or hell, even part of a driveway, needs to GO in order for you to bring your more-productive, much-improved, dream garden to life, then do it! Of course I am not advocating that we all go cut down every tree on our properties. Trim them back if that helps give you more sun. I feel okay about the couple we did have to remove, because I know we more than offset their loss with everything else we have added in their place. One of them was even repurposed into a big roosting tree inside the chicken run!

All of this applies to things you planted or constructed yourself too. It is kind of obnoxious to do and then re-do or change things, but sometimes it must be done. A garden is a fluid, ever-evolving place!

Here is a recent example in our yard:

We created this stone pollinator island (shown below) just last February, planted with all sorts of perennials and with two dwarf citrus trees. It has filled in wonderfully! Almost too much, however. The lavender, shown in front closest to the chickens, has grown much bigger than we anticipated. Despite cutting it back routinely, it is crowding out the small kumquat tree behind it (that you can’t even see). I also don’t love how it’s blocking the view of the rest of plants in the island. Even though it is beautiful and the bees love it, it’s gonna have to go. Soon.

The lavender might be able to be salvaged though! Depending on their size and how established they are, many plants can be safely transplanted to a new location. This is particularly true if you are able to carefully dig out a large area around and under their root ball, minimizing the amount that is cut and damaged. We have successfully done this with small fruit trees even!

I haven’t figured out its new spot yet, but that is the plan for this lavender. Once it is gone, the kumquat will be happier. We will also have more space to plant annuals there, like zinnias, sunflowers, cosmos or other beautiful additions for the birds, bees, and butterflies. It will be a net win.

A stone raised bed full of flowering shrubs, with chickens in the foreground and fruit trees in the background.
Removing the lavender will be bittersweet, but think of all the more petite flowering plants that can go in its place! Another example of a change we we made in this yard is beyond the island. See the now-bare fig tree, right under the sunburst? When we moved, an apple tree was growing there. But the apples were gross and mealy red apples we didn’t care much for, and the tree didn’t seem very healthy. So we cut it down. It’s now the roost tree inside the girls run, and our absolute favorite, best-producing, gorgeous Desert King fig tree grows in its place.

4) More garden than you can handle

Do you dream of a lush garden, overflowing with every fruit and vegetable imaginable? Do you see yourself walking through its paths, basket in hand, plucking up all the items needed to make a full four-course meal? Yes! I mean, who doesn’t?! Never give up on that dream! But if you are new to gardening, please come back and join us on planet earth for a moment here first.

When you’re just getting started, shoot for something small and realistic. The larger the garden, the more time and resources it will take to tend to. Going huge from the start may get a bit overwhelming. The last thing we want is for you to feel like you’re “failing” from the get-go!

I suggest building just one or two manageable raised garden beds, or try container gardening in grow bags or pots. See this post all about building a raised bed! Also, consider starting with just a handful of types of plants, instead of dozens of exotic varieties. Like many things in life, it may be best to give more of your effort to a narrower focus – and most likely get a better result – than spreading yourself too thin. Quality over quantity. On the other hand, if you really want to start big, I certainly won’t try to talk you out of it!

How we manage our garden:

Currently, we have 14 raised garden beds between three different areas of our urban homestead. Trust me, we did not start out like this! We always had two raised beds when we were living at rental properties, and also began with two beds when we bought our home here in 2013. Each year, we have slowly added more, as we got our routines down and a long-term vision for design evolved. Even though we both love gardening and participate in the upkeep, there are still times it seems too difficult to manage!

People often ask how much time we spend “on the garden”. Well, I will admit that we do spend most of our free time away from work in the garden, though it’s not alllll work! Much of that time is also cruising around to check on things, or just sitting back to watch the hummingbirds and butterflies play.  What works for you will depend on your lifestyle, other priorities like children or your career, and how much time you want to commit to the garden.

Two photos. One shows four simple raised garden beds, and the other half of the yard by the house is grass. The second photo shows those same raised beds, but now all the grass in the other half of the yard has been removed and replaced with stone pathways and planting areas, full of flowering perennials, potted plants, and edible shrubs.
Our front yard garden looked more like the top image for years. Simple with just a few raised beds. We were in the house, seriously gardening, and getting into our groove for over four years before it starting looking more like the bottom image. Baby steps, and several mini-projects later!

5) Ignoring pollinators

Bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, birds, beetles, and even ants play an important role in the vitality of your garden, and our environment! When we first began growing food, we focused ONLY on the food. I am almost embarrassed to admit this, but I may have even mumbled something about growing flowers as being “pointless and boring”… “because they weren’t feeding me, after all!” Doh. Seriously? Let’s chalk that up as one of the most ignorant and uneducated things I have ever said. Now, our garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat!

Flowers are beautiful, fun, and such a critical component in a healthy, sustainable, organic garden and ecosystem. Try to plant at least a couple companion flowers either around the borders of your beds, in their own container or pot, or a few directly in your bed. Marigolds, nasturtium, calendula, zinnias, and borage are some of our favorites, to name a few. If you plant them directly in your beds with your vegetables, read up on the size the plants can become and keep that in mind while planting.

For example, some varieties of marigold can grow into massive bushes that can take over an entire bed! We still like to interplant them, but need to keep them in check with regular trimming as to not crowd out other plants. The trim makes for a great addition to the compost! The chickens also love marigold greens. This year, we are trying out a dwarf variety of marigold to see if that keeps it more manageable.

Want to learn more? Check out this post! “Top 23 Plants for Pollinators: Attract Bees, Butterflies, and Hummingbirds”

A photo of raised garden beds, overflowing with orange and red marigold flowers, onions, squash plants, tall tomatoes, and pink zinnias. A pollinators paradise.
This scene is borderline a mistake itself! While we are surely not ignoring the pollinators here, the companion flowers that were planted for them are taking over, and smothering the rest of the plants in some areas! However, this was the very end of summer, when the basil, beans, and most of the squash was already done and pulled (and a few new ones planted – succession planting). We gave the tomatoes, peppers, and remaining healthy veggies their needed space by trimming back some of the companion flowers, but otherwise just let the rest run wild. I couldn’t walk in some of the pathways! As I mentioned above, we are going to try a more dwarf variety of marigold this summer.

6) Wasting food

When you sort of know you’re wasting food…

One type of food waste that occurs in the garden is pretty obvious and done rather knowingly. This is when a gardener plants and raises food crops, but simply does not use them. Bags of greens rotting in the fridge, plants full of ripe tomatoes or peppers, left to go past their prime, fruit falling from trees on to the ground, ignored. It is such a sad sight!

One of the hashtags I use a lot of on instagram is #eatwhatyougrow. It should also be #growwhatyoueat! First off, grow vegetables and fruit you know you and your family enjoy and will be likely to eat. Likewise, what you are currently growing should kind of dictate some of your meal choices. If you’re someone who strictly follows recipes, this may be a little more of a challenge. Look for ways to swap out a called-for vegetable you don’t have with something you do, like swapping bell pepper for carrots, kale for mustard greens, or vice versa. You need be able to flex a little.

On this homestead, we eat what is in season, and what is coming out of the garden. That means that in the summer, we are eating a lot of stuffed squash, zucchini fritters, fresh tomatoes and basil, pan-blackened shishito peppers, or ratatouille. Our go-to base bowls of lentils, quinoa, pasta, brown rice, or egg dishes will be topped with those types of veggies. Even if we get a little tired of it all by the end of the summer. In the winter, we don’t eat zucchini or fresh tomatoes at all. Instead, we are cooking up a huge wok full of sauteed winter greens, radishes, broccoli, and cabbage with our go-to meals instead. It’s as simple as that.

Are you growing more than you can consume fresh? Preserve some! I will be adding many posts related to fermenting, dehydrating, freezing, and canning in the near future. Share extras with neighbors, friends, and co-workers. Donate to a local charity or shelter for the needy! There are many ways to make sure that food doesn’t go to waste. And unless something is diseased, garden “waste” should never go in the trash. Compost it!

Unintentional waste – You just didn’t know better!

If you’re going through all this effort of growing your own you food, you better make the most of it! People are often surprised to find out that the leaves or stalks from most veggies in the garden are edible – and I am not just talking about leafy greens. Did you know that radish greens, carrot greens, and leaves from all types of brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts are also edible? The types of greens you should not eat are mostly in the nightshade family: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes.

Yes, radish greens can be a bit prickly raw, but they lose that characteristic when cooked – for example, sauteed or added into soup. I am not necessarily suggesting you cook up an entire pan full of radish greens and go to town, but they could easily be sprinkled in with an array of other veggies, like in a mixed sautee or stir-fry. Daikon greens are especially tender, nutritious, and delicious. A lot of people rave about juicing carrots greens, or turning them into carrot top pesto! Unfortunately we haven’t been able to experience this first-hand, as our carrots usually get powdery mildew by harvest time.

For example, at this very moment in the front yard garden, we have a garden bed full of cauliflower, broccoli, and romanesco plants. The classically edible portion, the heads, are long since harvested. But we are keeping the plants there so we can continue to pick leaves to eat. Did you know that many varieties of broccoli will continue to produce little side-shoots for months after the main head is harvested? They’re like baby broccoli.

Another way to maximize your crop volume depends on how you harvest them. When it comes to growing greens, you will regularly hear me talk about “cut and come again” harvesting. This is when you harvest a few of the outermost, oldest lower leaves every week or so, instead of cutting out the whole head or plant to harvest. This can prolong the amount of time the plant provides you food by months! The cut and come again method can be used on just about every green, from kale to collards, and romaine to swiss chard.

Two images. One closer up and one further away of a head of romaine lettuce growing in a garden bed. The gardeners hands are pulling down on the few outer, lower leaves of the head of lettuce, demonstrating the "cut and come again" method that can be used for harvesting.
When harvesting greens, like the Romaine lettuce shown here, we prefer to gently pull off or cut away a few of the outermost, lower leaves as we need them, rather than cutting off the whole head at once. This way, they’ll keep growing new leaves from the center, providing more and more food for months to come!

7) Not taking advantage of companion planting

Speaking of flowers as companions, there are also certain vegetables and herbs that enjoy being grown together, and some that do not. Companion planting is the concept that some plants grow synergistically together, where one may provide pest protection for the other. For example, french marigolds are said to repel root knot nematodes. This makes them a great partner for tomatoes! On the other hand, some things are recommended to not be planted together. One plant may interfere with the proper growth of the other, which is the case for peas and onions, or beans and peppers.

Beans are climbing up the trellis in the back. In the middle of the bed are all plants that grow well together - more beans, squash, basil, and companion flowers like marigolds, calendula, and zinnia.
Beans are climbing up the trellis in the back. In the middle of the bed are all plants that grow well together – more beans, squash, basil, and companion flowers like marigolds, calendula, and zinnia. Before we knew better, we previously planted this bed full of beans and peppers mixed together – two things that are said to stunt each others growth. Looking back, our beans did really poorly that year and we couldn’t figure out why.

A post dedicated to companion planting is coming soon! (Update: here it is!) In the meantime, there is a companion planting chart in the Homestead and Chill Garden Planning Toolkit. If you haven’t gotten yours yet, you can get a link to download the toolkit for free if you choose to subscribe to the blog! See below. It also includes planting calendars for every zone.

8) Give me some space!

Don’t crowd those babes! Follow the recommended spacing guidelines listed on a plants seed packet or nursery tag. Proper spacing is essential! Crowding plants too closely forces them to compete for nutrients, water, root and vegetation space, air flow, and sunlight. It also encourages the spread of disease and pests. The same goes for thinning sprouts and seedlings! When left un-thinned, plants compete with one another and will be vastly stunted. Check out these radishes below.

On the left, radishes that were properly spaced and thinned. They are over 6 inches long each! On the right, ones that were not thinned or spaced well. It shows two little tiny, skinny stubs of radishes right next to each other that clearly didn't grow well. These were all planted in the same bed at the same time, and the two photos were taken the same day.
On the left, radishes that were properly spaced and thinned. On the right, ones that were not. They didn’t even grow. These were all planted in the same bed at the same time, and the two photos were taken the same day.

Shown are two pairs of Candela di Fuoco radishes, planted at the same time. The ones on the left were grown about 2 or 3 inches apart. Shortly after germinating, they were properly thinned down to just one radish sprout per hole. Look how large they got! On the right are two more of the same type of radish, planted at exactly the same time as the others. Yet they were accidentally left un-thinned in the same planting hole. They literally barely grew at all.

When you are planting out a bed full of new, small seedling transplants, the plants often times seem way too far apart. They can make the bed look empty, begging for you to add “just one more”, and then “okay, just ONE more…” Don’t do it! Trust me. They will fill in with time! Check out the photos below.

A just-planted bed like the one on the left can appear so “empty” and tempting to stuff more in. All of the baby greens were planted about 8 inches apart in all directions. Within just four weeks, the bed totally filled in with growth! If we would have added more in between, the plants all would have been over-crowded and far less happy.

A before and after photo. One shows raised garden beds that look fairly empty, just recently planted with small seedlings. The after photo is just four weeks later, but the beds are already completely full of greens, touching and  empty soil no longer showing. The greens include bok choy, tat soi, and other asian greens.
The difference four weeks of growth can make! Good thing I spaced the plants well from the start!

I get the struggle. Really, I do. I used to be one of those “just one more,” (or maybe like 10 more?!) people, but Aaron has strong opinions about good spacing. He kept me in check while planting, and I have finally developed better spacing self-control myself. In return, the garden thanks us exuberantly!

9) Choosing the wrong plants – for your zone or the season

When you are picking out plants to grow, it is important to consider what growing zone you are in. Also take into account what season you are planting for. Gardeners or farmers in Southern Texas will likely not be planting the same things at the same time as gardeners in Maine. They are in completely different zones!

If you aren’t sure what zone you are in, here is an easy USDA hardiness zone lookup tool – just enter your zip code and go! For example, our little homestead on the Central Coast of California is on the border of 9b and 10a.

Once you know your zone, you can find a planting calendar that goes along with it.  In our subscriber garden planning toolkit (link above in number 7), you can find a planting calendar for every zone to help you along the way! Many people living in other countries have been able to look up what their USDA hardiness zone equivalent is, and utilize these charts too! Here is an example of what they look like.

A planting calendar, showing different times to sow seeds, transplant outside, or directly sow outside. There is a separate line for every type of vegetable and every month. This is for USDA Zone 10.
Planting calendar for USDA Zone 10, found in the Homestead and Chill subscriber garden planning toolkit.

Are you planting for your hot season, or cooler season? Things like tomatoes, corn, peppers, melons, cucumbers, and squash are generally warm season crops, needing long sunny days and warm soil. On the other hand, most leafy greens, brassicas (the broccoli and cabbage family) and root vegetables prefer cooler weather, generally speaking.

There are always some exceptions though! Like certain heat-tolerant greens like collard greens, or certain types of bolt-resistant kale that can be grown throughout the summer. For us, the “cool season” is October through March – we have the luxury of year-ground gardening here – but your “cool season” may be just a couple months in the spring and again in fall.

10) Ignoring soil health

Not all soil is created equal! To set the record straight, “dirt” is not soil. Soil is rich, full of nutrients, and is biologically active! Dirt is usually devoid of all these things. If you plant vegetable seedlings straight in the native dirt of your yard, chances are it will not contain all the nutrients the plants need to thrive. Additionally, it may lack the right composition for good drainage and moisture retention. Read this post all about building the perfect organic soil.

You’ll want to work in some good aged compost, along with some mild slow-release natural fertilizers. The secret weapons in our garden are worms, compost, and compost tea. Worms are a living soil amendment! We keep a compost worm bin to up-cycle food waste into worm castings, aka worm poop. Our raised beds are amended with worm castings, and we add worms directly to the soil in other areas of the garden. We also use the castings to make actively aerated compost tea (AACT). Click here to read all about starting a super simple worm bin! This post will show you how to make AACT. Last but not least, be sure to check out “Composting 101: What, Why & How to Compost at Home”.

One photo shows a hand holding a liquid measuring cup, which is full of compost tea, over a bucket full of the same compost tea. The gardener is about to pour it onto the garden bed of leafy greens in the background. The second photo shows a close up of two cupped hands, full of red worms, with garden beds and flowers in the background.
Worm are life! A post will be coming very soon about how to make and maintain a worm bin, along with how to use their castings to make aerated compost tea! It is liquid gold!

In regards to fertilizers, some examples of the things we like to use in our garden are kelp meal, alfalfa meal, neem seed meal, this vegan all-purpose fertilizer, and basalt rock dust for trace minerals. An aeration additive may also be helpful, such as pumice or perlite. These add “fluff”, promoting improved drainage and moisture retention. We really love to use ⅜” volcanic rock that we are able to source in bulk from a local landscape supply company. Read here to learn all about building the perfect organic soil.

If you are starting a new garden and use bagged, high quality, organic raised bed mix (not potting soil), the plants will likely do just fine! Those bags usually contain pre-amended soil with light fertilizer and some compost. The first round of gardening with that soil may be a huge success! But then the next growing season comes around and you’re like… whah whah whah. Sad plants.

“What the heck happened? They grew so well last year!” Well, the plants used up all the nutrients during the previous season.  If you failed to amend the beds (for example, with compost or the types of amendments mentioned above) in preparation for the new crops, you set them up to flounder and starve!

Another way to keep your soil happy between seasons is to plant cover crops like clover, fava beans, vetch, or barley. These all keep the soil biologically active and actively enrich it, by fixing nitrogen from the air and bringing it into the soil via their roots.

11) More food isn’t always better. Often, it is worse.

I don’t mean the edible food you harvest from your garden… More is always better there! What I mean is going overboard with fertilizers and amendments. It helps to understand a little more about what kind of fertilizer you’re working with. On their packages, you’ll see three numbers… maybe something like 6-4-2. This is called the NPK ratio. N stands for nitrogen, P stands for phosphorus, and K stands for potassium.

If you only use high-nitrogen fertilizers, your tomato plants may grow into huge, lush, green bushes but may not produce any actual tomatoes! Most fruit and vegetables need a well-balanced fertilizer that contain a decent amount of phosphorus to develop their fruit, not just nitrogen. Nitrogen mostly promotes green vegetative growth.

Too much high-nitrogen fertilizer can actually harm or even kill plants, especially young sensitive seedlings! They get “burned” by the soil. If you hear someone saying their compost or soil was too “hot”, they mean it was too high in nitrogen. This can happen when a strong boxed fertilizer like blood meal is applied with a heavy hand, or when animal manure is added straight to the garden without being adequately aged into compost first.

A close up of leaves with a discolored brown and yellow tinge around the edges of their leaves, likely caused from too much nitrogen fertilizer.
Many fertilizer or nitrogen-burned plants will either turn yellow, or develop a discolored brown and yellow tinge around the edges of their leaves (though other issues can also cause something similar). Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

Note: “Manure” is NOT the same as “compost”

Compost is organic material that has been allowed to age and break down, thus turning in to a very rich but mild and balanced material. Manure is straight animal poo, and can be way too intense to use directly on the garden without proper aging first.

I can’t tell you how many times we have seen people over-fertilize their soil, put in their precious seedlings, and watch them go straight into shock and even death. We have done it too. When in doubt, use a mild, well-balanced slow-release fertilizer like a 4-4-4 or 6-6-6, apply less than the package instructs you to, and go heavy on the mild aged compost. Plants are never harmed by too much good aged compost!

12) Watering too much

One very common mistake that new plant parents make is loving their babies… to death! This goes for both outdoor gardens and indoor house plants. Especially house plants. In general, most plants like to be moist, but not soggy for days. Plants breathe through all of their tissues, including their roots. If the roots are overly wet for an extended period of time, it essentially suffocates them. It also increases their chance of rotting, or developing disease. Every pot, bed, or container needs some drainage!

The average plant is most happy when it gets a nice deep drink, but can then have the chance to slightly dry out before the next watering. I don’t mean completely dry out though! It’s all about balance. Before you start to water, poke around under the soil surface a little bit. Is it still quite wet down there? Or super dry, even several inches deep? Then think about how much you last watered, when, and what the weather has been like.

Has it been really hot and dry out? The garden will need a bit more water, in terms of frequency and amount. Even in our hottest times of year (in the 80’s) we don’t water more than twice per week. If it has been overcast and cooler, one deep water sesh per week may do just fine. If it has been rainy, we don’t water at all.

You’ll start to notice a pattern and get your own schedule down, which will vary by your climate, season, sun exposure, mulching practices, and depths of your bed. In-ground gardens and deep beds like ours (18- 24 inches deep) will stay moist longer than shallower beds. To read all about DIY, non-toxic irrigation solutions, check out this post!

13) Locating a garden in the wrong spot

With a few exceptions, most vegetables like as much sun as possible. When you’re planning your garden space, pay attention to the sun exposure different areas of your yard is receiving. Also keep in mind how it will change over the seasons, as the suns position changes in the sky. If you live in the northern hemisphere, a south-facing garden is ideal! This means that it would receive unobstructed maximum sun exposure from the south side – and in all seasons, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to garden year-round.

We totally made this mistake. When we first bought our home, it was the middle of summer. This spot by the back fence was nice and sunny – the perfect spot for the raised beds we dragged from our rental house, right?! Wrong. Winter came and the beds were in nearly 100% shade. We had not adequately taken into account (or considered at all, to be honest) the change in the sun and shadows between seasons. Some greens did okay there, but grew very slowly and bolted quicker. It would have worked for a summer-only garden space, but we had intended to grow things here all year.

The top photo shows our original "coop garden" - too close to the fence, and shaded in the winter. The bottom shows the space once we renovated and re-located the raised beds. They're now in an ideal location,  along a south-facing wall, which maximizes sun exposure and also takes advantage of radiant heat! A chicken coop is the background in both images. In the "after" photo, the raised beds are much taller than the old ones, and have super tall kale trees and other flowers growing in them. The chickens are running around outside garden.
The top photo shows our original “coop garden” – too close to the fence, and shaded in the winter. The bottom shows the space once we renovated and re-located the raised beds. They’re now in an ideal location, along a south-facing wall, which maximizes sun exposure and also takes advantage of radiant heat!

Between the shady location, the very low shallow beds (we prefer taller beds now), and the need for better chicken-proof fencing, we were more than okay with re-configuring this spot! We weren’t too invested in the way it was. But if you’ve just poured a ton of time, energy, love, and resources into building your first little dream garden, this situation could be devastating!

14) Underestimating pests

If you are about to set up your first garden space, particularly raised beds, this is an especially important consideration from the start. Raised garden beds are wonderful because, as opposed to planting in the ground, they give you significant control over the soil composition and quality. Raised beds also provide for an added ability to protect your crops from pests.  The “pests” I have in mind are burrowing ones like gophers or moles, and also invasive weeds like crabgrass. Both were rampant in our yard, and still try to be! Click here to read our introductory post on organic pest control.

Two sad tales:

My friend Kati recently moved and set up a huge garden space with dozens of awesome deep raised beds. She planted everything out, excitedly watched them grow, and then BAM! One by one, her plants started to die. They were either being munched off at the soil line, or completely pulled underground – by gophers! See, she didn’t put any type of protective barrier below her beds, and now is struggling to figure out a solution. The smoke bombs and gopher vibration things aren’t stopping them.

We too learned this the hard way. When we first started our front yard garden, we dug out out the grass in the area we wanted raised beds, and just plopped them down there. Within a few months, the beds were completely infested with weedy crabgrass! Thankfully, gophers weren’t an issue because we had the foresight to line the bottom of the beds with hardware cloth to block them, but it did nothing to stop the weeds.

We had to do something! By then, we knew we wanted to remove all the grass in that section of the yard anyways, so guess what we did? We shoveled out all of the soil from the beds onto a nearby tarp (with two 4×8’ 18-inch deep beds we are talking a ton of soil!), lifted the beds out of place, then redid the entire area. We manually removed all the weedy grass (down to the roots), laid down painters paper, commercial-duty weed block fabric, put the hardware cloth-lined beds back, filled all the area around them with gravel, and shoveled all the dirt back in. Yeah, it was a royal pain in the butt. Let’s save you from this, huh? Learn from our mistake.

One photo shows wooden raised garden beds sitting in the middle of a weedy lawn. Next, it shows a man working in the garden to shovel all the soil out of these beds, because they need to be moved. Then the beds are empty and being lifted. Next, the grass has been removed and weed block fabric is laid out across the yard where the beds once were, and they're put back on top of of it, now protected from weeds below. Small gravel is being added on top of the fabric, between and around the garden beds.
The top photo shows a big mistake we made: plopping down raised beds in the middle of a weedy, crabgrass and gopher-ridden lawn without an adequate barrier below. You can see how the weedy grass is thriving around the beds, already seeking out moisture and infiltrating. The bottom images are from the big re-do. Emptying those huge beds full of soil was no small task! But, we needed to make it right. In the middle you can see how we put it all back together, and a glimpse under our gravel – how we remedied the situation.

The moral of these stories is this:

Your garden is an investment. It is worth protecting. If you don’t have super invasive weeds or burrowing pests, good for you! These extra precautions might not be needed. But if you do have gophers or crabgrass (aka bermuda grass) I highly suggest lining the bottom of your beds with hardware cloth and heavy-duty landscape fabric. Chicken wire isn’t usually strong enough and it will degrade with time. Pests can chew through it. For less invasive weeds, a good layer of cardboard in the bottom of the bed will usually do the trick.

Keep in mind that most plants prefer at least 12 inches of soil depth for their roots to happily grow. 18-24” is even better, which is how deep all of our raised garden beds are. This means you should plan on deep beds if you do intend to block the bottom off for pests. For example, a 6 inch deep bed with a bottom barrier wouldn’t be ideal for most veggies.

To learn how we build our raised beds, see this post all about it! Not feeling up to building your own? That’s okay too! There are some sort of flimsy kits out there, but there are also some really excellent, durable, beautiful cedar raised bed kits out there! These ones from Gardener’s Supply get great reviews. They come in a variety of sizes, and at 15″ deep, will provide a nice amount of root space for your plants.

Other pests:

Depending on your location and local wildlife, your garden may also need other types of pest protection. For example, using fencing to protect your veggies from roaming deer or nibbling birds from above. Those kinds of things can be mused over later, as the need arises. Adding fencing around a garden after-the-fact is much more feasible (and a lot less infuriating) than realizing you needed protection from below, until it’s too late.

When you plant out young tender seedlings, keep a close eye on them. Does it seem like wild birds are picking at them? If so, you’ll want need to intervene and put some type of protection over them, like wire mesh fencing, bird netting, or floating row covers.

Speaking of birds…. if you have free-ranging chickens in your yard? The biggest but most-loved garden pests on the homestead? Yep, you’re gonna need a fence. Preferably one with thin wire on top, not wood, making it exponentially more difficult for them to jump up onto, and over.

15) Thinking all bugs are bad bugs

While there are definitely “pest” bugs in the garden, there are also SO many wonderful beneficial insects that play an important role in a healthy, organic garden and natural ecosystem. Please remember that a garden is not supposed to be aseptic and devoid of life. Insects SHOULD be in a garden. Some of the best inhabitants you can ask for in your garden are ladybugs, parasitic wasps, lacewings, bees, and butterflies.

If you see insects, take the time to research who they are and what they do. Please please please, do NOT ever apply broad-spectrum pesticides in your yard!Bees, butterflies, beetles, and even ants can help pollinate your plants! Yes, some insects may munch on your leaves a little bit, but others are actually praying on the “pest” insects and helping control them for you.

For example, ladybug larvae are some of the most ferocious predators of aphids out there! They gobble them up like chickens on kale. They’re amazing, and a delightful sight in the garden. We actually buy and add them to our garden every year. Get native ladybugs, not Asian lady beetles! However, the larval form look very different from the adult ladybug we all know and easily recognize, and people usually mistake them for a pest! See below. Now you know!

Shown are ladybugs in various stages of life. First, the larvae stage on a leaf, long, skinny, black and orange with spikes. Then they go into pupa, curled up in a little orange sac on the bottom of leaves, before emerging as a ladybug. Two photos show the larvae and the adult beetle eating aphids. The last photo shows a hand, covered in ladybugs, being released into the garden.
Shown are ladybugs in various stages of life. First, the larvae – the best predator of aphids! Then they go into pupa, curled up in a little orange crusty sac on the bottom of leaves, before emerging as a ladybug we recognize. As you can see, the adult beetles love eating aphids too!

On our homestead, we try to first use preventative measures, then manual control, and lastly revert to some organic sprays made from soap, neem oil, or natural bacteria sprays like bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) if absolutely necessary. As your garden becomes more and more of a cohesive, thriving mini ecosystem, insects and critters will oftentimes naturally check and balance themselves out! The longer our garden has been established, the less we need to intervene. How’s that for integrated pest management! I will be writing a post dedicated to our philosophy on pests and organic pest control soon.

Well then!
What do you think?

Have you made some of these mistakes yourself? Was there a issue you ran into, or a breakthrough “Ah-ha!” moment you had in the garden that I didn’t cover today? Feel free to share your experiences for us all to learn from!

If you’re still here, thanks for reading! I know that was a long one. But that sort of just scratched the surface. Many of the 15 mistakes we covered today could easily be a post of their own! I plan to dive deeper into some of these subjects, real soon.

I hope this gave you some new perspectives to your approach in the garden, and maybe picked up a new pointer or two. As always, feel free to shoot me questions!


  • Eden

    As of late, I began a nursery and I have no clue if what I am doing is correct or wrong. I will utilize this article as my aide on cultivating. this blog entry will help me a ton! A debt of gratitude is in order for sharing.

  • James Patrick

    Excellent Advice. I am a home gardener by hobby. I would say all this information is very helpful especially for those who are beginners in this field. After reading this I have decided to change the location of my home garden as it was under the shade with no direct sunlight.

    One mistake that I made was overfeeding the soil in the greed of getting more yield. This year I will take care of this.

    Hopefully, you will write more about the mistakes we do for winter gardening prep as well.

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