Top 5 Gardening Mistakes

Get your garden back on track by avoiding these common blunders.

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Brown thumbs, lend me your ears.

We’ve all been there – a bright and lively plant reduced to a pile of wilted leaves overnight. Don’t give up. Read on to see if you’re making one of these common mistakes.

Having Too Many Plants

Seedlings in Soil Blocks

Start Seeds in Soil Blocks

Starting your seeds in soil blocks gives you a head start on the growing season.

Photo by: Debbie Wolfe

Debbie Wolfe

I’ll be the first to say I’m guilty of this. I turn into a kid at a candy store the minute I walk into a garden center. Variety is always great, but if you’re just starting out you may find it difficult to care for the individual needs of multiple plants. Start small and build from there.

Not Knowing Your Zone

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Use this USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, provided by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (and in the public domain), to help determine which plants are likely to survive the winter in your area. The map divides the country into 12 gardening zones, based on the average lowest temperatures in each. Remember: the map is a guide. Many other factors determine whether or not a plant will overwinter in your garden, including humidity, sunlight, soil type, and wind.

Photo by: Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture ©U.S. Department of Agriculture

Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture

The USDA divides the country into 13 different growing regions to help gardeners choose plants that will thrive in their area. The USDA bases their zones on winter hardiness – a Zone 3 grower needs plants that can withstand extreme temperatures as low as -40 to -30 degrees F while winters in Zone 9 fall between 28 to 18 degrees F. Since the USDA only addresses winter lows, Sunset created its own climate zone map that factors in rainfall, elevation, summer temperatures and other factors. Still need help? Ask the staff at your local garden center, a neighbor with a green thumb or call your local county extension office. Your extension office has people on staff who can help with everything from determining your zone to identifying garden weeds and pests.

Not Paying Attention to Your Plants’ Needs

Toilet Paper Seed Tape

Step 11: Water

Water with a fine nozzle to avoid washing the soil away. Keep the soil moist until seedlings appear. If starting seeds indoors, you may wish to cover the container with plastic wrap to aid germination.

You can’t grow tomatoes in deep shade (if you can, please tell me your secret) and succulents will wither with too much water. Always check the plant tags. “Full Sun” means your plant needs six or more hours of direct sunlight, and fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers grow best with eight or more hours. Anything less and you may notice foliage, but no blooms or fruits. Knowing your plants’ water requirements is also vital – with most plants, you want to keep the soil moist but not wet. Don’t let plants sit in standing water and keep an eye on the weather to make sure you don’t water right before a rainstorm.

Edible Container Gardening: 26 Steps to Success

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Why Grow Fruits and Vegetables in Containers?

Containers are a great option for those with limited (or no) ground space, such as apartment dwellers, and for newbie gardeners who don’t want to commit to digging just yet. They’re also a beautiful addition to a larger garden. Growing in containers can be easy if you set your garden up right.

Photo By: Photo by Melissa Caughey

Start With the Soil

Just like with any type of gardening, successful container gardening starts with the soil. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, but in containers, you shouldn’t rely on regular gardening soil, which can be too heavy and get water-logged in a pot. Light and fluffy is the name of the game. While bagged potting mixes can be expensive, it’s better to put in the investment up front than to grumble about heavy pots and poor yields later in the season.

Make Your Own Potting Mix

Make your own custom mix by combining peat moss (best bought in bales at your local garden center) with compost (your own or bagged) at about a 2:1 ratio. You can also throw in a little perlite, a common ingredient in bagged mixes, to make your custom mix lighter and more apt to retain water.

Photo By: Photo by Heidi Geldhauser/Design by Lindsay Coletta

Choose the Right Container

There are about as many container types as there are plants suitable for containers, including upcycled ones, so your imagination is the limit. But it’s important to think about three things: size, materials and drainage. About size: Honestly, the bigger, the better. Large pots require more soil (again, more upfront cost) but will save you time and money when it comes to water.

Photo By: Photo by Melissa Caughey

Watch Your Weight

The downside of large containers is weight. All that soil adds up. Add casters to containers or place a heavy container on a plant caddy (a stand with wheels) so you can easily move it around.

Photo By: Courtesy of Brian Patrick Flynn

Material Matters, Too

Materials vary from clay to plastic, metal to wood, and each material has its own set of pluses and minuses. Clay will dry out quickly, so be sure to water often. Plastic will hold water so be sure there's enough drainage. Metal absorbs heat and will raise the soil temperature, so plant heat-loving plants only.

Photo By: Shutterstock/maljalen

What Edibles Can You Grow in a Pot?

Almost any fruit or vegetable plant can be grown in a container, provided your container is large enough, but it helps to choose varieties specifically bred for small spaces. Look for variety names and descriptions including these words: bush, dwarf, patio, trailing and miniature. You can easily grow herbs, peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, summer squash, and greens, as well as broccoli, cabbage and other cool-season crops in spring and fall.

Photo By: Ball Horticultural Company

Water Often and Well

Plants grown in containers need to be watered more often than in-ground gardens, because containers have less soil and dry out more quickly. How often will depend on your climate, what you’re growing and the type of container material you choose (clay more often, plastic less often, as described previously). Distribute water well and gently using a watering can or a watering wand on the end of your garden hose.

Don’t Forget Mulch

However you water, be sure to add mulch to retain soil moisture in your container gardens just as you do in in-ground beds. Hardwood bark mulch isn’t great for vegetable gardens, including containers, because it takes too long to decompose and ties up nutrients in your soil. Instead, choose cedar or cypress (from sustainably grown sources), which have the added benefit of deterring some insects. Oat or wheat straw can be great, just be sure you get seed-free straw, otherwise you’ll be pulling grass out of your containers for months. 

Fertilize Wise

Because pots need frequent watering, fertilizers can get diluted more quickly than with in-ground gardens. Use a liquid fertilizer that’s meant to be mixed in water, such as organic fish fertilizer. You can also mix in a time-released fertilizer or an organic fertilizer that includes microorganisms to encourage soil health.

Photo By: Gardeners Supply Company

Not Making the Right Friends



Be warned: mint can be a bully in the garden.

Photo by: Photo by Melissa Caughey

Photo by Melissa Caughey

Be warned: mint can be a bully in the garden.

Don’t let your plants hang out with the wrong crowd. That means when you’re combining plants, make sure they have similar requirements so they can both thrive together. Pay attention to the spacing on your plant tags so they have room to grow and thrive. Take mint, for example: It’s a bully in a garden space, growing so quickly and aggressively that it can choke out other plants. Many gardeners actually grow mint in containers and then sink the container into the ground, then prune often to keep its runners in check.

Ignoring the Seasons

Wood and Window Cold Frame

Protect Your Plants With a Cold Frame

A cold frame can protect young seedlings from late-spring frosts or help you extend your growing season in the fall.

A cold frame can protect young seedlings from late-spring frosts or help you extend your growing season in the fall.

With gardening, timing and patience is everything. Spring tulips actually need to be planted in the fall, and the best time to prune roses is during winter. Plant summer tomatoes too early, and a late-night spring frost could take them out. Pay attention to the weather patterns, talk to other gardeners in your area and sign up for gardening newsletters to help you create a growing strategy. 

Now, dust off your garden gloves and get your hands back in the dirt.

Plants You Can't Kill

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Shrub: Barberry

Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is deer-resistant and deciduous, with thorny stems that make it a good foundation plant for increasing home security. Once established, this compact, dense shrub is drought tolerant. We like the variety Sunjoy Tangelo (shown here) for its bright orange new growth that turns chartreuse on the leaf margins as the season progresses.

Some barberries are invasive and may not be grown in some states. Check with your local extension service office before you plant.

Plant barberry in spring in part sun, or full sun for the best foliage color, and in moist but well-drained soil. Sunjoy Tangelo grows to 3-4 feet high and wide and is hardy in USDA Zones 4-8. Prune to shape in summer, if desired, and fertilize in spring after the last frost and when new growth appears. In all zones, mulch in fall; in Zones 4-5, mulch heavily after the first frost and pull back the mulch in spring.

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Shrub or Small Tree: Smoke Tree

Smoke trees (Continus coggygria) can be grown as large, deciduous shrubs or small trees. Their reddish-purple leaves turn scarlet in the fall, and airy, smoky-purple seed clusters add to their beauty. One of our favorite varieties is 'Royal Purple' (shown here).

Plant smoke trees in full sun, in average garden soil that drains easily. Hardy in USDA Zones 4-8, they can reach 12-15 feet high and 10-12 feet wide.

In Zones 4-5, plant in spring. In Zone 6, plant in spring or early fall. In Zones 4-6, apply extra mulch after the first hard frost and pull back the mulch in spring. In Zones 7-8, plant in fall and provide extra water in dry spells.

Photo By: photographer for Monrovia

Flowering Perennial: Peony

Known for their fragrant spring flowers, herbaceous peonies (Paeonia lactiflora) are deciduous. The double pink variety shown here, 'Sarah Bernhardt', is popular in mixed borders and as a specimen plant.

Plant peonies in spring or fall, in full sun or in morning sun and afternoon shade in very hot summer regions. Plant the eyes, or growing points, 2" deep in cold regions and 1" deep in warmer ones. Peonies need well-drained soil mixed with compost or other organic materials. Work in a little fertilizer at planting and then apply organic, all-purpose fertilizer and top-dress with compost yearly.

Hardy in Zones 3-8, peonies vary in size, depending on the variety. 'Sarah Bernhardt' grows 30-36 inches high and wide. Herbaceous peonies die to the ground in fall; cut any remaining plant parts to the ground and discard them. Divide in fall, if desired, but dividing is not necessary.

Photo By: W. Atlee Burpee Co.

Tree: Hawthorn

Hawthorns (Crataegus viridis) are native to parts of the U.S. Their leaves turn purple to red in fall, and their white spring flowers are followed by orange-red fruits that may remain on the tree into winter. One of our favorite cultivars is 'Winter King' (shown here), an upright, deciduous tree hardy in USDA Zones 4-7. Despite its name, it has only small, occasional thorns.

Plant in full sun, in average, well-drained garden soil. 'Winter King' tolerates urban pollution, light shade and drought. It grows 25-35 feet high and wide.

In Zones 4-5, plant in spring and apply extra mulch after the first hard frost. In Zones 6, plant in spring or early fall. In Zone 7, plant in fall and provide extra water in dry spells.

Photo By: Horticopia

Groundcover: Liriope

Hardy in Zones 5-10, liriope (Liriope muscari) is a clumping groundcover with grass-like foliage and blue-violet summer flowers. We like 'Big Blue' (shown here). It stays evergreen in mild winter climates and is useful as a border or groundcover, especially on hard-to-mow slopes.

Plant in full sun to part shade and average to fertile soil that is well-drained. Liriope is drought-tolerant once established, and deer and rabbits usually leave it alone. Prune liriope in late winter or remove brown tips with shears or a mower set on high. Divide the clumps every 2 or 3 years. 'Big Blue' grows 12-24" high and wide.

In Zones 5-6, plant in spring. In Zone 7, plant in spring or early fall. In Zones 8-10, plant in early fall. In all zones, mulch after the first frost and pull back the mulch in spring. Liriope may be deciduous in Zone 5.

Photo By: Walter's Gardens, Inc.

Ornamental Grass: Feather Reed Grass

Ornamental grasses add color and movement to the landscape. We like 'Karl Foerster' (Calamagrostis x acutiflora, shown here), an herbaceous grass with reddish-brown, feathery stalks that turn golden-brown to buff in fall.

Plant this ornamental grass in full sun, or in light shade in hot summer climates, in rich, moist soil. Once established, it tolerates some drought. It grows 18-24 inches high and wide with stalks that can reach 6 feet. Cut the foliage to the ground in late winter.

'Karl Foerster' is hardy in USDA Zones 4-9. In Zones 4-5, plant in spring in full sun. In Zones 6-9, plant in spring in full sun to light shade. In all zones, mulch after the first frost.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Kathryn Roach

Ornamental Grass: Ribbon Grass

Deer-resistant ribbon grass (Pharlaris arundinacea) is a perennial that can be grown as a groundcover or for erosion control on slopes. Ribbon grasses can spread aggressively, so check with your local extension service office to be sure the plants are not banned in your area.

'Strawberries & Cream', shown here, is one of our favorites. Plant ribbon grass in average soil in full sun to light shade; its colors are better in full sun, but the sun in hot climates may bleach the flowers and foliage. Prune to the ground in late winter.

Hardy in USDA Zones 4-9, this variety grows to 24 inches tall and 24-48 inches wide. In Zone 4-6, plant in spring. In Zones 7-9, plant in spring or early fall. In all zones, mulch after planting and again before the first frost.

Photo By: Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Ornamental Grass: Fescue

Like ribbon grass, this ornamental fescue is a perennial that's useful as a groundcover or for erosion control. 'Elijah Blue' (Festuca glauca) has a clumping growth habit with fine, bluish foliage and buff-colored flowers.

Plant in full sun in moist, well-drained soil. The plants are drought tolerant when established but need watering during periods of extreme heat or if they're grown in containers.

This variety, which is hardy in USDA Zones 3-8, reaches 6-10 inches high and 8-12 inches wide. In Zones 3-5, plant in spring in full sun and mulch after the first hard frost. Plants grown in containers may need extra protection in winter. In Zones 6-8, plant in spring in full sun and mulch in fall. In Zones 7-8, plant in spring or early fall in full sun and mulch in fall.

Photo By: Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Tree: Thornless Honeylocust

The thornless honeysuckle (Gleditsia triancanthos) is a fast-growing, deciduous tree that offers dappled shade. The variety shown here, 'Shademaster', has fine, green foliage that turns an attractive yellow-green in fall. The small leaves break apart when they fall, so raking isn't necessary.

Hardy in USDA Zones 4-9, the tree can be planted in full sun and adapts to almost any well-drained soil. Once established, it tolerates drought. Prune away any suckers and dead wood as needed. 'Shademaster' grows 50-75 feet tall and 25-40 feet wide. In Zones 4-5, plant in spring and mulch after the first frost. In Zones 6-9, plant in spring to fall and mulch after planting.

Photo By: Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Shrub: Juniper

Junipers are easy-to-maintain shrubs. 'Good Vibrations' Gold Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), shown here, is an evergreen with yellow-green foliage that takes on bronze-orange tones in fall and winter.

Plant junipers in average, well-drained soil. Fertilize in early spring and prune, if desired, in early spring. This variety reaches 12-18 inches high and spreads 7 to 9 feet wide.

The shrubs are hardy in USDA Zones 3-9. In Zones 3-5, plant in spring in sun and mulch heavily after the first hard frost. Pull the mulch back in spring. In Zones 6, plant in spring or early fall in sun and mulch in fall. In Zones 7-9, plant in early fall in sun and apply mulch.

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Flowering Perennial : Hardy Geranium

Hardy geraniums, also called cranesbill geraniums, are spreading perennials grown as groundcovers and in rock gardens and borders. The flowers bloom from spring through summer and are available in white, blue, pink and other colors. We love 'Rozanne' (shown here), which grows 12-18 inches high and 20-24 inches wide.

Most perennial geraniums are hardy in USDA Zones 4-8. Plant in spring, in moist, organically rich, well-drained soil, in part shade to sun. If flowering slows down, cut back slightly to encourage more blooms. Remove wet or moldy leaves at the end of the growing season, but let healthy foliage remain for winter insulation. Mulch after the first fall frost. In Zones 4-7, plant in sun. In Zone 8, plant in dappled sun to part shade.

Photo By: Costa Farms

Flowering Perennial: Dianthus

Low-growing dianthus have fragrant flowers that resemble small carnations. Available in a variety of colors, they can be grown as groundcovers and in borders. Shown here: Dianthus 'Paint the Town Fuchsia' (Dianthus hybrid). Dianthus can be found as short-lived perennials, biennials and annuals.

Plant in average, loose, well-drained soil in part sun to sun. Dianthus tolerate heat and drought for short periods. Shear back after flowering to promote re-blooming. This variety reaches 6-8 inches tall and 12-14 inches wide.

Most dianthus, also called pinks, are hardy in Zones 4-8. In Zones 4-7, plant in spring in full sun, apply extra mulch after the first hard frost and pull the mulch back in spring. In Zone 8, plant in spring or early fall in part sun to full sun.

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Flowering Shrub: Hydrangea

Hydrangeas are flowering shrubs available in various colors. Some bloom on old and new growth. Others bloom only on old growth and should be pruned, if desired, immediately after flowering.

Deer love hydrangeas so you may want to plant where deer cannot get to them, such as in containers or on an elevated deck. One of our favorites, shown here, is 'Endless Summer' (Hydrangea macrophylla).

Plant in well-drained, moist soil that's rich in organic material. Plant in sun to part shade; a spot with morning sun and afternoon shade is best in hot summer regions. Fertilize in spring or early summer with a slow-release, granular fertilizer with a high percentage of phosphorus. Little pruning is needed and may reduce next year's blooms.

'Endless Summer' is hardy in Zones 4-9 and grows 3-4 feet high and 4-5 feet wide. Keep hydrangeas watered in dry spells during the growing season. In Zones 4-7, plant in spring in full sun to light shade and apply additional mulch after the first hard frost. In Zones 8-9, plant in early fall in full sun to light shade and apply additional mulch in fall.

Photo By: Tracy Walsh/Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Sedge: Gold Sedge

Sedges can be grown as groundcovers, in borders and in water gardens and woodland gardens. They can also help control erosion. We like brightly colored 'Bowles Golden' (Carex elata), the clumping, semi-evergreen perennial shown here.

Plant sedges in loamy, slightly acidic soil in part to full sun; the color is best in sun. Keep the soil moist but well-drained. Prune back in spring, before new growth appears, for a tidy appearance. 'Bowles Golden' can be grown in shallow water 2-3 inches deep or in a bog.

Hardy in Zones 5-8, it grows 24-36 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide. In Zones 5-6, plant in spring or early fall in sun. In Zones 7-8, plant in spring or early fall in partial to full sun. In all Zones, mulch in fall.

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