With gardening, I’ve made every mistake in the book. It’s taken years to hit a point where I can claim to be a good gardener. Today, instead of telling you how to do great at gardening… I’m going to tell you how to fail. Most of these mistakes are ones I’ve made personally, so I can vouch for their effectiveness. So, without further delay, here are ten great ways to fail at gardening.
1. Attack a huge space without proper soil prep
So… you’re out in the yard, you’ve got a power tiller, you’re going to turn under last year’s garden and you think, “Heck! I could handle three times this space!”
With that inspiring thought in mind, the tiller rows keep widening and eating grass until you have a marvelous patch of bare, fluffy dirt. Since it’s a nice day… and since you have seeds… you decide to plant the whole thing.
A big problem with this approach: weed seeds by the thousands get disturbed and turned to the surface, making many problems later on. If you can till multiple times, the problem is greatly reduced. However, beyond the weed issues, compaction is often a problem in new beds. Simply tilling isn’t enough unless you have good soil. Double-digging or broadforking beats a tiller hands down… it’s just labor intensive. There’s just no way around it: preparing a good garden takes hard work.
One more thing: the soil nutrient levels that support grass usually don’t cut it for needy veggies. Be prepared to add compost and or fertilizer regularly as the season progresses.
2. Put Your Garden At The Edge Of The Yard
If you want something to be a mess, put it out of sight. There’s a reason most people’s attics, outbuildings, garages and closets become clutter bunkers. The same is true for gardens: if you put it in an inconvenient or out-of-the-way spot, you’re going to overlook weeds and pests… fail to harvest at proper times… not notice stressed plants… and miss bringing in food as it ripens. If it’s a hassle to pick a salad, you’re not going to do it. Put your garden in a place where you need to look at it!
3. Plant Things Out Of Season
I had someone in the South tell me, in July, that they were planting broccoli. “Think it will do okay?”
There are different seasons for different crops. You can fudge on timing, to a certain extent, but planting peas in the heat or corn in the fall means you’ll fail miserably. It just doesn’t work. Some vegetables need heat, others need cold.
Planting too late is particularly a problem with pest-prone species like corn. The bugs are out in force later in the season… you want to be harvesting before they hit plague levels and harvest for you.
4. Don’t Thin Your Plants
“They’re SO cute! I can’t stand cutting them!” If that’s you, STOP BEING SO PRECIOUS! You need to feed yourself. To do so, choices need to be made. Not thinning plants will ensure you get little or no food from them. Imagine being tied leg-to-leg to someone else for your entire life. It would be horribly tough to move around… to shower… to exercise or to drive. Even if you were bound to Gisele Bündchen, it would eventually become intolerable (especially if Tom caught you).
Your little plants need roots need space, air, light, etc. Packing them in close keeps them from growing properly or getting enough resources. Take a pair of scissors and snip away to thing them out when they’re little. You’ll get a much better harvest.
5. Introduce Weeds and Toxic Substances
I wrote recently about my experience with toxic manure. Organic gardening FAIL! Yet toxic manure isn’t the only way you can screw things up in the garden. You can also lime your beds too heavily and throw the pH way off, turning your garden into a modern-day Carthage… you can spread seedy hay all over and have to fight all season against incredible weeds… or you can go nuts with herbicides and pesticides and wipe out positive insect populations or even poison yourself.
6. Plant Things You Hate
I think zucchini is awful. I also am not a fan of okra. I’ve planted both in the past, just because I wanted to see how they grew; however, that’s not the way to feed yourself. A garden is a personal food production machine. If you don’t like it, don’t grow it. If there’s something you love, grow that. It’s not about having the widest variety possible or trying to impress other gardeners – it’s about filling your pantry. If you’re not completely in love with a vegetable, why bother with it?
7. Fail to Water Properly
This one is obvious and it also ties in with point #1. If you have a huge space, can you water it? Will rainfall be enough? Are you really going to drag the hose around? Do you travel a lot? Plan these things in now, because water is the life of your garden. Another thing: don’t water half way. You need deep watering moderately often, not shallow watering occasionally. It’s better to soak the beds deeply for a couple of hours twice a week than it is to mist them every day for a few minutes.
8. Use Old Or Crummy Seed
Seed has a shelf life. Though it seems terrible to toss last year’s seed packages, sometimes it needs to be done. Even if your seeds germinate, they may still lack vigor. Fresh, strong seeds are the best. I’d rather spring a few bucks on new seeds from a good company than buy out last year’s rack at the dollar store. Your results will be better – and once you’ve put all that work into preparing, don’t scrimp on seeds. It’s a false savings.
9. Don’t Feed Your Soil
A few miles from me there’s a little garden by a moderately busy road. Every year I drive by it multiple times and see neat rows of sad short cornstalks and thin little beans. They’re been gardening that same plot for a long time but I can’t imagine they’re harvesting all that much from it… and what they do harvest can’t be high quality produce – or nutritionally dense. You need to feed the dirt or your plants starve. Compost, manure, seedmeals, kelp meal, fish emulsion, lime, humanure, deep mulch… do something for goodness sake! Even foliar feeding with 1 part urine and 6-10 parts water will work wonders, even though it smells terrible for a little bit. You can’t keep taking vegetables from the same patch of dirt without adding something back. Add something back!
The very best way to fail at gardening: don’t do it at all. Wait until tomorrow. Maybe next year. Maybe when you can finally build those beds you like… or when you have a larger yard… or when you move to the country… or when… STOP IT! You need to start growing now so you can learn to feed yourself. This is a skill like tying shoes or fixing a flat tire. If you don’t know how, you won’t learn by dreaming of future plots. Build something now and get planting… and remember: failure is a great teacher. I’ve probably failed at dozens of gardening experiments this year alone – yet my success rate goes up every year, and I’m hauling in plenty to eat. You can’t learn from mistakes if you never get around to making them. So go forth and fail marvelously!