The 5 Most Common Mistakes in Gardening

Everyone makes mistakes. Even gardeners. But avoiding these most common mistakes in gardening saves you lots of time, energy and trouble.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Jessica Walliser

Every gardener I know freely admits to making a lot of mistakes. When you think about it, gardening is a relatively safe hobby to mess up. Compared to missing that ski jump or taking a softball to the eye, pruning a perennial back a tad too far is no big deal. Mistakes are made in the garden on a regular basis; certainly I’ve made plenty myself. I’ve planted invasive plants and regretted it for years afterwards. I’ve bought the “cheap mulch” just to save a few dimes, only to be overrun by weeds the following season. We’ve all had mishaps in the veggie patch, but today, I’d like to review some of the most common mistakes in gardening in hopes of keeping a few gardeners from suffering some pretty rotten consequences.

Gardening Mistake No. 1: Letting Weeds Go to Seed

I’d be willing to wage a bet that more gardeners would pick weeding as their least favorite gardening chore than any other task. While I don’t mind a few hours of weeding from time to time, it is a task that can often seem Sisyphean. In our never-ending battle with the weeds, there’s one mistake to never make: Never let a weed go to seed. If you do, you’ll wind up with 1,000 weeds where you once had one. Weeds are weeds for a reason; most have seeds with high germination rates and they produce a lot of seeds, so letting even one little guy scatter seeds can cause big troubles.

When weeds come into flower, if you don’t have time to pull them out, at least cut or mow them down before they’re able to produce seed. While it won’t get rid of the existing weeds, this practice certainly will cut down on future weeds.

Gardening Mistake No. 2: Overfertilizing

Fertilizing is one of those tasks that’s easily over done. More is never better when it comes to additions of plant fertilizers, whether they’re organic or not. Many gardeners think that just because a plant food is naturally derived, it’s impossible to add too much. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nutrient excesses can cause big-time problems in the garden by tying up other nutrients within the soil, causing fertilizer burn, contributing to runoff pollution and costing you big bucks. Don’t fertilize any garden areas without investing in a soil test first. Soil tests are available through most state land-grant university extension services as well as from various independent soil testing laboratories.

Over-fertilization can also promote certain pests. Sap-sucking insects, such as aphids, mealybugs and scale, find nitrogen-infused, over-fertilized plant growth to be extra welcoming. Skip the fertilizer applications unless your soil test indicates the need. When it comes to the most common mistakes in gardening, over-fertilization is one you definitely don’t want to make.

Gardening Mistake No. 3: Wrong Plant, Wrong Place

One of the easiest ways to guarantee your success with a plant is to locate it in a place where it will thrive. If a plant prefers full-sun conditions, than make sure you plant it in full sun. It might seem obvious, but the truth is that the vast majority of times a plant dies, it’s because it was planted in conditions that were less than ideal, weakening the plant and making it more vulnerable to pests and diseases.

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Case in point: the azalea. On my Sunday morning radio program here in Pittsburgh, we get multiple calls every year from folks wondering what’s wrong with their azalea. The leaves are mottled and there are dark spots and little bugs on the bottom sides of the leaves. It’s a classic case of a lacebug infestation. Lacebugs are almost never problematic on azaleas planted in the dappled shade, understory conditions where they thrive, but when azaleas are planted in full sun conditions, lacebugs are often problematic. It’s easy to avoid this particular item on my list of the most common mistakes in gardening; simply be sure to plant plants in conditions where they’re known to thrive.

Gardening Mistake No. 4: Failure to Mulch

Another weed-related item on this list of most common mistakes in gardening is the failure to mulch. We could also add “mulching inappropriately” to the list, too. Whether it’s adding straw or shredded leaves to the vegetable garden or arborist chips or shredded hardwood bark to shrub beds, mulching in the spring is the best way to save yourself lots of time and energy all season long. Mulch reduces your need to water, helps control weeds and stabilizes soil temperatures; it doesn’t just make your garden look pretty.

Don’t overmulch either. 1 to 3 inches of mulch annually is more than enough to reap all the benefits of this task. And always do your best to keep mulch from touching the base of your plants where it could cause rot or promote bark-chewing rodents.

Gardening Mistake No. 5: Neglecting to Harvest Regularly

Did you know that most flowering and fruiting vegetables produce more when they’re regularly harvested? While you can’t harvest multiple carrots from one carrot seed, you can harvest tons of beans, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and summer squash by keeping the plants well-harvested.

Many plants are genetically programmed to try to produce and spread as many seeds as possible. When we pick a pepper, we’re also removing the seeds inside of it, and when that happens, the plant shifts its energy into making more peppers (and therefore seeds).

If you leave over-ripe fruits and veggies on the plants, the plants will often stop or slow the production of new fruits. Head out to your garden several times a week with your harvest basket or bucket in tow to pick whatever is ready for the kitchen.

Avoid these five most common mistakes in gardening and watch your garden thrive.

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