Every veteran gardener had to start somewhere, and most of us made every mistake in the book that first year. I'm here to share those big mistakes to get you off on the right foot.
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1. Start small
I know how it is, I’ve been there. The first year you start gardening you pour over seed catalogs and drool over the multitude of baby plants at the nursery. You want to take them all home and nurture them until they grow big and tall, then harvest their bounty of produce. Don’t do this. Your first year gardening is the toughest, and the worst thing you can do is overwhelm yourself by taking on too much too soon.
I cannot emphasize this enough, the biggest mistake first-time gardeners make is trying to conquer it all in the first year. They get overwhelmed with all of the work and problems that pop up with each individual plant, and give up after their first season.
Instead, start with just a few types of plants, five at the absolute maximum for your first year. Get to know each of those plants intimately. Research them, study their growth habits, watch for pests and disease, learn how to fertilize and water them. Then next year, you can add five more plants to learn about. Go slow and steady.
2. Grow food you’ll actually eat
The first year we tried to grow everything under the sun. I bought at least one variety of every vegetable and fruit known to man and attempted to plant all of them, even things we didn’t like. We successfully grew a huge crop of kale and mustard, which we don’t even like, then stuck it all in the freezer, where it still sits three years later. The first year of gardening is the most exciting, why not reward your hard work and energy with fruits and vegetables that you absolutely love?
3. Start with easy to grow plants
Don’t plant asparagus and celery your first year. Start with crops that anyone can find success with. Lettuce, zucchini, herbs, beans and strawberries are all great beginner crops. They're simple, relatively problem-free, and will give you great harvests with minimal work. It’s so easy to fail at gardening, why stress yourself out your first time around? There will be plenty of time for growing every plant your heart desires, but for your first year take it easy.
See also our post on the 5 easiest vegetables for your first garden.
4. Get your soil tested
It all starts and ends with the soil. Your soil is the most important factor in whether you’ll succeed or fail at gardening. It’s important to constantly improve the soil, but even more important to know what you have to start with. When you have a rundown of the nutrients in your soil, it makes it so much easier to know what supplements to add.
It took us three years to amend our terrible city soil to the point that it will grow healthy crops. We didn’t test the soil our first year and it’s the biggest gardening regret I have. If we had just done that from the start we wouldn’t have to guess at what our soil was missing when problems occurred with the plants. It costs less than $20 to get your soil tested at your local cooperative extension, and it will save you so much time, money and stress in the long run, so in my opinion, it’s well worth the expense.
5. Find a mentor
Having an expert gardener on your side is imperative to your success. You can spend years reading through books and websites on gardening and still not find the advice you’ll get from a good mentor. Join local gardening groups or ask a green-thumbed friend or relative for help. Gardeners are almost always willing to pass on their knowledge and share their passion with others.
Had these tips been offered to me before I started gardening, I wouldn't have made the mistakes I did. Although, if I hadn't made those mistakes, I wouldn't be here to tell you not to make them! There will be plenty more mistakes to be made in your first few years as a gardener, take them in stride, learn from them and move on. Always remember that your thumb gets greener with every passing year!