Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gardening: The most common early mistakes

Photo of an outdoor faucet.

I was just reading a post over at Children of the Corm, one that was puzzling over why a gardener wasn't succeeding. I commented, but afterward I found that my mind had assembled an opinionated list of what seemed most likely to go wrong. So here I am, opinionating.

Judging from my own experience back when I was a beginning gardener, I'd say that the main non-obvious gardening mistakes are:

Underwatering - just sprinkling the soil until it's damp on top, unstead of staying at it until it's gotten a good soaking. It's non-intuitive to realize that you may have to stand there for fifteen minutes or more, watering just one small bed. Automating your watering to make it easier to water deeply enough - even if it's just plopping a sprinkler in the middle of the bed so that you can turn on the faucet and walk away for an iced tea rather than standing there with the hose - can make a huge difference to the garden.

Overwatering - watering too often, so that the roots never dry out. Under normal circumstances, that nice long soaking should save you from having to water again for a few days. If you have abnormal circumstances, I think that a good thick mulch is better than watering more often.

Underwatering and overwatering - sprinkling the soil too little, too often, giving you plants with soggy shallow roots.

Shade denial - refusing, for example, to accept that roses and onions and tomatoes will not grow in three-quarters shade. I'm still not over this one - I'm always trying to convince a plant to accept at least a little less sun than it wants. I tried to grow onions and summer squash in a part-shaded garden last year.  This year, I hope that I accept my failure and plant bush beans, which succeeded quite nicely in that space the year before.

Skimpy digging - not believing how big a hole you really have to dig, especially if you have concrete soil. And not believing that sometimes you do have to turn the whole planting area and mix a car-full of bags of something good into it.

Root squeamishness - not breaking up compacted roots. I know that it seems cruel, and counterintuitive, and just plain weird, to yank and even cut perfectly good roots. I got over this with rootbound large plants early on, but for some reason I hesitated to mess with the root ball of tiny six-pack plants. They had so few roots in the first place; could they really bear my damaging any of them?

So, for years, I would pluck those dead sixpack plants out of the ground and see the little intact root cubes. I've finally started roughing up their roots properly at planting, and I no longer have this problem.

The wrong plants - specifically, not growing the easy stuff for the area. If the plant isn't growing in casually maintained gardens all over town, I'd suggest skipping it and picking something that is. Next year or the year after that, after having some successes, is time enough for the tricky ones.

That's my list. What's yours?

Image: Mine


  1. I think 'zone denial' is my biggest problem. And I know it's a problem, at least I'm admitting it. I'm not a master gardener, but I know my stuff. But...I can't help trying to plant something that should be grown in a cooler climate than NC, 'just to see if it will be a miracle plant and not give me any trouble'. Especially lilacs. I miss a lilac...

  2. Howdy, Kyna!

    Oh, yes, yes. I had serious zone denial in California - I kept trying to get peonies and other "need chill" plants to grow.

    And, oh, I remember, I kept trying to get plants that snails like to grow, and that's a hopeless quest in the Bay Area if you're not willing to work really hard, spread snail-killer, or both. I should have added an item for Pest Denial.

    In Oregon, the snails are insignificant and the weather is perfect for almost everything I want to grow - peonies and lilacs get enough chill, and rosemary doesn't get too much. It's sad that I can't grow lemon verbena as a reliable perennial (it came back from the roots one year, then died altogether the next year), but it's a fine trade.

  3. :) I know zone denial is my biggest problem. I want to grow all the things that can grow in a nice cottage english garden.... and its. not. gonna. happen. Thanks for the shout out!

  4. Yo, Jess! And thank you for the mention today. :)

    I have the perfect zone for cottage garden taste, but I can't cure my sun denial. :) Gotta work on that.