I’ve been participating in my Community Garden since 1999 and I absolutely love it. I love growing my own food — there is nothing better than eating a sun warmed heirloom tomato right after it’s been picked.
For several years I’ve been the unofficial garden mayor. I keep track of the garden waiting list (a 4 to 5 year wait) and onboard new gardeners when their turn comes up.
I am no Master Gardener by any means, and every year I’m still experimenting and tweaking my gardening techniques, but over the years I’ve noticed newbie gardeners making the same urban gardening mistakes over and over again. I figured I’d post a list so new urban gardeners learn can what to avoid and hit the soil running.
Top 8 Newbie Urban Gardening Mistakes
Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #1 — Not Using a Weedblocker
When new gardeners first get their plot I always recommend putting down landscape fabric. It’s usually black and comes in a rolled up sheet. You can buy an eco-friendly variety that is compostable.
Not only does it block weeds from growing, it channels rainwater to the plants. Most importantly, in our case, it keeps stray cats from pooping in your plot. They can’t scratch on the fabric, and prevents them from treating your plot like a litter box.
New gardeners usually opt-out of the weed blockers because it doesn’t look as nice as the freshly turned soil they have when they first plant their garden. Within a couple weeks, the once newly worked soil is covered with weeds and it is really difficult to keep up with pulling them. Soon enough the plots using the landscape fabric are looking much nicer than the ones without and the next year folks are using the weed blocker.
If you don’t want to use landscape fabric, there is also sheet mulching or regular mulch. Watch out though, because cats will still poop in regular mulch.
Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #2 — Not Paying Attention to Planting Charts
When and how long your planting season lasts depends on your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. The zone you are in determines which plants will thrive in your area and when you should plant them for maximum success.
Here in Philly, you want to plant your greens in the early Spring or late Summer or they will fry from the heat. Peppers, Tomatoes and squash need sun and heat to grow fruit.
Before you run out and buy plants and seeds, look up your Hardiness Zone and find a planting chart. By being strategic with your planting schedule you will have healthy plants and a maximized harvest.
Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #3 — Putting in Plants Too Close Together
I get it, in an Urban Community Garden you don’t get a lot of space. The temptation to load your plot with as many plants as possible is very tempting, I still do it sometimes. Also, when plants are babies they are so cute and small, it’s hard to imagine how huge they will become when they grow to their full size.
Those now tiny plants will be full grown in a few months and if they are too close together it’ll be an unwieldy mess — it’s difficult to manage and it’s not healthy for them. Plants without adequate airflow around them are more susceptible to disease and pests, and if one plant catches a fungus or infestation it’ll quickly spread to others.
Trust me, if you are conservative with the number of plants you plant and keep a decent amount of space between them, you will be happy you did when they are full grown.
Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #4 — Using Crappy Round Tomato Cages
Every year there is a pile of discarded, twisted and broken round metal tomato cages in a corner of the garden, because these things are terrible. The design is poor, the legs are flimsy and mid-summer they are all falling over. You can try to prop them up with stakes, but they usually wind up eventually falling over again.
I found this tip a few years into my gardening career, and it was a game changer: Square Tomato Cages!
Well built square tomato cages are amazing. They sit sturdily in the ground and they do not tip. I’ve had the same set of square tomato cages for years and they have not bent or broken.
Another tomato cage tip is to loop the branches of your tomatoes through the cage bars as they grow. This promotes vertical growth and keeps the plants’ branches away from each other to avoid crowding. If you try to do this when the plant is too far grown you risk bruising and breaking the branches.
Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #5 — Not Fertilizing Plants Susceptible to Blossom-End Rot
You’ve planted your tomatoes and anxiously watched them grow, but then, just as they start to ripen they develop a gross, rotten bottom half! You’d think your plants must have caught a disease, but actually they are suffering from Blossom End Rot which is caused by a calcium deficiency.
Several types of plants are susceptible to Blossom End Rot including tomatoes, peppers, melons, and eggplant. It can be avoided by adding an organic tomato fertilizer to the soil when you plant your plants. If your plants are suffering from Blossom End Rot, you can actually dissolve some TUMS in a watering can and water your plants with it. This will give your plants the calcium they need and reverse the rot.
Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #6 — Using Bad Watering Techniques
There is a lot of debate over watering technique, but in my opinion, watering is more about consistency than quantity. If you choose to moderately water your garden or flood it, do it on consistent schedule. Some folks say it’s better to let your garden get dry between deep watering because it encourages the plants’ roots to grow further down into the soil. Others think it’s better to water moderately and more often. Either way, choose a technique and stick to schedule.
Consistent watering also helps cut down on tomato cracking. An influx of water after a dry spell will cause the insides of the fruit to grow suddenly and the outer skin can’t keep up.
The best time to water your garden is early in the day. Also, water the ground and not the plant itself. Keeping the plant and leaves wet makes them prone to fungal infections.
Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #7 — Not Being on Top of Your Harvest
When you first plant your garden in the Spring you can’t wait for harvest time! However, I’ve found by the time plants are overflowing with fruit, sometimes people are checked out and not making the necessary frequent trips to the garden to pick all the vegetables. Veggies wind up falling onto the ground and plants go to seed. In our garden if veggies are obviously being neglected the neighborhood kids will start grazing off your plants.
Try to keep up with your harvest. I know it can be overwhelming, but make a plan for what to do with all of those vegetables. Freezing, canning, pickling, giving some away to friends and co-workers are all great options. You can also find non-profits that will take your extra harvest as donations.
Newbie Urban Gardening Mistake #8 — Forgetting About Your Plot in August
By the time August rolls around, the weeds are in full force and a chore to keep up with. Also, any bugs, pests and diseases that are in your area may have invaded your garden. It’s gross to deal with and many people start to ignore their plot and let the whole thing go to seed until Fall.
I know the struggle is real, I know you want to go into Summer vacation mode, but fight to stay engaged with your plot in August. If a bug or disease invades your plants, stay calm and research an organic way to deal with it. You may just have to cut off the diseased part of the plant, or use a natural oil to keep the bugs off.
If you go on vacation, hire a kid in the neighborhood to water your plants. Tell your neighbors to take whatever ripens while you are away. Letting your plot go for even a week may result in a rapid decline.
The end of Summer is the time to extend your gardening into Fall. If you keep on top of your plot, you can clear space for cooler weather plants and keep your harvest going.
Even if you make all of these mistakes, you’ll still enjoy gardening!
This list is meant as a guide for the Newbie to avoid many first time gardening mistakes. However, no matter what you do, if you throw some plants in the ground too close together and not at the right time, you’ll still get some veggies and enjoy your time gardening.
I’ve gotten so much benefit out of my community garden while making many mistakes along the way. Go find a garden in your area, sign up for the waiting list and give it a try.