There’s no shortage of gardening wisdom out there. Ask your grandma, neighbor, or community garden pal. They’ll likely have a set of tried and true tips guaranteed to lead to lush growth and tasty edibles. But what works in one situation might not translate to another.
If you’re doing everything right but scratching your head when you get miserable results. Here’s where you may be going wrong.
You’re fertilizing—without testing your soil.
On its face, fertilizer seems like a magic potion for the garden. After all, fertilizer companies have worked hard to convince gardeners to use their products. Who could resist the images on their product packaging, which depict big juicy tomatoes and giant vibrant blooms?
Stop! Resist the urge to douse your plants with fertilizer without first testing the soil. Without knowing what’s there already, you may end up over-fertilizing, which can stunt growth, reduce yields, and produce harmful run-off. Adding too much nitrogen, for instance, may produce lush tomato plants, without many edible fruits. Check with your local extension office to find out whether they offer soil testing services.
You’re watering—too much.
Every gardener is aware that plants need water to survive, but not all plants have the same moisture level requirements. Even the thirstiest plants need a break from watering once in a while. Prevent overwatering by keeping an eye on Mother Nature. Is rain in the forecast? Skip today’s watering task. Avoid placing plants that are sensitive to root rot in waterlogged areas of your garden. If you notice pooling (e.g., a spot under the gutter where water tends to drip down below), pick another area.
You’re fertilizing—without considering plant needs.
You can fertilize too much, and you can also fertilize incorrectly. Not all plants have the same nutrient needs. Some plants are heavy feeders—corn, tomatoes, brassicas—while others are medium to light feeders (e.g., most greens such as lettuce, arugula, and endive). Quick-growing edibles usually have access to plenty of nutrients in the soil (assuming you’ve cultivated healthy soil and amend your beds regularly) before they’re harvested. There’s no need to waste fertilizer on them.
You’re watering—but not enough.
Your plant may wilt whether it’s over or underwatered. So how can you tell if you’ve overdone it? Stick your finger in the soil around the base of your plant. Does it feel moist? If it feels dry and your plant’s leaves are drooping (and it’s not scorching hot), it’s likely in need of water.
You’re mulching incorrectly.
Mulch is an excellent garden tool. It helps conserve moisture and keep certain pests at bay. However, adding too much mulch can suffocate roots and kill your plants. Don’t add more than 2-4 inches of mulch, and always make sure to spread it instead of piling it on.
You’re planting the wrong flowers.
A garden full of blooms will attract pollinators, but it has to be full of the right ones. When planning your bee and butterfly garden, opt for perennials over annuals. Native perennial flowers tend to produce more pollen than hybrid annuals, which means more food for hungry flying foragers. If you need help picking plants, check out this handy list.
You’re planting in the wrong spot.
You’ve picked the perfect spot for your garden. The soil is fertile, it drains well, and the area gets at least eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Wonderful!
But oops, your lettuces and other heat-sensitive plants are starting to bolt and wilt in the hot sun. While all plants need sunlight to thrive, some do best with a bit of shade, especially during the hottest part of the day. Put edible greens in shady spots to prevent premature bolting—yes, it’s absolutely possible to enjoy greens all summer long!
It seems like a bright idea. Mow the lawn short to prevent weeds from going to seed and keep things trim and tidy. Unfortunately, giving your yard a buzz cut can damage grass, preventing it from forming deep roots that enable it to access the nutrients it needs. Damaged grass gives weeds an opportunity for renewed growth.
You’re contaminating your compost pile.
Diligent gardeners check on their plots at least once a day. Frequent inspections allow you to spot problems like weeds, pests, and disease. But if you need to dispose of disease or pest-infested plant matter, do not toss it into your compost pile. Your at-home bin or pile doesn’t produce enough heat to kill off certain organisms. Take no chances. Throw any suspect material in the trash or your city’s compost bin.
You’re pruning too vigorously.
Pruning is key to healthy growth in certain plants. Pruning tomatoes, for instance, keeps them from overtaking your garden and prevents breakage. Prune too much, though, and you’ll leave fruit fully exposed to the hot sun. With other types of plants, pruning at the right time is also essential. Don’t start trimming and cutting without doing your research or asking a fellow gardener for advice.
Whether you're a lawn care novice or a master gardener, everyone can use a little help around the yard. Subscribe to The Dirt newsletter for tips, recommendations, and problem-solving tools that can help you tame your great outdoors.