Gardening Mistakes: Confessions of Newbie Gardener
Mistakes I Made as New and Somewhat Lazy Gardener
The Oh-So-Wise-Ones say that we learn from our mistakes. Of course we do. But it is always much more fun to learn from mistakes made by others. Especially if you are talking about gardening mistakes, because gardening is a lot of work, and its better if someone else does all the heavy lifting for you.
The very first mistake we make is probably allowing a seasoned gardener convince us that growing things is easy and relaxing.
Therefore, I'm going to share the hard lessons I learned the first year of trying to landscape my yard into a magical realm of flower beds and gardens. The year I thought it would be a lazy sort of task that only required digging a few holes and emptying a few seed packets.
These are some of the boo-boos that I made so you won't have to:
Never Assume You Have Good Soil
When you look out at that yard, and see all the beautiful green life, you naturally think "what fertile soil!". Of course, if you are one of those people who constructs all of your flower beds and gardens well-above ground, then you probably aren't concerned in the least with the soil.
So this is for those of us who plant directly in the dirt, where Nature herself tends to garden.
It is a perfectly natural to assume that the dirt under your grass is full of nutrients. It is supporting that massive amount of lawn, and more than a few weeds, after all.
All you have to do is till up a small patch, remove every grass clump and rock, and surround your new bed with a suitable and decorative border. Then you stand back and admire that beautiful plot, ready to spring forth with life.
Yes. That is what I did. I did it over and over again, too. Then I planted seeds. And waited anxiously for the first sprouts. This is when things began going wrong.
For one thing, that luscious black soil, was actually a fraudulent layer of dirt-like film over a gritty, sandy under soil. When dry, the surface of the bed became a hard-baked brick that cracked after only an hour of morning sun. By evening it was an impenetrable slab.
The solution of course was to water frequently, which helped both the dirt, and the rural water company, immensely. They should have sent me a fruit basket at Christmas for being their best customer.
And then it rained.
Your Flower Beds Must Be Escape-Proof
Heavily watered sandy-stuff becomes a liquid life-form. Freed from the confines of the flower beds it poured out of cracks and oozed over the borders. How lovely to find my ''flower beds'', along with the now-battered seedlings, all the way across the yard.
Might I mention that those were weak and anemic looking seedlings? Tenderly, I collected them and returned them to the now shallow beds, where the rains had left a quilt of gravel to welcome them.
After breaking a poking tool trying to make new holes for the seedlings, I began to suspect that perhaps my soil was something less than nutritious and nurturing. That doesn't mean that I was without green life in my garden. The weeds that had lived there before loved me for my liberal use of fertilizer!
You Pluck What You Sow
Again, if are a professional, you probably have a blueprint of your flowerbed with labeled stakes to identify each carefully measured and planted row.
Aiming for a more relaxed, ''country garden" theme, I chose to spread wildflower seeds by the pound and then just be happily surprised at whatever came up.
This 'style' can bring you a lot of joy. Mostly the joy in getting the planting done much faster than anyone else so that you can kick back and watch more patient gardeners carefully measuring their plots. Sit back and enjoy that time, because later, you may be working double.
Before you use a method like this:
- Make sure you know what your seeds are
- Make sure you know what seedlings look like
- Make sure you don't invite anyone over who knows more than you do
About the time that the first plants came in, I was eager to keep that smooth, weedless baked-slab of flower bed looking oh-so-groomed.
One day, watching me pluck ''weeds'' from the bed, a seasoned gardener (finally) asked:
"So why did you pull all of the cosmos and leave the grass?"
Naturally...I swore that I had not done such a thing. I was pulling grass, and saving my zinnias. Or daisies. Or whatever the heck those were. I would identify them as soon as they bloomed using the handy pictures from the seed packets.
Three months later I was forced to remove the towering, still unidentified, impostor plant that had never turned out to be a daisy. Or a zinnia. Or whatever.
Never Underestimate the Wrath of Moles
Shortly after the first seeds were planted, a lone mole hill appeared on the outskirts of the property. 'Tis but a mole. What can a mole really do?
I went on digging beds and hauling in real dirt to fill them. I went on setting bricks. I went on hauling rocks and setting them into sandy soil that puked them back out after every rain shower.
I replanted those daisies, and cosmos and zinnias that I accidentally murdered. Along my fence were twenty bean and lentil plants. Ten heirloom cotton plants were thriving in the corner. The bulb plants left by the previous owner had been moved into a new location.
Then, one night...it happened. An iris was kidnapped. Last seen in the bed around the tree, it had simply vanished. None of the other irises were talking, but they looked concerned.
The next day, a cotton plant had been stolen. Two onions eloped in the night. A noticeable gap showed in a border of marigolds. Where each plant had been, there was just an empty hole.
Just as disturbing were the large mounds of dirt suddenly appearing in other parts of the yard. Every day I shoveled up this extra soil and tossed it into flower beds that were sinking despite the "good dirt".
Plants continued to disappear. Dirt continued to appear elsewhere. Then one day, a small section of a flower bed had been up-heaved. I underestimated the moles spiteful natures.
- It doesn't matter if they are gophers or moles. They hate you.
- You cannot get rid of them with chewing gum or any other home remedy
- Terriers can get rid of moles. But they will till up 15 acres to catch just one mole.
As if that wasn't bad enough, they were constantly pushing rocks and debris out onto the mounts. Nails, bits of broken glass and other remnants of ancient human civilization that had long ago sunk beneath the surface of the yard.
The ultimate insult came the day after the moles had a sort of evil frat party.
I found that every bed had been turned over. They had killed or stolen plants, tunneled drunkenly, coughed up huge hills of dirt, and pushed loose every garden border. There was even a hump under our (cracked) cement slab.
And there, on the tallest mole hill,, was 35 cents. Yes. A collection of filthy change found who knows how deep in the earth.
The gophers had trashed the hotel, eaten at the buffet, and mockingly left me with a lousy tip.
Moles are jerks.
You Can't Take a Day Off...
One of the biggest mistakes you can make, especially in Oklahoma...is to assume you have your yard under control.
Sure. You mowed the grass, trimmed the edges, weeded the beds, watered everything, and pruned everything in sight. You have a little showplace on your hands, and you can take a day off. Or maybe two!
Lets take a look at some statistical facts. (these aren't printed anywhere, but I assure you, they are highly accurate.)
- First, the weed to flower ratio is always 4,000,000:1.
- A weed grows approximately 34, 689 times faster than a planted flower. (even a transplanted weed that you intentionally nurtured).
- Grass grows 75 times faster at night while you are asleep, and 145 times faster if you are away on vacation.
- Weeds and weed grasses have a special genetic code that guarantees them a 100% survival rate, regardless of flood, drought, fire, or the Ice Age.
In 24 hours, the weeds will have taken over your yard, and will be discussing plans to invade the neighbor's garden.
Meanwhile, the grass will have reached the height of your windowsills, and the flowers grew depressed in your absence and wilted. Don't do it. Once you start a gardening and landscaping, you have a commitment.
You Have to Speak Gardening Language
The world of growing things is so complex that it requires a special language. If you think you know what a term means, you are doomed to fail.
Here are some basic interpretations of terms and instructions you might come across, and what they really mean:
- Prefers sun (or prefers shade)---means it will grow anywhere, you wasted a lot of time building a whole new bed for it in a special location.
- Annual--will come back next year if you didn't like it
- Perennial--will not come back year if you expect it to
- Drought resistant--still needs to be watered
- Hardy--The dead stalks will be really tough to cut down.
- Prefers Well-Drained Soil--You will spend hours slowly killing the plant trying to get the right moisture.
- Showy Ornamental--Spoiled Brat Plant
Now. Garden Like a Pro
There are many other mistakes you can make as a new, (or like me...optimistically lazy) gardener. Some are worse than others, but they all lead to one end result--frustration!
You can continue the battle to remain indolent in your landscaping, or you can become more professional and spend the time and money to create "real" gardens and landscapes.
Or, in the spirit of compromise you can call a truce. In my case, finding the solution was very easy. I re-evaluated my yard. The weed grass that I had been fighting horrid soil and thrived with no help from me. The moles did not like the weed grass as much as they liked flowers.
The weed grass didn't need to be watered. And of course, it didn't matter one bit to the grass if I took a day off from lawn maintenance.
Now, when I kick back in the hammock with a cold Diet Coke, I can look out across my thriving weed beds. They are lush and green from the extra fertilizer. The beds have been untouched by gophers and other wildlife. Rather than pruning and weeding, I simply give them the occasional haircut with the weed trimmer. My water bill no longer comes in a manila envelope via FedEx.
Perhaps the biggest mistake any gardener can makes is to actually try to fight back the forces of Nature. Just kick back and enjoy the plants that already know how to make the best of what you have to offer.
(Just kidding. I still fight it out with the moles and weeds every year. After 6 years, I can at least recognize those seedlings when I see them! )
What was your worst gardening/landscaping blunder?