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Admitting — And Learning From — My Garden Mistakes

by Amanda

Garden Mistakes: Pollinator Garden
A messy garden that is in desperate need of edging and weeding!

As gardeners, we all make mistakes. Even the most seasoned gardeners I speak with have something they aren’t happy with from the past growing season. I am no stranger to garden mistakes and this season was no different; from planting too late, to spacing issues and lack of weeding, I had my fair share of growing blunders. Were they catastrophic? No. Will I know better for next season? Yes. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? I’ll share some of my biggest garden mistakes from the growing season and what I learned from them, to try to spare you the same errors (and get you thinking about what mistakes you made in your garden).

My Garden Mistakes: Planting Too Much Too Late

This was a big one. In my hardiness zone (4b) we have a very short growing season — if you dawdle for too long it’s gone before you know it. I was so excited to start everything from seed in my greenhouse (and I mean everything), I tried to do too much in a short period of time. This resulted in us not planting most of our flowers and vegetables until mid June, which didn’t give much time for plants to mature and grow as full as we would have liked. In a perfect world, we would have gotten all of our wildflowers planted by the end of May, along with most of our vegetable garden. Instead, we scrambled at the beginning of June to plant and thus had to prioritize. The veggie starts and seeds went in first, followed by everything else.

Garden Mistakes: seedlings
I started so much in the greenhouse this season. Next year I'll focus on the musts and direct sow much of the annuals I started indoors.

Fortunately (depending on who you’re talking to), we’ve had some sort of weird hot spell in September with temperatures reaching the 90s almost daily. This has allowed our thousands of Sunflowers and dozens of Dahlias to open up and grace us with their beauty. But this time last fall we had a hard frost in our area and I lost most of my tender annuals, so we were lucky this season.

Takeaways for next season: Create a planting calendar this winter and try to stick with it as much as possible. Make sure to be organized; have all of my seeds ready to start in March and only start seeds that must be started. Once the vegetable garden and classic cut flower beds are planted, then it’s time to have fun and experiment with ten different types of Zinnias and Pincushion Flower.

Garden Mistakes: Individual Seedlings
It's kind of hard to tell in this photo, but this is one of the areas I spaced the Zinnias out way too much. You can see the tallest plants in the back are Sunflowers; they did awesome being spaced like that as they actually need that space to grow.

My Garden Mistakes: Planting Individual Zinnias

I was very excited to use my shiny new greenhouse to start all of these very cool Zinnia varieties, but once they were ready to transplant outside I spaced them out like a crazy person. Giving each individual Zinnia plant 6-12 inches is way too much room; Zinnias look best as they are usually planted, seeds scattered by the hundreds in a bare patch of dirt and grown together en masse. I thought giving each Zinnia space would allow them to grow taller (which it did) but it was not worth the somewhat lack-luster look and hours spent weeding in between plants. I’ve found this mistake to be common with bulbs too; Gladiolus, Daffodils, and Tulip bulbs should be planted in large clumps with barely any room between them. Planted individually — like my Zinnias — they just don’t make as big of a statement.

Takeaways for next season: As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I will direct sow 99% of my Zinnia seed next season. If I want earlier blooms, I can either direct sow them this fall or start them a few weeks before planting time, making sure to plant them en masse in my garden bed.

My Garden Mistakes: Overseeding

This is my partner Jeremiah’s and mine biggest problem with planting wildflowers. We always overseed. This year we did OK except for the 10 pounds of extra Sunflower seed we added around the entire perimeter of our property. I guess that means we didn’t do OK? Our Sunflowers range from 8’ feet tall (the ones I individually sowed and gave plenty of room) to 2’ tall (the ones we overseeded). Again, because of this abnormal late-September hot weather the Sunflowers are actually blooming and look like mini varieties. They are very fun and great for cut arrangements but not exactly the “wall of Sunflowers” look we were going for.

Garden Mistakes: overseeding
As you can see from the crowded, short Sunflowers with tiny stems, this is what it looks like when you overseed!

When you overseed an area, all of the seedlings are fighting for room for their roots to grow underneath the soil. This often results in no above-ground growth at all, or (as in our case) weak and stunted growth.

Takeaways for next season: Pay attention to coverage rates. Pay attention to cover rates. Pay attention to coverage rates. Even if we think it doesn’t look like enough seed, it is.

My Garden Mistakes: Vegetable Garden Woes

This was our first year with a big vegetable garden and my first year starting everything we grew from seed. This was a big feat even for two people who spent the entire winter reading gardening books. But all in all I think we did pretty good for our first season, besides a few mis-steps:

Peppers Are Tomatoes?

I don’t know if it was a mixup with the grower or gardener (most likely the former) but all of my pepper plants grew to be tomato plants! I had a somewhat embarrassing moment showing off my large pepper plants to Jeremiah’s mother, exclaiming, “Isn’t it weird that baby peppers kind of look like tomatoes?!” Only to have her smile and gently tell me that it was because they were indeed tomatoes, not peppers. Oops.

Garden Mistakes: Planting Too Late
Too much lettuce! Also, this photo was taken in late June so you can see just how late we got to planting.

Takeaways for next season: Now that I know what a tomato seedling looks like, hopefully I can avoid this mistake. Also, start my pepper seeds very far away from my tomato seeds. Also, label things twice.

Too Much Green

How much lettuce can two people eat? We wasted about 1/8 of our garden with various lettuce varieties. I mean I do like a fresh salad, but we could have sufficiently had enough salad with one row instead of four. Our rabbits did benefit from this garden mistake though.

Takeaways for next season: Plant less lettuce. Plant more carrots in their place. Both the humans and the bunnies could have used more carrots this season.

Potato Sunbathing

As we were digging up our potatoes I did some feverish Googling in the field on what to do next, which is never a good idea. If you aren’t sure what to do as a newbie gardener, head inside and do some solid research. I found one site that told me to cure the potatoes outside for several days before bringing them indoors to store. Don’t do this! The light causes the potatoes to turn green due to high levels of solanine which could potentially poison you. If we peel the potatoes and they don’t taste bitter we’ll be fine, but I wouldn’t really suggest it.

Takeaways for next season: Jenny, the Brand Manager at American Meadows, told me she brings her potatoes directly indoors after harvesting and places them in a dresser she uses just to store them. Potatoes don’t like direct light and need a cool, dark place to last through the winter.

Garden Mistakes: Sunflower House
The Sunflower seedlings that eventually became my Sunflower House that eventually got eaten by the Alpacas in the background of this photo.

My Garden Mistakes: Animals Love Plants

This is — and will always be — one of my biggest challenges as a gardener. We currently have two dogs, two cats, a couple dozen various chickens and ducks, two bunnies, and three alpacas. And although everyone has various fencing to try to keep them contained, they are free range and sometimes we like to let the alpacas and chickens out into the yard to help manage our tick and slug population. Well, the downside of this is if we aren’t watching closely, pretty soon all of our plants will be broken and/or eaten.

The most heartbreaking thing that was destroyed this season was the Sunflower House I was growing for my nephew. It was going to be very cool until the Alpacas decided they liked the taste of Sunflowers. The entire "house" was gone in 10 minutes flat. Such is life and gardening with animals.

Garden Mistakes: Daylilies and Alpaca
Soon after this photo was taken, the orange Daylilies were no longer.

Takeaways for next season: Anything important will be grown in an area where the animals (even the dogs) never have access to. Keep the barnyard and people yard for animal-friendly plants that you don’t mind losing, or that you are just too lazy to dig up and move.

Tip: When I planted new beds in my yard this season I bought the cheap, short green metal fencing from the local hardware store that blends into the landscape. This actually deterred my dogs from stepping or rolling in the gardens. Once the plants grew in, I removed the fencing because the dogs knew they weren't allowed there. This is a good trick for dogs, not so much for alpacas or chickens.

My Garden Mistakes: Weeding (Or Lack Thereof)

I saved this one for last because I’ve been dreading writing about it. It’s one of my biggest downfalls as an overly-enthusiastic gardener: I love to plant (and grow) things but I hate to weed. And because I was not in a situation where I could pay (or bribe) anyone to weed for me, this left my gardens going through waves of tidiness and wildness throughout the season. But to be honest, most of the time there are weeds in my gardens.

I was only able to get motivated towards the middle of the season because a professional photographer was coming to my gardens to snap photos. And although I feel as if I have kept up with it mostly since then, when I head out to interview someone about their garden I realize what truly “weed free” gardens looks like. And they do not look like mine!

Garden Mistakes: Garden that needs weeding
Although this garden is pretty, it needs weeding and maintenance. My cat Mika is helping me guard it from the dogs, alpacas, and chickens.

Takeaways for next season: Either I somehow have to find a way to motivate myself to weed every week, or I need to eliminate something in my budget to make room for some help with weeding. Although paying someone to help me weed feels somewhat like defeat, we are only going to be expanding our gardens year after year and it would be nice not to have crippling anxiety about the state of my gardens.

My Garden Mistakes: It’s All About Learning

I could probably write an entire book about our rookie mistakes made here on the farm this season, but I will not because I have to go back outside and weed again. With each mistake comes a lesson and opportunity to do better each season, which is exactly what gardening is all about. With a little more organization, better on-the-fly research, and maybe a little help, next year’s gardens are going to be even better than I could imagine. And although I’ve focused on my mistakes in this blog, there were just as many successes and our gardens were a source of joy for many this season. More about that in another — potentially more uplifting — blog to come shortly.

Garden Mistakes: Greenhouse at last light
The last sun of the day catching the greenhouse. Even despite all my mistakes, the gardens were inspiring this season.

You can see more of our journey as novice farmers here:

  • A Journey From Urban Gardening To Rural Homesteading
  • The Joys (And Surprises) Of Inheriting A Garden
  • Low Maintenance Landscaping With Wildflowers