Heidi Carmichael is paid to experiment — and sometimes even fail — in the garden. As a horticulturist with Vesey’s, a large Canadian seed distributor headquartered on Prince Edward Island, she is no stranger to disappointment. “It was easy to come up with a list of common gardening mistakes,” she says, “because I’ve made them all.”
Errors may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that growing is difficult, she says. “Gardening is easy if we just go with the flow. Plants, like people, don’t like to be fussed with too much.”
There are some typical traps, Carmichael says, that many gardeners fall into:
1) Starting out too big
“Many people try to do too much when they first begin gardening and then get discouraged and give up,” Carmichael says. She recommends starting small to gain some experience with what you want to grow and to give yourself time to get accustomed to the amount of maintenance involved in gardening.
2) Not testing your soil
Carmichael strongly encourages all gardeners to test their soil fertility and make necessary amendments the autumn before they plan to plant. “Growing successful vegetables is all to do with pH,” she says. Over-the-counter soil tests are easy to administer and generally come with recommendations for how to boost fertility based on your results.
3) Over- or under-watering
During the growing season, vegetables need about an inch of water per week, Carmichael says. In temperate climates such as the Maritimes and the northeastern U.S., regular rainfall is often enough. If in doubt, a simple test is to feel about an inch beneath the soil – it should be moist but not very wet. “It’s better to water deeply once a week rather than a little every day,” to encourage the water to penetrate down to the roots, Carmichael says.
4) Growing things that aren’t suited to the zone
“Everyone has to be mindful of what can successfully grow in their area,” Carmichael says. A crop such as corn, for example, needs a lot of heat units and so may not succeed in a cooler or foggier climate. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for experimentation, however, as she says every area has micro-climates.
5) Not following planting instructions
When it comes to planting depth and spacing, “follow what the seed packets say,” Carmichael advises. Often gardeners plant their seeds or seedlings too deep, or not deep enough, making it more difficult for the plant to thrive. Likewise, if seeds are planted too close together the roots won’t develop well. “You’ll have to thin them, which is more work and uses more seeds,” she says.
Keep track of your successes and failures from one year to the next, and don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t work. “You can’t blame yourself one hundred percent if things don’t work out,” Carmichael says. “But if you have the proper growing conditions, gardening will work for anyone as long as you put the right effort into it.”