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Your First Garden: 5 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid This Spring


Your First Garden: 5 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid This Spring

March 15, 2023

For me, gardening (before I actually had a garden) was all about the outfit. I gave much thought to the accessories I’d wear—a wide-brimmed sun hat, a bandana around my neck, a pair of galoshes, perhaps—but not much to the actual process of digging and planting, which I figured would come naturally and easily. The first afternoon I spent on my knees in the dirt proved the folly of my assumptions.

Gardening is much more physically demanding than I had anticipated—and, in hindsight, many of the errors I committed in my first garden had to do with looking for shortcuts to avoid the back-breaking work. The shortcuts, unsurprisingly, weren’t worth it. Instead of a lush garden, I had many flowers that wilted and died. The ones that survived didn’t thrive.

Here, all the lazy planting mistakes I made in my first year of gardening.

Featured photograph by Meredith Swinehart.

Mistake 1: Not Digging Deep or Wide Enough

Above: See more in Gardening 101: How to Plant a Bulb. Photograph by John Merkl.

I thought digging a hole would be child’s play, literally. Needless to say, it was nothing like that. Our soil was hard, rocky in places, and sometimes shot through with the unbudging roots of a nearby tree. Digging turned out to be back-breaking work, and because it was so physically demanding, I did the bare minimum.

Here’s what I should have done instead: Dig holes twice as wide as the pot the plant came in and twice as deep. Add enough compost, mixed with some of the dug-up soil, to the bottom of the hole so the plant ends up being flush to the ground. Then fill in the sides with more of the compost and soil mixture. This creates looser soil surrounding the plant, which aids air and water movement, and ensures roots can grow unhindered.

Mistake 2: Planting Too Far Apart

Pink astilbe lights up a corner of the New York Botanical Garden. This is the full, lush look I was hoping for in my garden. Photograph by Kristine Paulus via Flickr.
Above: Pink astilbe lights up a corner of the New York Botanical Garden. This is the full, lush look I was hoping for in my garden. Photograph by Kristine Paulus via Flickr.

I underestimated the number of plants I’d need to fill in my flower bed. Instead of trudging back to the nursery to buy more, I decided to just spread them out more. Not the look I wanted. Instead of the lush English garden of my dreams, I had a few lonely-looking astilbes, spaced awkwardly far apart. Lesson learned: Follow the spacing directions that come with the plant.

Mistake 3: Watering Too Little

Above: Deep watering leads to deep, healthy roots. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista: The Definitive Guide to Stylish Outdoor Spaces.

The summer of my first garden, mosquitoes swarmed our yard. I took to wearing pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and rain boots when I watered in the evening, but still those little suckers managed to bite me; they bit through my linen shirt and sometimes, I swear, they burrowed into my boots and up my pants! It was horrific, and my watering sessions got shorter and shorter.

Later, I learned that this type of shallow watering isn’t good for plants; I was essentially wetting the foliage. It’s much more effective to water plants deeply and less often than to water them a little bit every day.

Mistake 4: Ignoring Light Requirements

Above: In a shady corner or beneath trees, hostas are your friend. See more of this planting scheme in The Dark Mirror: A Backyard Reflecting Pool in Eastern Europe.

I embarked on a plant-buying expedition for my first garden without knowing how much light my garden received during the day (first mistake). I knew much of it was in the shade of a large tree, but surely, it received adequate sun, I thought. I bought mostly shade-tolerant flowers (including astilbes and foxgloves) but also acquired a few sun lovers (lavender and coneflowers) that I’ve always been drawn to (second mistake). I realized, when I got home, that there was really nowhere in my front yard that was sunny for most of the day, yet I persisted in planting the lavender and coneflowers (third and biggest mistake).

You’ll not be surprised to learn: The sun lovers failed to thrive.

Mistake 5: Weeding Too Infrequently

Above: Photograph by Justine Hand for Gardenista, from Landscaping 101: A Garden Arsenal to Fight Weeds.

I weeded at around the same time that I planted in the spring. It was a lot of hard work concentrated into one weekend—but then I was done and I figured that was that. A few months later, I realized I had a Grey Gardens on my hands; weeds had spread out of control. It would be another couple of weeks before I decided to finally decided to do battle with the weeds, and by then, they nearly won.

A much better idea: Weed a little bit whenever you can. Trust me, the alternative is much harder.

For more in the Your First Garden series, see:

N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published April 2019.

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