8 Common Mistakes Made by New Gardeners - Melissa K. Norris

8 Common Mistakes Made by New Gardeners

By Melissa Norris | Gardening

May 02

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These 8 common mistakes made by new gardeners are easy to avoid once you know what they are!

My guest today, Stacey Murphy, will be explaining what mistakes people make in their garden when they’re growing their vegetables and herbs. Stacey is one of the world’s top gardening experts, featured on Martha Stewart Radio and PBS’s Growing a Greener World and once appeared on the David Letterman show featuring a giant radish! She is known for her superpower of packing, literally, tons of vegetables and herbs into tight spaces. She’s helped thousands of new gardeners from six continents enjoy fresh, affordable food grown at home – whether that’s in a pot on a window sill or a front lawn full of veggies.

She envisions a world where everyone is nourished by the magic of fresh, affordable and culturally exciting food…extra points if it’s homegrown. She makes growing food look easy because she’s been doing it a long time in all sorts of climates all around the United States. From the North and the South, in the heat in the desert, in the mountains…all over the place. From this she’s noticed that people run into all the same sorts of challenges so I’m excited to glean her knowledge so that we can, hopefully, avoid them.

Listen in below to the full podcast, Episode #255 8 Common Mistakes Made by New Gardeners, of the Pioneering Today Podcast, where we don’t just inspire you, but give you the clear steps to create the homegrown garden, pantry, kitchen, and life you want for your family and homestead.

What Stacey loves about gardening is the ability to walk into your backyard, grabs some herbs to flavor your food, grab some greens to make a smoothie. And she really enjoys spreading that to people who want that as a part of a lifestyle of health and vitality that feels effortless. So she’d like to share those mistakes to help people make it easier as they move forward.

Melissa: Right now it’s end of April so we don’t have a lot growing outside yet, but I do have lettuce growing and I had started some holy basil inside. Just the other day I was able to have a salad and jazz it up by adding a few leaves from the holy basil that’s still under my grow lights. I’ll tell you what, the fresh flavor just popped.

Stacey, please share with us some of those universal mistakes so that we can help as many people as possible grow some food successfully. Especially given the covid-19 circumstances where many can’t get out and many grocery store shelves are empty or limited.

Common New Gardener Mistakes

1. Expectations

Stacey: First, we need to think about this mindset of wanting to provide for my family which puts pressure on a garden to produce food right away. There are things that can produce quickly, and we’ll get into that in a moment, but the number one mistake is that gardeners move into production mentality first without taking a moment to appreciate nature and the process.

In a normal situation, you have a process where you complete step one, step two, step three, and at the final step you have your desired results. With gardening, you may do everything that people say to do and then something comes along and it’s a little bit different. And that has to do with the biodiversity of nature and the wonderful abundance of nature and the magnitude of diversity that there is.

I encourage people to embrace the love and curiosity of nature. Here’s the deal that nobody talks about: there was a study done where they put two groups of plants out and they were using the same techniques on them. Same watering, same soil, same seeds, same light…everything. Except on one set of plants, they focused their love and appreciation on them. What they found was that those plants grew larger and faster. So sometimes with our gardening, when we put too much pressure on the plants they just don’t produce as well. Ironically, one of the best fertilizers is our love and appreciation.

So for new beginners, this pressure on productivity is a mistake. Once you have more experience and start to ramp things up and start to understand how things work, then you can move into the mindset of maximizing, like How do I maximize this? But when you’re first getting started, I recommend focusing on just the love of the process and the love of the plants. You’re going to be shocked that things go really well even when you forget to do things, like forget to water. You might still have success because you love and appreciated them.

It’s very strange, but it’s actually true. They’ve shown it in some studies. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

Melissa: I’ve heard people mention the study but I haven’t actually viewed it myself. I’m really fortunate in that I grew up in a home that raised our own food, from my earliest childhood days. So I’ve always had the benefit of teachers in the garden, in the form of my parents. But when my husband and I started our own garden, I was really focused on food production…and still am. Let’s be honest, I do our vegetable garden to get that harvest. But about five years ago I realized that was my only focus and that I really wanted the garden to be a place of beauty as well as functionality. So that’s when I intentionally started putting in more flowers.

Some were for pollinators, some for companion planting, and some were just for the fact that I thought they were gorgeous and beautiful flowers to make my garden this whole function and not just food production. Although that was part of it. I didn’t really put together the correlation that you were just sharing and I hadn’t seen the study myself. But things definitely grow better every single year. Some of that I would like to think is the learning curve. Gardening is a journey. Even though I’ve been growing a garden for 20 plus years, I still learn something new every single year. But I didn’t really put that correlation between the two, how I was creating this place of beauty and enjoyment, and the effects that it would have on the overall production. So that’s really fascinating.

Stacey: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite things. I live with 11 people here in an intentional community in San Diego. There’s all of us who have the intention on the garden and I’ve noticed that when everybody’s intentions are aligned on the garden that the garden is even lusher. I’ve noticed that in times when nobody’s home for months or the people who live here are interested in gardening, the garden shrinks. It’s really fascinating to me that I watch it literally, even though I’m doing all the same things, adding all the same fertility, planting all the same seeds, we’re going through all the same seasons. It’s a collection of the intentions of the house that shapes how the garden grows. It’s very fascinating.

Melissa: That is. Honestly, in times of stress, which a lot are experiencing right now with the whole pandemic situation, we really need a place where we can be appreciative of nature, to dream and be thankful…just to bring all those positive attributes and focus to combat those stress levels.

Stacey: Yeah, and nature really delivers.

2. Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Stacey: That leads me into the second mistake that people make and that is feeling the need to do too much…thinking that you are growing the plants. Plants want to grow, they want to thrive, and to produce the next generation. That’s what they’re wired to do. They want all the same things we do.

I have courses that entail how to grow your own vegetables and such. It’s kind of a misnomer because plants are the ones growing, you’re not actually the one growing. The plants are doing all the work. So the mistake I see people making is focusing on what they’re doing instead of focusing on creating conditions for the plants to thrive. It goes to the basics of understanding that your vegetables or plants want six to eight hours of sun ideally. Yes, there are some that are going to grow in the shade but they’ll grow slower. If you give them sun, they’ll flourish. If they get the water that they need and a little support by way of a trellis and some pruning, they’ll grow much better.

We as a culture, especially us gardeners, love to feel productive. This goes again to the idea of wanting our garden to be really productive. It’s a mind shift to say our plants are productive; they’re the ones doing all the work and we’re just creating the right conditions. I mentioned the necessity of sun and water, the third that’s so important is creating soil that’s alive. Creating a garden that is full of life, that supports the plants.

There’s a mindset shift that I would love for gardeners to come in as a beginner and realize that these are living, breathing things. What do they need? Because a lot of times we look at nature and thing that we somehow know more than nature. Nature is so diverse and amazing, so being curious about what the plant really needs and delivering the right conditions so that they emerge, that’s the thing.

Melissa, you talked about this with your planting of your pollinator habitat and setting up conditions for your fruit trees for the long haul. You’re basically creating conditions where nature is going to really thrive over the course of decades, not just over the course of weeks. That to me is a mindset shift. That’s all about not being the doer, allowing the plants to be the ones that grow.

3. Not Understanding Soil Needs

Melissa: I’m so glad that you mentioned soil health. That I think is probably the number one issue when people have problems with their plants. Now, of course, if you don’t water them and they don’t have the proper amount of sunlight, there can be issues but we can almost always pinpoint it back to something lacking in the soil. Or not the right soil conditions for that plant. I’m really glad you brought it up because it gets overlooked often and people don’t know they need decent soil. They don’t know what that means or how important that soil health is for everything for that plant, from it bouncing back from pests or disease and other stressors.

Choose the Right Growing Medium

Stacey: That’s really mistake number three. Beginner gardeners think they can grow in anything. For example, they’re in New York City and they just have a balcony. They go out and grab some soil from the garden store. The mistake is that they see a chunk of brown stuff and it all looks the same, whether it’s potting mix or soil, or compost and don’t really understand all the differences between those things. They don’t know what the perfect recipe is for the style of gardening they’re about to do. Which is why it’s considered one of the mistakes I see people make.

If leaves are turning colors, or pest and disease are present, it goes back to your soil. A mistake I see often is people using potting mix in their outdoor garden and thinking that it’s soil. Or buying soil and putting it in containers. That also doesn’t work, it’s just not the right mix for containers. You want actually a potting mix. I don’t know if you’ve seen that with the people that you work with.

Melissa: Yeah. Another thing that I see really often because people have heard that compost is wonderful for our garden. Compost is a really good thing to grow healthier plants and get a more abundant harvest. However, compost is not soil. It’s a fabulous addition to our soil, but it is not an independent growing medium for your garden. So that’s another one that I’ve noticed. It’s just a little bit of confusion on what compost is and how to use it appropriately cause people will just buy compost to try to plant in that alone.

Stacey: Yeah, it’s easy to look at a big chunk of brown stuff and think that it looks the same as everything else. We walk on this earth, on the soil, and we take for granted that it’s just this huge living web of underground critters and microorganisms and we forget that it’s alive because it seems so solid. That’s the think I love about gardening, it just really makes you in touch with that.

To bounce off what you just said, when I was living in Brooklyn I had a studio apartment and didn’t have a yard. So the first thing that I grew was indoor sprouts and shoots. I too questioned why I wouldn’t just grow in compost…so that’s what I did. I can tell you exactly why you don’t use compost. You get rot because compost is too wet. And the reason I know is because it happened to me.

Learn how to improve your soil and compost in my FREE Organic Gardening Workshop. Save time using these proven methods to naturally INCREASE your harvest and provide nutrient-dense food from your backyard all year long NO matter where you live. Click here to get your free seat now!

Too Much of a Good Thing Isn’t Always Good

While we’re on the topic of mistakes and soil, a common question that comes up is if manure can just be thrown on a garden. How much composted manure can be thrown in. There’s a lot of mistakes that people make in the compost realm and in the fertility realm of their soil. Sometimes I’ll see people put too much manure down over and over and over every year. What can happen is there becomes an overabundance, sometimes of phosphorus and potassium in the soil. That can happen with too much of any good thing. What happens is that the soil starts to bind up certain nutrients in certain ways which produce nutrient deficiencies in your plants.

It seems like your doing a great thing but there can be too much of a good thing. I often tell people, if you’re putting anything more than an inch of composted manure on your vegetable garden a year, you might find some trouble down the road.

On the other end, there are people who are plant-based and they want to have a vegan garden so they’re reluctant to use any kind of animal products in their soil fertility. So products with bat guano, horse manure, cow manure, chicken or rabbit manure, whatever it is, they’re reluctant to use some of those animal products. What they might find over time is that it’s harder to get some of the phosphorus that they need for their fruiting plants like tomatoes and peppers.

Anyone who is starting to think about your soil fertility and really creating a great habitat for healthy plants, you want to figure out a system that works over the years that your adding the same amounts each year and getting the results that you want. I’m curious from your perspective, Melissa, if any of that resonates with your or are things you see from people.

Melissa: It really does. It is so true that too much of a good thing is still too much in the garden and can be detrimental. An easy analogy is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Too hot, too much. It’s bad. Too low, it’s bad. There really is this balance in the middle on all of our different levels that’s ideal when we’re talking about macro and micronutrients in our soil and for our plants.

People know that we need a certain amount of calcium and magnesium specifically when it comes to tomatoes and peppers to avoid things like blossom end rot. That’s true for any fruiting plant, like squashes as well. So I see a lot of people wanting to just dump the Epsom salts and ground-up eggshells and all these calcium items into their soil where they’re planting their tomatoes. I always have to ask if their soil is low in that because they should not be adding those huge amounts every single year.

You can tell how your plants are doing. I will do soil testing every couple of years unless we’re introducing some new things that we’re doing to the soil and I really want to see the scientific results. I kind of look at how my plants are doing and then will add extra manure if I feel like growth is really down and some are struggling or if I’m doing a lot of heavy brassica planting. Then I might put down a little bit more composted chicken manure. I’m growing almost year-round in the same soil using cold frames in the winter months. Definitely doing succession planting so I have crops going into the garden in March all the way through the fall and into the winter.

Usually, we do about a once a year application of composted manure with some straw cause I’m shoveling out chicken boxes so it’s not just pure manure. With the cows, it has to breakdown either with sawdust or wood chips and stuff. So I’m putting about an inch to two inches once a year in the garden.

4. Assumptions

Melissa: I definitely see people add too much. The plants will let you know if they have too much of something as long as you know how to read those signs.

Stacey: Yes. Whenever people see something wrong, they automatically assume that it’s too little of something. We’ve been talking about fertility but it’s also true for watering. They see their plants turning a funny color and think that it must be deficient in something so they start throwing down more and more stuff.

I have seen this happen so much, especially with container gardens and indoor plants, there’ll be too much water and a sign that your plant is getting too much water can be yellowing of leaves. When people see yellow leaves they thing that the plant is dying so they’ll water it more. Basically compounding the problem. When you’re first getting started it’s hard to decipher which is which, but as you get more experience you start to understand the differences.

For beginners what I recommend doing is asking yourself several questions. In the example of the yellowing leaves ask:

Does it mean that I’m watering too much?

Or does it mean that there’s a deficiency?

The first thing you can do is dial back the water a little bit and see what happens. You can also feel the soil. Is it moist all the time? If so, it needs to dry out a bit. Soil doesn’t like to be moist all the time and actually needs to dry out a little bit.

If adjusting the watering doesn’t work, then go from there to determine what else might be causing the yellowing of leaves. If it’s a nutrient deficiency oftentimes that means a nitrogen deficiency. But you don’t want to add a bunch of stuff, rather a little at a time. You could try a little bit of seaweed fertilizer to see what happens.

Learn about soil testing and how to amend for micro and macronutrients in my FREE Organic Gardening Workshop. Save time using these proven methods to naturally INCREASE your harvest and provide nutrient-dense food from your backyard all year long NO matter where you live. Click here to get your free seat now!

5. Not Keeping Records

Stacey: Watch and take notes. This is the most valuable thing to do when you’re getting started. Take notes of what’s happening and what you did to address it and what the results were so that next year when you encounter the same problem you can remember. Oftentimes you don’t have to reference your notes, just the act of writing it down makes you remember. You’re 50% more capable of remembering things that you write down versus things that you don’t. So my advice is to keep a journal and take photos.

Melissa: I couldn’t agree more. Records are so important and not just for beginners but all gardeners. I haven’t always been a good record keeper and when you’ve been growing in the same spot for many years (in my case 14 years at our current home) it’s impossible to remember no matter how much I’d like to think I have a great memory.

For crop rotation and other things those records become invaluable even as a seasoned gardener because the seasons really start to run together. Plus having data on your microclimates and micro-zones exactly where you live is so helpful.

6. Not Understanding Specific Growing Requirements

Stacey: Every location from New York City to the mountains has microclimates. The mistake that I hear often is that people will say that it may work for you in California but it’s not going to work for me in Arizona, or Florida, or Detroit, etc. But their broad location isn’t a separate condition that is somehow unique. There are so many people growing in your specific conditions and plats bred specifically for your conditions.

There are so many ways to look at your unique climate. The first thing I recommend is to look very closely at temperatures and precipitation. The number of days that go above the heat index, 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Then map those temperatures so that you know which plants to focus on. I have used this same system of growing in Brooklyn, Arizona, Florida, and in San Diego.

People think that a system means that it’s all the same, but it really means that you understand what the plants ned and you give it to them. You weave it into your specific unique climate conditions. Making the statement that you’re in this unique situation it puts resistance in. In truth, plants are the same. My kale plant wants the same thing as your kale plant. If you can understand what that plant wants, you can give it to it no matter where you live.

Knowing the factors that are needed to grow that plant is going to help you. There’s a specific timing that’s going to work really well in your area just by shifting the timing of when you plant. I’ll give you an example. In Florida growing tomatoes in summer is a nightmare. You just don’t want to do it. But if you grow in the fall and spring you’ll have an amazing tomato season. Let’s say you move from Detroit to Florida and try to apply the same growing principles of growing the tomatoes in the summer it’ll be a nightmare. But if you use the same system of thought of how the climate conditions contribute to healthy plants you’ll know not to grow them during the summer.

Melissa: I have a lot of people ask me about growing certain crops based on their gardening zone, or a specific state, our country. Like does it apply to them. The answer is yes, because the gardening basics and fundamentals of the plant don’t change. The plants don’t know what continent you live in or your zip code. They don’t care. What you alter is knowing when to plant them based upon your temperatures and average first and last frost dates. I recommend documenting those as well because averages are great and can be obtained online, but knowing what you’re are is so invaluable.

I’ll give you an example of why this is important. If I drive 30 minutes down the mountain, they can plant things three weeks earlier than I can. That’s about 30 miles which isn’t very far but it makes a huge difference when planting out things like tomatoes because if they get frost, they’re going to die. We can still grow everything the same, but put in at different times.

7. Misunderstanding Garden Zones

Melissa: Another mistake that I see often, especially right now, is people wanting to know when to plant in their specific garden zone. Your gardening zone has nothing to do with your planting dates. It’s your average low temperatures in the winter time and definitely pertains to which varieties of perennials you can put in because they’re hard down to a certain zone or a certain temperature without taking protective measures. But as far as planting your garden, it has nothing to do with it. So I think that is a big mistake I see…people not understanding what gardening zone means in relation to their garden.

Stacey: I think there’s been so many ways in which people try to simplify gardening to make it accessible to more people. So they’ve tried to use this one data point of minimum average temperature as a way to say when you should plant things. It just doesn’t work. What I really recommend is getting to know the ups and downs, highs and lows of your climate.

What’s interesting to me as you garden is that you start to get appreciative of the little details. You start to see the dew or morning condensation and understand what that means. Or you start feel the temperature on your skin at night and know that it’s time to plant cucumbers. It’s very fascinating to me that you start to dial into the cycles of nature and you start to track it by recording those numbers and get in tune with nature. Everybody wants it to be super simple and the simplest answer is really to look at the data.

What New Gardeners Can Grow For a Quick Harvest

Melissa: Circling back to what you mentioned earlier, what are some crops that you can plant and get a harvest relatively soon?

Stacey: I have a couple types of seeds that I actually take with me whenever I travel and go visit my parents for the holidays. I love growing the following for a quick harvest:

  • Pea Shoots – They are ready in 7-10 days! What’s cool about pea shoots is that they will grow back so you can get a couple harvests from them.
  • Sunflower Shoots – Fresh food in about a week just like the pea shoots. And what’s cool about the pea and sunflower shoots you don’t need sunlight.
  • Micro Greens – Pretty much all the lettuce and mustard greens. Sometimes I’ll mix in some herb seeds. Once you plant, within 21 days you’ll have baby salad greens.
  • Radishes – There are some varieties that grow within 21 days.

Another option is to buy what I call teenager plants. They’re around six inches tall. Buy some kale, collard, or chard and once you plant, you can start to harvest the outer leaves within the first couple of weeks. You’ll have food pretty quickly.

Melissa: I love to do microgreens as well. If you don’t have soil to do microgreens you can do sprouts just in a mason jar. You’ll have food in three to four days. It’s a smaller harvest but it’s something that’s fresh and green and easily done on the countertop.

Learn how to grow microgreens and sprouts without a grow light on the countertop as one of the free lessons in my FREE Organic Gardening Workshop. Click here to get your free seat now!

8. Narrow Thinking – Another Mistake

Melissa: When it comes to microgreens many people think you need a specific kind. Like they think they have to get a specific kind in order to grow microgreens. In reality, it’s just a regular seed, you’re just harvesting it while it’s still a small green…hence the name microgreen.

Stacey: I’ve not gotten that question before but that makes sense.

Gardening is a new language to learn. I think that’s why it’s so easy to make mistakes because there are words that you might misunderstand. Even the word raised garden bed is talked about in multiple ways. Gardening is this wonderful place of experimentation and everything that was once considered a mistake might have led to knowledge. Or it could lead to a whole new way of doing things.

Don’t be too hard on yourself for making a mistake or misunderstanding something because it is a language to learn. So don’t be afraid to do something that other people say not to do and just see what the results are for your own benefit. You might discover something.

Where you can find Stacey:

Grow Your Own Vegetables Blog

Super Food Garden Summit


Learn how to improve your soil and compost in my FREE Organic Gardening Workshop. Save time using these proven methods to naturally INCREASE your harvest and provide nutrient-dense food from your backyard all year long NO matter where you live. Click here to get your free seat now!


About the Author

Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.

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