When I planned my garden at the end of last winter, I was filled with visions of turning my backyard into a little homestead. I was convinced that I could grow all of our produce through the spring and summer, so I went a little nuts in the seed aisle of our local garden supply store and bought packets of seeds for every vegetable that caught my eye.

In my defense, I do have some gardening experience. As a kid, I gardened with my mom, and my mother-in-law has a naturally green thumb, so I felt confident that my husband and I could get a flourishing veggie patch up and running without much trouble.

I was comically incorrect.

Everything started out well—I learned to use a tiller, and my husband and I waited until the last early-spring freeze had passed before putting anything in the ground—but we harvested nothing.

What went wrong? In retrospect, so many things. But the good news is that with time, experience, and research, I have a much better understanding of the (many) mistakes we made.

If you’re starting a garden for the first time this spring, let me help you avoid the pitfalls I stumbled through—keep reading!

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Common Gardening Mistakes

vegetables growing in raised beds

1. Trying to grow your grocery store’s produce department

When I planned my garden, I was completely enamored with the notion that I could grow anything I wanted, within reason. I could have my own supply of beets! Carrots! Broccoli! Salad greens! It was going to be wonderful.

In reality, I made things far more difficult on myself by trying to grow too many things—and by trying to grow things out of season. Broccoli does grow in Georgia, but it does not grow well in Georgia in July—trust me.

Like any new adventure, you’re more likely to keep your enthusiasm for gardening if you see success. Rows of seeds that never sprout or plants that never produce will not make you want to try again the next year.

Here’s my advice: Choose two or three of your favorite summer vegetables, and stop there. I’m sticking to tomatoes and bell peppers this year. If possible, don’t start with seeds—purchase healthy, started plants from a garden supply store.

2. Not reading (or following) directions

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this one, especially since I’m an adult who knows the importance of following instructions, but I didn’t make much of an effort to follow the planting and care instructions that accompanied the veggies I tried to grow last year.

As it turns out, those instructions are important.

Measuring the space between plants or seeds or thinning a row of carrots or beets may seem tedious, but these small details often make the difference between a garden plot that yields nothing and one that keeps your family supplied with fresh vegetables all summer.

Here’s my advice: Follow all planting and care instructions! Will your neighbors give you the side eye as you putter around the garden with a ruler, measuring the distance between the newly sprouted fronds in your row of carrots? They might, but they’ll change their tune when you harvest a bounty of big, beautiful carrots that weren’t hindered by overcrowding.

3. Using the wrong method of weed prevention

Of all the mistakes I made with my garden last year, this one sealed the fate of my little patch of dirt. Keeping weeds out of your garden is important—those little rascals can steal nutrients from your veggies, stunting their growth and ultimately killing your garden—but you have to know what you’re doing.

Here are your best bets for preventing weeds in your vegetable garden:

  • Pulling weeds by hand
  • Weed-preventing fabric
  • Mulch

Weeding by hand is a tremendous time commitment—you’ll need to spend a lot of time in your garden every day. Weed-preventing fabric isn’t foolproof, and depending on the size of your garden, it can be a significant expense.

My husband and I decided to try mulch. We needed some for the planting beds in our front yard anyway, so we figured that was the best option. On top of that, our garden plot is on a slight downward slope, and we thought the mulch would help prevent rainwater from eroding the soil and washing away the seeds I’d planted.

What we didn’t know was that the wrong kind of mulch can kill your garden.

We chose the wrong kind.

Our local garden supply store delivered a truckload of fresh hardwood mulch for us, and we covered the garden with it. After a few days, every plant in the garden stopped growing.

Unfortunately, we had inadvertently poisoned all of our plants. While hardwood mulch that has been composted and allowed to decay for a while can be great for vegetable plants, mulch from freshly chipped trees will disrupt the soil’s nutrient balance.

Here’s my advice: If you decide to use mulch to control weeds in your garden, only use hay or straw. Hay and straw are the most neutral forms of mulch—in other words, they won’t upset the soil’s pH and nutrient levels as they decay—which makes them the best choice for newbie gardeners.

Gardening Tips for Beginners

tomatoes growing on vine

Now that you know what not to do in your garden, let’s talk about some simple things you can do to ensure a successful growing season.

1. Choose easy vegetables to grow

Some vegetables are more temperamental and difficult to grow than others. Whether you’re new to gardening or coming back to it after a few seasons, there’s no harm in setting yourself up for success. It’s not cheating, I promise.

If you’re just starting out, avoid these difficult-to-grow vegetables:

  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Eggplant
  • Celery

Crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, radishes, and most varieties of beans and peas are hardy and don’t require special know-how or equipment to grow.

2. Consider using raised beds

Gardening in raised beds (and even in containers on a deck or patio) has grown in popularity in recent years, so kits and DIY plans are easy to find. One of the primary advantages of a raised bed garden is that you begin with high-quality soil. There’s no digging or tilling—you simply fill each bed with high-quality garden soil (and compost, for good measure).

Soil quality and nutrient composition is vital to a successful garden harvest, but achieving (and maintaining) the right balance in the soil in your yard isn’t always simple. Raised beds and small containers can take guesswork out of the equation.

3. Keep a gardening journal

I know this may sound a little hokey, but bear with me.

Think about it this way: If you don’t remember the details of what happened in your garden over the spring and summer—both successes and flops—you’ll have to start from scratch the next year.

Take notes about the varieties of plants you’re growing, weather conditions, any problems you encounter, and approximate yields, and use that information to craft your garden plan for next year.

4. Know how much sun your garden receives

Before you prepare the soil or put any plants in the ground, spend a couple of days paying close attention to the area where your garden will be. Note approximately how many hours of full sun the plot will receive as well as any areas that may be shaded for longer than others. This information will help you determine which plants should go where.

5. Buy high-quality tools

You really don’t need many tools to stick a few plants in the ground, but don’t waste your money on throwaway versions that you’ll only repurchase every year. Choose well-made metal tools with comfortable handles, and be sure to bring them inside (and clean and dry them) at the end of the day.

Here’s a quick list of the gardening tools you’ll find most helpful:

  • Hand trowel
  • Garden hoe
  • Rake
  • Garden hose
  • Adjustable hose nozzle

Getting started with vegetable gardening is all about making things easy on yourself. A few good tools will make garden maintenance less of a chore.

The Bottom Line

harvested kohlrabi plants

I felt pretty defeated when I saw that my garden wasn’t going to produce anything. I was disappointed in myself and even more bummed that my daughter wouldn’t be able to run outside every evening to pick the vegetable of her choice to accompany our dinner.

But I’m not giving up! Instead, I’m scaling back and trying again—this time, with only two crops. If you’re in the same boat, or if this is your first time starting a garden, here’s a quick game plan to follow:

  • Know how much sun your garden plot receives
  • Limit yourself to two or three crops that are easy to grow
  • Contact a local landscape professional for hay or straw if you decide to use mulch as weed prevention
  • Carefully read (and follow!) all planting and care instructions for the vegetables you plant
  • Keep a gardening journal to give yourself a head start next year

Happy gardening!