Top 5 Gardening Mistakes

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

Related To:

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

Start Seeds 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

Step 11: Water

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

See All Photos

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

Mint

Mint

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

Protect Your Plants With a 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

See All Photos

Velvet Cloak Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria 'Velvet Cloak')

The velvet cloak smoke tree has beautiful, deep purple leaves.

Large deciduous shrub or small tree with deep purple leaves and "puffs" of pink flowers in early summer.
Plant in average garden soil that is rich in organic matter and well-drained; tolerates some salt.
Plant in full sun.
Height: 10-15 feet/ Width: 15-20 feet
Hardy in USDA zones 5-8:
Zone 5: Plant in spring to prevent winter heaving; plant in full sun; apply extra mulch after first hard frost.
Zone 6: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun.
Zone 7: Plant in fall; plant in full sun; provide supplemental water during dry spells.
Zone 8: Plant in fall; plant in full sun; provide supplemental water during dry spells.

Jules Verne Peony (Paeonia lactiflora 'Jules Verne')

This perennial is known for its fragrant double pink flowers.

Herbaceous perennial noted for its fragrant double pink flowers.
Plant in full sun to light afternoon shade; cut back foliage after frost.
Plant shallowly in rich, but well-drained soil; fertilize in spring; divide in autumn, if desired.
Height: 32 inches/ Width: 28-32 inches
Hardy in USDA zones 3-8:
Zone 3: Plant in spring; mulch after first hard to prevent winter heaving; avoid contact with salt; plant in full sun; fertilize when new growth appears in spring.
Zone 4: Plant in spring; mulch after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; avoid contact with salt; plant in full sun; fertilize when new growth appears in spring.
Zone 5: Plant in spring; mulch after first hard to prevent winter heaving; avoid contact with salt; plant in full sun; fertilize when new growth appears in spring.
Zone 6: Plant in spring or early fall; mulch lightly in fall; plant in full sun to light afternoon shade; fertilize when new growth appears in spring.
Zone 7: Plant in spring or early fall; mulch lightly in fall; plant in full sun to light afternoon shade; fertilize when new growth appears in spring; blooming may be reduced after warm winters.
Zone 8: Plant in spring or early fall; mulch lightly in fall; plant in full sun to light afternoon shade; fertilize when new growth appears in spring; blooming may be reduced after warm winters.

©Horticopia

Winter King Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King')

Bright red fruit grows on the winter king hawthorn through winter.

Upright deciduous small tree with flat clusters of white flowers in May followed by bright red fruit through winter and occasional thorns.
Plant in average garden soil that is rich in organic matter and well-drained
Plant in full sun with good air circulation.
Height: 15-20 feet/ Width: 18-20 feet
Hardy in USDA zones 5-7:
Zone 5: Plant in spring to prevent winter heaving; plant in full sun; apply extra mulch after first hard frost.
Zone 6: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun.
Zone 7: Plant in fall; plant in full sun; provide supplemental water during dry spells.
Liriope muscari 'Big Blue' — Big Blue Liriope
Clump forming, evergreen ground cover with grass-like foliage and lavender flowers in summer.
Plant in rich organic soil that is well-drained.
Plant in full sun to full shade.
Prune back tattered foliage in late winter; divide in spring if needed.
Height: 12-18 inches
Width: 1-2 feet
Hardy in USDA zones (5) 6-10:
Zone 5: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to partial shade; avoid exposure to salt; mulch heavily after first frost; pull back mulch in spring; may be deciduous in this zone.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to full shade; mulch after first frost; pull back mulch in spring.
Zone 7: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun to full shade; mulch after first frost; pull back mulch in spring.
Zone 8: Plant in early fall; plant in light to full shade; mulch in fall; pull back mulch in spring.
Zone 9: Plant in early fall; plant in light to full shade; mulch in fall; pull back mulch in spring.
Zone 10: Plant in early fall; plant in light to full shade; mulch in fall; pull back mulch in spring.

©Horticopia

Variegated Ribbon Grass (Pharlaris arundinacea 'Strawberries & Cream')

The Strawberries & Cream Ribbon Grass is banned where it is not native.

Gardener's Note: The Strawberries & Cream Ribbon Grass is considered native to Canada and its neighboring northern states, but it is banned where it is not native because it can be invasive. Check with your local native plant society or extension service office to learn whether it is native to your area.
Variegated green and white perennial grass with white flower spikes in summer and arching foliage that turns pink in cold weather.
Plant in full sun to partial shade; foliage and flowering is better in full sun; prune to the ground in late winter.
Plant in average garden to wet garden soil; can be aggressive in a wetland setting.
Height: 18-36 inches/ Width: 24-36 inches, spreading
Hardy in USDA zones 4-9:
Zone 4: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch after planting and again before first frost; water when dry.
Zone 5: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch after planting and again before first frost; water when dry.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch after planting and again before first frost; water when dry.
Zone 7: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun to partial shade; mulch after planting and again before first frost; water when dry.
Zone 8: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun to partial shade; mulch after planting and again before first frost; water when dry.
Zone 9: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun to partial shade; mulch after planting and again in spring; water when dry.

Burgundy Carousel Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Bailtwo')

The burgundy carousel Japanese barberry is considered invasive in some parts of the country.

Gardener's Note: This Barberry is non-native and is considered invasive in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Midwest.
Mounding, deciduous shrub with deep purple leaves, yellow flowers in spring, red fruit in fall and thorns.
Remove spent flower stalks to prevent unwanted seedlings.
Plant in full sun to light shade; foliage color better in full sun.
Prune back after first frost; divide and fertilize in spring.
Plant in fertile, moist but well-drained soil; drought tolerant once established.
Height: 3-4 feet/ Width: 3-4 feet
Hardy in zones 4-8:
Zone 4: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch heavily after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; protect from salt; pull mulch back in spring.
Zone 5: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch heavily after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; protect from salt.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch in fall.
Zone 7: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch in fall.
Zone 8: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch in fall.

Elijah Blue Fescue (Festuca cinerea 'Elijah Blue')

This ornamental grass has blue-gray foliage and blue-green flowers.

Evergreen ornamental grass with blue-gray foliage and blue-green flowers.
Plant in full sun for best color.
Plant in moist to dry, well-drained soil.
Height: 8-12 inches/ Width: 8-12 inches
Hardy in zones 4-7 (8):
Zone 4: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch after first hard frost to avoid winter heaving; avoid exposure to salt; may require extra protection if container grown.
Zone 5: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch after first hard frost to avoid winter heaving; avoid exposure to salt.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch in fall.
Zone 7: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun; mulch in fall; may lose bright color in hot weather.
Zone 8: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun; mulch in fall; may lose bright color in hot weather.

©Horticopia

Thornless Common Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis 'Suncole')

This deciduous tree prefers full sun.

Deciduous, irregular tree with fern-like golden compound leaves and tufts of white flowers in spring.
Plant in full sun.
Tolerant of a wide range of well-drained soils.
Height: 40-45 feet/ Width: 40-45 feet
Hardy in zones 3(4)-9:
Zone 3: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch after first frost to prevent winter heaving; avoid exposure to salt; may be marginally hardy in this zone.
Zone 4: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch after first frost to prevent winter heaving; avoid exposure to salt.
Zone 5: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch after first frost to prevent winter heaving; avoid exposure to salt.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch in fall.
Zone 7: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch in fall.
Zone 8: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full; mulch in fall.
Zone 9: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full; mulch in fall.

Grey Owl Juniper (Juniperus virginiana 'Grey Owl')

The foliage on this conifer turns purple in winter.

Broad, slow-growing, spreading evergreen conifer with gray-green foliage that turns purple in winter.
Plant in full sun to light shade.
Fertilize in early spring; prune if needed in late winter.
Plant in average, moist but very well-drained soil.
Height: 2-3 feet/ Width: 4-6 feet
Hardy in zones 2-9:
Zone 3: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch heavily after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; protect from salt; pull mulch back in spring.
Zone 3: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch heavily after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; protect from salt; pull mulch back in spring.
Zone 4: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch heavily after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; protect from salt; pull mulch back in spring.
Zone 5: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch heavily after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; protect from salt.
Zone 6: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch in fall.
Zone 7: Plant in early fall; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch in fall.
Zone 8: Plant in early fall; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch in fall.
Zone 9: Plant in early fall; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch in fall.

©Horticopia

Rose Glow Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Rose Glow')

Once it is established, this shrub is drought tolerant.

Mounding, deciduous shrub with red leaves flecked with white, yellow flowers and thorns.
Remove spent flower stalks to prevent unwanted seedlings.
Plant in full sun to light shade; foliage color better in full sun.
Prune back after first frost; divide and fertilize in spring.
Plant in fertile, moist but well-drained soil; drought tolerant once established.
Height: 3-5 feet/ Width: 3-4 feet
Hardy in zones 4-8:
Zone 4: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch heavily after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; protect from salt; pull mulch back in spring.
Zone 5: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch heavily after first hard frost to prevent winter heaving; protect from salt.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch in fall.
Zone 7: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch in fall.
Zone 8: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light shade; mulch in fall.

Avalanche Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Avalanche')

This perennial grass sprouts pink flowers in summer.

Perennial grass with variegated green/white foliage and pink flowers in summer that fade to brown in winter.
Plant in full sun.
Plant in well-drained soil; prune back to the ground in late winter.
Height: 2-3 feet (foliage) 4-5 feet (flower stalks)/ Width: 2-3 feet
Hardy in USDA zones 5-9:
Zone 5: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; mulch after first frost; avoid exposure to salt; water during dry spells.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light; mulch after first frost; water during dry spells.
Zone 7: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light; mulch after first frost; water during dry spells.
Zone 8: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light; mulch after first frost; water during dry spells; may struggle in warmer areas of this zone.
Zone 9: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light; mulch after first frost; water during dry spells.

Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum var. striatum)

Pink flowers adorn the cranesbill hardy geranium in summer.

Hardy perennial grown for its palmate foliage and pale pink cup-like flowers in summer.
Plant in rich, moist, but well-drained soil.
Plant in full sun to partial shade.
Divide in spring as needed.
Height: 6-10 inches/ Width: 12-14 inches
Hardy in USDA zones 4-8:
Zone 4: Plant in spring to prevent winter heaving; plant in full sun; apply extra mulch after first hard frost; avoid contact with salt.
Zone 5: Plant in spring to prevent winter heaving; plant in full sun to light shade; apply extra mulch after first hard frost; avoid contact with salt.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to light shade; apply extra mulch after first hard frost.
Zone 7: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to partial shade; apply extra mulch after first hard frost.
Zone 8: Plant in spring; plant in full sun to partial shade.

Firewitch Dianthus (Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Firewitch')

The flowers on this groundcover resemble small carnations.

Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Firewitch'
Mounding evergreen perennial grown as a groundcover with silver foliage and pink flowers that resemble small carnations.
Plant in moist, but well-drained soil.
Plant in full sun.
Shear back after flowering to promote re-blooming.
Height: 6 inches/ Width: 10-12 inches
Hardy in USDA zones 4-8:
Zone 4: Plant in spring to prevent winter heaving; plant in full sun; apply extra mulch after first hard frost; avoid contact with salt.
Zone 5: Plant in spring to prevent winter heaving; plant in full sun; apply extra mulch after first hard frost; avoid contact with salt.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; apply extra mulch after first hard frost.
Zone 7: Plant in spring; plant in full sun; apply extra mulch after first hard frost.
Zone 8: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun.

Endless Summer Hydrangea (Hydrangea Macrophylla 'Endless Summer' )

It is best to plant hydrangeas where deer cannot reach them.

Gardener's Note: Deer LOVE hydrangeas. Be sure to plant them where deer cannot get to them, such as in containers on an elevated deck.
Deciduous shrub with lime green flowers that change to pink during summer.
Tolerant of most soil conditions with moderate moisture.
Plant in full sun to light shade; prune while dormant in winter.
Height: 8-10 feet/ Width: 8-10 feet
Hardy in USDA zones 4-9:
Zone 4: Plant in spring; apply additional mulch after first hard frost; plant in full sun to light shade; avoid contact with salt; water regularly in dry spells during growing season.
Zone 5: Plant in spring; apply additional mulch after first hard frost; plant in full sun to light shade; avoid contact with salt; water regularly in dry spells during growing season.
Zone 6: Plant in spring; apply additional mulch after first hard frost; plant in full sun to light shade; avoid contact with salt; water regularly in dry spells during growing season.
Zone 7: Plant in spring or early fall; apply additional mulch in fall; plant in full sun to light shade; water regularly in dry spells during growing season.
Zone 8: Plant in early fall; apply additional mulch in fall; plant in full sun to light shade; water regularly in dry spells during growing season.
Zone 9: Plant in early fall; apply additional mulch in fall; plant in full sun to light shade; water regularly in dry spells during growing season.

Bowles Golden Sedge (Carex elata 'Aurea' )

This perennial will produce better color when planted in partial sun.

Evergreen clumping perennial with grass-like variegated foliage of yellow and green.
Prune to 3-4 inches before new growth appears; divide every few years.
Plant in full sun to full shade; color is better in partial sun.
Plant in rich, moist soil; tolerates damp soil.
Height 28 inches/ Width: 18 inches
Hardy in USDA zones 5-8:
Zone 5: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun to partial shade; mulch in fall.
Zone 6: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in full sun to partial shade; mulch in fall.
Zone 7: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in partial to full shade; mulch in fall.
Zone 8: Plant in spring or early fall; plant in partial to full shade; mulch in fall.

Keep Reading

Next Up

5 Smart Money-Saving Landscaping Ideas

Get your gardening fix without breaking the bank.

Organic Gardening Hacks

Get budget-friendly garden tips and tricks from Shawna Coronado.

Run for the Roses: Kentucky Derby Blooms!

Meet the horticulture team behind one of the most extravagant events around.

Cheap + Easy DIY Ideas for Dreary Dorm Rooms

Real college students offer their best ideas for planning your fall dorm decor.

Gardening Naked: Grand Idea or Epic Fail?

World Naked Gardening Day is coming up soon, but gardening in the buff may not be as freeing as it sounds.

How to Pick the Best Perennials for Your Yard

Whether you're in the sun or shade, check out this compilation of easy-to-grow perennials, many of which are deer resistant.

5 Handy Uses for Beer (That Don’t Involve Drinking)

April 7 is widely recognized as National Beer Day. Whether you imbibe or not, there are other ways beer can make you happy. 

10 Clever Landscaping Ideas and Gardening Trends

Check out cool new ideas seen at the 2016 GWA: The Association for Garden Communicators Conference. 

Crafty Cinema: 3 Movies Spotlighting the Maker Spirit

From The Revenant to The Martian, DIY is all over the place at this year's Oscars.