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The #1 mistake every new gardener can avoid (plus 6 other common mistakes)

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Most of us have by now planted our garden, if we have one, or at least thought about it–the lengthening days and warming temperatures leading to thoughts of fresh-picked vegetables, fruit tarts and al fresco dining.

We talked with two experienced gardeners (and members of the Zukeeni community) to learn the most common mistakes new gardeners make.

Kristee Rosendahl, who founded SmartGardener (the genesis of Zukeeni), tends to a sizeable garden that supplies fresh vegetables to a high-end farm-to-table restaurant in Healdsburg. Bobby Groves, who also worked with SmartGardener, is an urban agriculture and vertical gardening expert who had a rooftop garden right out of college. According to Kristee and Bobby, these are the top mistakes made.

1. Over enthusiasm

Enthusiasm for gardening is great, but over enthusiasm typically results in people growing too much at once and/or growing the wrong varieties for where they live.

Plant what you know will grow well in your area. A good nursery will only stock what grows well in the particular region it sells to. Start out conservatively and figure out what you like.

According to Bobby, “People often think, ‘I’m going to grow everything this year!” They put in kale, tomatoes, beets and lettuces in a small raised bed, which leads to overcrowding and poor growth or simply too much stuff. He adds, “That’s the kind of situation that leads people to feel overwhelmed and abandon their gardens. It’s better to start small and don’t bite off more than you can chew—literally.” He recommends planting not more than 3-4 annual crops.

 2. Improper watering

Most people do a great job of watering right after they put their seeds or seedlings in the ground, but things tend to fall off after that. Says Kristee, “If seeds and seedlings can’t rely on a certain amount of water, they weaken and become more susceptible to disease and infestations.” Inadequate watering also produces fewer fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, people do a great job of watering often enough, but don’t use enough water or time for the water to soak down to where it’s needed.

Both our experts recommend putting your watering system on some sort of timer, and setting it to a consistent schedule. Kristee uses a new system called Hydrowise which she’s able to control from her computer and smartphone. What’s more, sophisticated systems like Hydrowise allow you to optimize water use, since you can set the system to water one part of your garden every other day, and another part every three days, for example.

3. Planting too early in the year

This often comes about because nurseries stock tons of landscape and garden plants well before it’s the ideal time to put them in the ground. People naturally get excited about planting when they see all the possibilities, and start envisioning the great bounty they think will soon be theirs. However, most garden plants don’t do well until the weather turns consistent. The temperature of the soil needs to be warm enough for plants to grow and thrive—approximately 60 degrees consistently. So you can go ahead and buy those gorgeous tomato plants early, but don’t put them in the ground too early.

4. Assuming your plants only need sun, water and dirt

Compost and mulch your garden to keep your soil healthy and your plants thriving. Even if you’re not up to the task of managing your own compost, these days, you can easily buy high-quality compost in bags from area nurseries. Sprinkle just a few tablespoons around your tomatoes and fruit trees.

Mulch to help your garden soil hold water. Kristee recommends mulching with straw—a 4-inch deep layer is most effective. Mulching also decreases the amount of water you need to use, and it helps keep weeds at bay.

Careful application of a good, organic fertilizer can also boost your plants’ chances of success. Follow the instructions carefully, and avoid chemical fertilizers which can burn your plants if improperly used.

5. Not following the directions on your seed packets or seedlings

Pay close attention to the directions on seed packets, particularly concerning spacing and lighting. For example, not all broccoli varieties are the same. One might spread significantly more than another, and maturity dates vary widely. Putting your plants too close together leads to overcrowding and poor growth.

Randomly laying out plants is one of the most common and most detrimental mistakes you can make. Take care in laying out your varieties so that plants that grow to be bushy won’t block the light from reaching other plants.

6. Not investing in the success of your garden

We all tend to be overly enthusiastic when it comes time to plant our garden, but it’s harder to maintain that enthusiasm. Take time to watch your garden grow—daily if you can manage it. Not only do most people find it rewarding to see new growth on their plants, but by looking over your garden regularly, you can catch problems early, e.g., wilting or yellowing due to a faulty irrigation line, too much or too little sun, bugs, etc.

In addition, whether you plant in the ground or use raised beds, start out with the best soil you can afford. High quality soil holds water better, and contains more nutrients, laying the foundation for seasons to come.

 7. Not monitoring the weather

Keep an eye on the weather. It’s especially important these days as our weather grows more and more unpredictable and extreme. If you set the watering system to water every three days, but there’s a period of extreme heat for three days, you could lose your more delicate or vulnerable plants—particularly new seedlings, or invite in pests. Frost can cause serious damage, too. Monitor the nighttime lows and be prepared to blanket citrus, avocado, and other similarly sensitive trees and plants.

Other tips for successful gardening:

  • Exchange extra food with neighbors (made easy with Zukeeni) because it gives you the opportunity to exchange tips specific to your area.
  • Remember to eat what you grow. Super local food contains the most nutrition, and food left to rot only attracts unwanted pests, such as rats.

We hope these tips help you and your garden flourish!