Common Gardening Mistakes

Pat Ferguson
Adams County Master Gardener

Ah, the cheerful, pleasant vision of planting a beautiful garden. Hold that thought! If you are fairly new to gardening, you will need to know a few things that will help keep you out of trouble. Even armed with gardening know-how and gardening advice, being a gardener means, among other things, making mistakes.

First of all, before placing any flower, vegetable, vine, tree, or shrub into the ground, you must prepare the soil. You can purchase the highest grade plant material available; but if your soil is not properly prepared, your garden may be doomed to failure. Know your soil. You can start with top soil if you wish; but because by itself it is too heavy and dense and is limited due to porosity, water retention and lack of nutrients, you must add lighter material to it.

You may add any of the following materials to top soil to make it "good" gardening soil: sphagnum peat moss (aerates the soil to promote strong root systems, helps retain moisture and nutrients); perlite (white, lightweight little "pebbles" that improve aeration and drainage and help promote root development); vermiculite (similar to perlite); humus (rich, dark soil); composted cow manure (contains a wide range of minerals and nutrients, adds to the composition of the soil and holds moisture). Do not use fresh manure as it can burn young plants; composted manure has no offensive odor. A generally acceptable mixture is two-thirds soil and one third amendments, well mixed.

Know your conditions. For example, do not plant impatiens where they will receive 6 to 8 hours of sun daily because they will not survive. A better choice of annuals for that space would be petunias, verbena, geraniums, daisies, vinca, or cosmos. Plant your impatiens in a place that receives either a little morning sun with shade the rest of the day or where they receive dappled shade all day.

Do some planning. Another common error beginning gardeners make is to pack the garden with as much as possible. Allow room for growth and spreading. To do justice to a plant is to give it room to grow and be as attractive as it was meant to be. One of my more easily corrected mistakes was when I planted "Gayfeather" liatris in front of tall garden phlox. I didn't allow for the fact that the liatris was the tallest variety and grew to 5 feet, so the poor "tall" garden phlox disappeared into the back of beyond and they're too gorgeous not to be seen. I've moved them now.

Plant at the proper depth. A very common error is planting too deep. It's a natural inclination to plant a somewhat floppy-stemmed annual out of a market pack deep into the soil in order to support its stems. However, it's not a good idea. Instead, the floppy-stemmed plant should be pinched back from the top, then planted so that the rootball sticks out of the soil just a fraction of an inch.

While on the subject of planting in general, when you remove a plant from the container in which you purchased it, be sure to look carefully at the rootball. Half of the rootball will probably be bound up or encircled in its own roots. Before planting, the rootball must be opened and the roots separated, or the plant will just continue to be root-bound and will simply not grow. Opening up the rootball will allow the roots to spread.

Purchase healthy plants. This practice greatly increases your chances of success. Beware of spindly, dry, browned, or droopy looking plants. Symptoms like these often mean they were not well cared for and will probably not make it through the growing season.

Water well. A common mistake is to give the garden a light sprinkle and let it go at that. After you plant anything, be sure to soak it immediately and thoroughly. Be careful of sprinklers; remember that they only water the foliage. In the hot summer, most of that water evaporates before it does any good, and the roots rarely get the water they need. Water deeply, not daily.

Watering well promotes the development of a deep and extensive root system. Frequent and light watering only promotes shallow rooting. The preferred deep-rooted plants will be able to survive hot dry weather much better because their roots will be able to reach the moisture deep in the soil. Generally speaking, a flower garden needs at least one inch of water per week. You need to remember, too, that over-watering will wash the nutrients out of the soil and also encourage the spread of fungal diseases.

Gardening is a labor of love for most of us, mistakes and all; and if you realize that mistakes are actually important in the learning process, it will help keep your frustration level down. Happy gardening from a gardener who is still making mistakes and still learning - there's hope for all of us.

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