Vegetable gardening is a lot easier than beginners think. But there are a lot of things that can go wrong.
If you are new to growing your own, this list of the 30 most common mistakes people make in their vegetable gardens should help you avoid many of the common pitfalls.
Avoiding these common mistakes should help you feed yourself and your family, and make sure you have more successes than failures in your garden.
In gardening, nothing is guaranteed. You will almost certainly find, especially when you are first starting out, that a few things will go wrong. But you will also find that there are plenty of successes, large and small, along the way.
One key thing to remember is that gardening should not be a battle. In nature, there are plenty of things that are out of our control. But by working with nature, rather than fighting it, we can find harmony with the world around us and begin to meet more of our own needs. This is one of the most important things in an eco-friendly, organic garden.
Another thing to remember is that making a mistake is not the end of the world. We all make mistakes. The important thing is not how bad they are, or now often we make them, but how we respond to them when we do.
If at first you don’t succeed – try, try again.
When you get right back in the saddle, you are sure to begin to reap the many rewards that vegetable gardening can bring.
Mistakes You Are Making When Selecting Seeds and Plants
First of all, let’s take a look at the common mistakes surrounding the selection of seeds and plants:
1. Choosing the Wrong Seeds and Plants for Your Climate Zone
When people first decide to create a vegetable garden, they often start with a list, in their heads, of the plants they would like to grow. Often, people begin by thinking about the things they like to eat on a regular basis.
But this list does not always tally with the climate zone in which they find themselves. Those used to shopping at giant grocery stores are used to a wide selection of fruits and vegetables. Some of them may have been transported long distances. They might have been grown in completely different climate zones.
There is no point in trying, for example, to grow tropical/ warm climate crops outside in a cool temperate climate garden. It is very important to make sure that you always choose seeds and plants that are appropriate to your climate zone.
2. Selecting the Wrong Options for the Microclimate in Your Garden
Even when people are aware of their climate zone, they are often unaware of how much conditions can vary – even from one garden to the next.
Sunlight, wind, topography and a range of other factors create microclimates. This means that even when your neighbour grows something successfully, that does not necessarily mean that it will do well in your particular garden.
Think about environmental factors like sunlight and shade. Think about whether your vegetable garden is sheltered or exposed. Is there a frost pocket on your property? Or a parched spot in summer? Make sure you take the conditions in your particular garden into account when choosing seeds and plants.
3. Choosing the Wrong Seeds and Plants For Your Soil
Another important factor that will determine how well certain seeds and plants will grow is the soil where you live. Before you make selections, make sure you know what soil type you have. Understand the characteristics of the soil in your vegetable garden, how deep it is, how fertile it is, its pH level, and how well it retains water.
Often, soil characteristics will also help you decide whether it will be better to grow at ground level, create raised beds, or implement a different growing system.
Ideally, therefore, it is best to know these things before you get started. Even before you have ordered any seeds.
4. Choosing Varietals That Don’t Actually Taste That Good
Novice gardeners often naively assume they can just grow ‘carrots’ or ‘tomatoes’ and forget about the fact that there are, for each plant type, a huge number of different varieties to choose from.
Choosing the best varietals or cultivars can be quite confusing for beginners. Some find it difficult to know where to start when making selections.
Those who just leap in blindly, and choose almost at random, often find themselves disappointed. Not all varieties actually taste all that good!
Watery tomatoes or bland carrots can be a real disappointment, so it is important to do your research, and choose heirloom seeds that come recommended by experienced gardeners and taste as fruits and vegetables are meant to taste.
Of course, taste can sometimes be subjective. I’ve also known gardeners grow traditional vegetables, even when they don’t like the taste of those crops themselves!
If no one in your family enjoys eating cabbage, for example – just don’t grow it. Concentrate your efforts on growing things you actually like to eat.
5. Overestimating (or Underestimating) How Many Seeds You Need For Your Space
Knowing how many seeds or plants to buy can be challenging if you have never gardened before.
There are a number of things to consider when trying to decide how many seeds to buy. Of course, the first thing to consider is how much space you have available. If you are limited on space, plant spacing requirements, along with germination success rates, can help you work out how many seeds you’ll need.
If you have plenty of space, you may well base your calculation on how many vegetables of each type, how many fruits and how many other plants you will need to meet your family or your household’s requirements. Looking at your current consumption and shopping lists could be a good place to start.
Mistakes You Are Making When Creating a New Vegetable Garden
Next, let’s look at the common mistakes that are made when people make new vegetable gardens:
6. Digging and Disturbing the Soil
Many people’s first move, when making a new vegetable garden, is to pick up a spade and dig up a new patch in a lawn. But those in the know understand that digging is not only unnecessary in this context, but also undesirable.
‘No dig gardening’ is a gardening methodology that can give great yields in a vegetable garden and also protect the soil and keep it productive.
Rather than digging in and disturbing the soil, in a no dig garden we disrupt this precious ecosystem as little as possible. Take care of the soil in your vegetable garden and it will continue to take care of you.
Related Reading: We Stopped Digging Our Garden & It’s Never Been More Productive
7. Planting Into Areas With Low Fertility Without Improving the Soil
Whenever you are planting into an area where the soil is less than ideal, it is vitally important that you take the time to improve it.
Where soil is particularly poor or degraded, it would be a good idea to improve the soil with a green manure cover crop before you start your vegetable garden.
Don’t have time right now? Before sowing seeds or planting, you should add plenty of organic matter as in the no dig techniques mentioned above and create eco-friendly raised beds in which to grow.
8. Placing the New Vegetable Garden in the Wrong Location
One of the most common mistakes is putting a new vegetable garden in the wrong spot on your property.
Of course, environmental conditions will come into play. Think about sunlight, wind, water etc.. But in addition to thinking about these things, you should also consider a few other factors.
One important thing to consider is how far your vegetable plot is from your home. Since an annual fruit and vegetable garden will usually be tended frequently, it should be as close to your home, and as easy to reach as possible. It should be visible, and prominent – since this will help keep it at the forefront of your mind, and help make sure you give it the attention it needs.
You should also make sure that your vegetable garden is close to other garden elements such as a rainwater harvesting system, and your composting system. The shorter a distance you have to travel between areas you will travel between most frequently, the easier it will be to care for and maintain your garden.
9. Making New Raised Beds The Wrong Shape/ Size, or Too Shallow For the Vegetables You Want to Grow
If you are planning to grow in raised beds, it is important to think carefully not only about their location but also their shape and size. The shape you choose can have an impact on how much food you can grow.
(It is best to create as much edge as possible. Since the edge is the most productive part of any ecosystem.)
Don’t make beds too big, or you won’t easily be able to reach into the middles. Don’t make them too small either. Smaller beds are likely to dry out more quickly, will require more watering, and may be too small for certain sprawling plants.
Make sure beds are deep enough too. Different plants have different depth requirements, but it is important to make sure you make your beds deep enough to accommodate the things you want to grow.
10. Spending a Fortune When You Don’t Have To
I have seen new gardeners rush out and buy all sorts of raised bed kits, planters and other items for their new vegetable beds, without giving it much thought. But don’t make the mistake of spending a lot of money, when you don’t necessarily have to spend anything much at all.
Check out these tips to create a vegetable garden for free.
When you look around you, you will find that you don’t have to spend much money at all to create a wonderfully productive garden. There are plenty of natural and reclaimed resources that you might be able to use.
Mistakes You Are Making When Sowing Seeds
Next, let’s turn our attention to the common mistakes surrounding the sowing of seeds:
11. Choosing the Wrong Growing Medium
It is important not to just use a standard potting mix for all your seeds. Different seeds have different requirements when it comes to moisture, drainage etc..
There are a number of different ways to sow seeds, and a number of different mediums you can use to germinate them. But you should make sure you understand the requirement of different seeds and plants before you make your choices.
One other thing to note is that peat based compost is not an eco-friendly choice. If you do use a bought compost/ potting mix, make sure you choose a peat-free, sustainable option. Or make your own at home – by mixing compost, light soil and leaf mold, for example.
12. Sowing Seeds Too Early
I would say that one of the most common mistakes gardeners make is sowing seeds too early in the year.
It is important to think about when you can expect the last frost date in your area. This will be a factor in determining when you should sow a range of common seeds. But don’t just rely on the last frost date. Take a look at the weather in a given year, forecasts and predictions, and make your own judgements about when to sow.
Of course, when you should sow seeds will depend on whether you are sowing indoors, under cover, or outside in your garden.
13. Starting Certain Seeds a Little Too Late
Another common issue to starting certain seeds (tomatoes for example) a little too late. While there are seeds you can plant practically all year round, some, you will need to get started early. This is especially true in areas which have a shorter growing season.
Sow tomatoes and other warm season crops too late, and you may end up with immature fruits at the end of the growing season. (Although there are some great ways to use unripe green tomatoes.)
Knowing when to sow a range of different seeds, and creating a sowing and planting schedule is important when creating a vegetable garden. A little organisation can save a lot of trouble further down the road.
14. Planting Seeds at the Wrong Depth
Seeds need oxygen for germination. One common reason that germination rates are low is that seeds were planted at the wrong depth within the soil or growing medium.
Make sure you know the requirements of the seeds you are sowing, and follow the sowing instructions for those seeds to achieve the best results.
15. Not Providing the Right Temperatures for Germination
Other common germination problems revolve around temperature. Again, different seeds have different requirements. Make sure you know the optimal temperature range for the seeds you are sowing to make sure success rates are as high as possible.
Determine whether it is best to sow indoors, undercover or outdoors. And wherever you are growing, make sure the temperature needs are met.
Mistakes You Are Making When Caring For Seeds and Seedlings
Plenty more common mistakes crop up once seeds have germinated. Here are some mistakes that you might make when caring for seedlings and young plants:
16. Watering Too Much
Many garden mistakes revolve around watering. It is important to understand that different seedlings and plants will require very different amounts.
Water too much, and plants can become waterlogged and roots can rot and plants can die. Watering too much can also increase the likelihood of problems with damping off or other plant diseases.
17. Not Watering Enough
Of course, not watering enough is just as bad. Not providing plants with enough water can also kill them. Less extreme water shortage can still be a problem, as it can stunt plant growth and make them less vigorous.
Getting watering wrong can definitely affect the yield from your vegetable garden.
18. Failing to Thin Out Seedlings When Required
Overcrowding in seed trays, containers or in the ground is another common problem. It is important to make sure you thin out seedlings when necessary to give the remaining plants space to grow, and the nutrients they need to thrive.
Don’t just throw away the thinned out plants. Depending on what exactly you are growing, of course, these can often be eaten in salads. Sometimes, they can even be transplanted elsewhere and left to grow on somewhere else in your garden.
19. Damaging Seedlings When Pricking Them Out
I once saw someone destroying a whole tray of kale by plucking each seedling out by the stem and breaking off all the roots! (And this was not a child, but rather a gentleman who should have known better!)
Many gardeners, especially new ones, damage seedlings by handling them incorrectly when pricking them out.
Check out this article on pricking out seedlings to make sure you don’t make the same mistake.
20. Forgetting to Harden Off Plants Before You Transplant Them into Your Garden
Finally, if you have started seeds indoors or undercover, it is very important to remember to harden them off before you transplant them into your garden.
Plants that have become acclimatized to indoors conditions often need to be gradually introduced to outdoors conditions. A cold frame can be useful for this process.
Mistakes You Are Making On The Vegetable Plot
Finally, let’s take a look at other mistakes you might be making on the vegetable plot:
21. Not Creating Polycultures or Companion Planting
Don’t segregate your vegetables! Planting large areas with just one crop can cause a range of problems with pests and diseases. Mono-crop planting can make organic gardening much more difficult.
Companion planting and combining plants to create polycultures or guilds can make organic gardening easier. It can help increase yield by improving and maintaining soil fertility, by improving environmental conditions, by attracting beneficial wildlife, and helping with pest control.
22. Not Making Plans For Year-Round Growing and Crop Rotation
Many vegetable gardeners are so keen to get some plants in the ground that they forget to look ahead. But to make the most of your vegetable garden, it is important to make some plans.
Think about when crops will be harvested and when gaps will open up. What will you sow and grow there next? How can you grow food where you live not just over the warmer summer months but all year round?
Sow successionally, and think about what will come after the current crops. It is also a good idea to look even further ahead, and think about making a crop rotation plan for the next few years.
Rotating certain crops can help keep your soil healthy, reduce disease problems in plants, and spread the wealth of nitrogen fixers (peas, beans etc..) around to different parts of your garden.
23. Leaving Areas of Bare Soil
Another way to make sure that you keep soil healthy is to keep bare soil to a minimum.
When soil is left bare, the fragile top soil can be eroded by wind or rain. Moisture is lost through evaporation, especially in summer when the sun is shining. And valuable nutrients can be lost, or washed away. Bare soil also leads to greater carbon loss, and reduces the amount of carbon locked up in the soil.
It is best to maximise vegetative cover whenever you can. And where the soil is not currently growing plants, it should be covered with an organic mulch. Different mulches are best for use in different situations, and around different plants.
24. Standing on Your Growing Areas and Causing Compaction
Wherever possible, it is best to plan out your vegetable garden so that you stand on and compact your growing areas as little as possible. This is another way to take care of the soil in your garden and to make sure that it can continue to effectively do its job. Keeping soil suitably aerated can help make sure that soil biota can thrive.
25. Losing Fertility Over Time
If you take, take and take from your vegetable garden and don’t give back, it will lose fertility over time. But this is, unfortunately, an all too common mistake. It is important to remember that when we take the plants from a vegetable garden, we are removing nutrients that those plants took up from the soil.
One of the most important and obvious ways to return nutrients to the system is by composting vegetable scraps and other organic materials and spreading that compost on the beds.
I once came across a gardener who had been growing for a couple of years but did not have a composting system in place. This is a serious error!
If you grow vegetables but don’t already have a composting system in place – set one up right away.
A worm bin is one of the best ways to start composting. Read more about starting one here.
As well as using compost to return fertility to a vegetable garden, we can also: mulch with a range of different forms of organic matter, add liquid plant fertilizers, and chop and drop green manures, for example.
26. Not Harvesting and Storing Water for Your Vegetable Garden
Any gardener who is not harvesting and storing rainwater in their gardens cannot truly say that their garden is sustainable. Nor can they claim that they are truly thinking long term.
Even if you live in an area where there is plenty of water right now, climate change may alter things in the years to come. And in any case, it is worth remembering that rainwater is far better than mains water for your plants. So you should use it when maintaining your vegetable garden.
27. Getting Overwhelmed By Weeds
Many novice gardeners make the mistake of looking at weeds in entirely the wrong way. First of all, it is important to note that weeds are simply plants that thrive in the setting. When those plants thrive in the middle of a vegetable garden, they may not be wanted. But weeds can actually be very useful things to have around.
I would strongly suggest that you work out if a weed is of any use before you whip it out. When weeding becomes harvesting, suddenly, this garden job does not seem like so much of a chore.
By weeding little and often, you can stay on top of unwanted weeds without the task becoming overwhelming. Try a spot of ‘casual weeding’ every time you walk by. And those weeds can also come in handy. Pop them in a bucket of water and you can turn them into a liquid fertilizer.
28. Not Making The Most of Your Space
This is a mistake I have seen time and time again. Many people who start vegetable gardens don’t make the most of the space they have available.
To make the most of your space, you can employ vertical gardening techniques. This can dramatically increase the number of crops that you will be able to grow in the space available to you.
Related Reading: 10 Fruits & Veggies You Can Grow Vertically For Huge Yields
29. Not Thinking about the Wildlife in Your Garden
Another common mistake made by novice gardeners is underestimating the importance of caring for the wild world around them. While we try to tame and control nature to a degree in our gardens, it is important to remember that nature often knows best.
Your vegetable garden will only thrive if you do what you can to boost biodiversity, and encourage and protect the wildlife in your garden.
Remember, you are not gardening alone. From the bees and the birds, to the earthworms and other creatures toiling away below the soil – in an organic and wildlife friendly garden, you will always have an army of helpers close at hand.
30. Forgetting to Make the Time to Enjoy The Fruits of Your Labors
Finally, there is one more thing that is is very important to remember – have fun!
Gardening can be hard work from time to time, but it can also be hugely rewarding and enjoyable. If you don’t make time to stop, smell the flowers, savor the food you have grown and enjoy the fruits of your labors – then you are missing out on half of what gardening is all about.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer, permaculture designer and green living consultant. She is a practical, hands-on gardener, with a background in philosophy: (an MA in English-Philosophy from St Andrews University). She has long had an interest in ecology, gardening and sustainability and is fascinated by how thought can generate action, and ideas can generate positive change.
In 2014, she and her husband moved to their forever home in the country. She graduated from allotment gardening to organically managing 1/3 of an acre of land, including a mature fruit orchard,which she has turned into a productive forest garden. The yield from the garden is increasing year on year – rapidly approaching an annual weight in produce of almost 1 ton.
She has filled the rest of the garden with a polytunnel, a vegetable patch, a herb garden, a wildlife pond, woodland areas and more. Since moving to the property she has also rescued many chickens from factory farms, keeping them for their eggs, and moved much closer to self-sufficiency. She has made many strides in attracting local wildlife and increasing biodiversity on the site.
When she is not gardening, Elizabeth spends a lot of time working remotely on permaculture garden projects around the world. Amongst other things, she has designed private gardens in regions as diverse as Canada, Minnesota, Texas, the Arizona/California desert, and the Dominican Republic, commercial aquaponics schemes, food forests and community gardens in a wide range of global locations.
In addition to designing gardens, Elizabeth also works in a consultancy capacity, offering ongoing support and training for gardeners and growers around the globe. She has created booklets and aided in the design of Food Kits to help gardeners to cool and warm climates to grow their own food, for example. She is undertaking ongoing work for NGO Somalia Dryland Solutions and a number of other non governmental organisations, and works as an environmental consultant for several sustainable companies.