Learn from My Many Gardening Mistakes

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Learn From My Many Gardening Mistakes


Gardening is one of the top prepper skills needed for survival. Learning how to grow your own food is not something you want to do after a disaster has happened. I can speak from experience when I say there is a lot to learn and you will make a lot of gardening mistakes.

It’s far better to make these mistakes now when your world is pretty stable than when you’re just trying to survive day by day following a worst case scenario. This is also a great opportunity for you to take our gardening self-assessment! This short evaluation is going to help you understand where you’re at with your current gardening skills and resources so you can identify areas where you need to grow (pun intended).

If you count my first year (which I often don’t), this will be my fourth year gardening. In those three years of growing and trying to grow food, I have made a lot of mistakes. I am very glad for each and every one of those mistakes because otherwise, I would not have found out what I didn’t yet know. Let me share those mistakes with you and maybe you can avoid them!

Year 1 Gardening Mistakes

Where to begin?

  • I planted too much.
  • The bed was too big.
  • I started all the seeds on the same day.
  • There wasn’t enough water.

My first try at gardening was in a fairly large raised garden bed in the corner of our backyard. I planted pumpkins, tomatoes, carrots, green peppers, strawberry plants, peas, and some herbs – all by sowing seeds at the same time.

Now I know that each part of the country has a planting zone and there are many charts to tell you when to plant, what to plant, and what to start indoors. These tips about starting plants from seeds are very helpful.

I learned about Preplanning

As things started growing, I soon realized that the pumpkin vines were going to wind their way through everything. I also couldn’t tell the plants from the weeds. There was so much in the garden that I had to wade through everything to get to the plants in the middle!

I still had hope even after I realized the garden was a bit crowded – and then a drought hit the area. We tried watering for a few weeks, but our water bill was outrageous. We let the garden go and besides a few strawberries, we got nothing from the garden but lessons to take with us into Year 2.

Year 2 Gardening Mistakes

Again, my mistakes were many:

  1. Some seeds were planted late.
  2. I planted too much, again.
  3. Checking for predators every day is important.
  4. I wasn’t prepared to succeed.

The next time we tried gardening, we had moved to a different state. My husband built four 8-foot by 4-foot beds and we filled them with dirt. I researched everything we wanted to plant to see when and how we should plant them. I created a timeline so I could check off what we needed to do.

So far, so good.

However, we barely got the seeds in the mail in time to start the tomato seeds inside, which meant the pepper seeds started inside were about a month late. Consequently, we did not get a lot of peppers in year two.

I had a lot to do and check on during that spring and summer for a first-time gardener (I still don’t count that first year.) I still had young children to tend to, activities to get us to, and vacations to take. Each plant had something different to teach me, but I didn’t have time to learn from all of them.

Prepare for Predators

We didn’t find the hornworms until they had devoured several tomato plants. The Japanese beetles attacked the pumpkin plants severely. We beat them back once we found them with Neem oil, but the damage had been done.

In hindsight, we should have checked the plants every day, but we didn’t. It’s very humbling to watch so much of your hard work undone by a little beetle!

Prepare for Success

Overall, the garden was a success that year, despite my mistakes. That, in itself, led to another mistake – I wasn’t prepared for success. I knew we’d learn a lot, but I didn’t realize we just might grow a lot.

I failed to think about how I would use the fresh produce coming so quickly out of the garden, and I didn’t have the recipes or equipment on hand to harvest and preserve everything we grew.

That meant I ended up giving a lot of the food away to friends.

Overall I learned that it was stressful trying to not waste what we grew. My plan for next year was to stock up on mason jars and cookbooks so I will be prepared for the next harvest!

Year 3 Gardening Mistakes

By this time, I had learned a lot but made new mistakes. This time:

  1. There was too much water.
  2. I didn’t weed enough.
  3. We didn’t know about cross-pollination.
  4. I didn’t save some seeds correctly.
  5. I wasn’t prepared to fail.

Too much of a good thing can be bad. The first year, we didn’t have enough water. In year three, we had too much and our tomatoes suffered. Turns out a little bit of mulch would have saved them, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The overabundance of water also affected our squash, zucchini, pumpkin and melon plants. Powdery mildew would have been nipped in the bud if we had caught it early, but we went on vacation and it was in full force when we came back.

The weeds had also overtaken parts of the garden in the week we were gone and I found that I hadn’t marked the location of plants well. I’m considering hiring a garden sitter in addition to a dog sitter when we leave on vacation next year!


I knew nothing about pollination. Have you learned about pollination? You should if you’re going to plant a garden. Some plants are self-pollinators and can go anywhere in the garden. However, others need help from insects and bees to pollinate and produce fruit.

If you put two of those plants next to each other, the insects and bees will cross-pollinate them, and you can end up with squash that looks like a zucchini or a melon that looks like a pumpkin. Honestly! At harvest time we opened up what looked like a pumpkin and it had a melon smell and taste. We won’t make that mistake again.

Planning and Building a Bee-Friendly Backyard is essential for pollination, and also helps with cross-pollination issues.

We had to buy some pepper plants because when I saved the green pepper seeds from the previous year’s garden, I apparently saved them from immature peppers because hardly any of the seeds I started indoors sprouted. Note to self: be sure to save seeds from fully mature plants if you want the seeds to germinate.

Set for the Harvest

I was all set for a great harvest in year three with all my canning gear and recipes. I planned for a fully stocked pantry of tomato sauce and salsa. I forgot to think about what we would do if we didn’t have a big harvest – and we didn’t. The only things that flourished that year were onions and jalapenos. I canned plenty of jalapenos, but our salsas and tomato sauces only lasted a few months.

Year 4 Gardening Mistakes

This growing season has just started and already I’ve made one mistake: I started seeds too early.

I don’t have anything in the ground yet, but I planted our tomato seeds too early indoors. This should easily be remedied by getting some bigger pots as planting time gets closer, but I found out tomato plants like to shoot out long roots and I hope I don’t stunt their growth.

I wish I had found that out before I tried getting a jump-start on nature. I’ll be buying pepper plants again this year as I must have harvested seeds from some more immature green pepper plants that really looked mature.

I’ve realized that saving seeds is a bit of a science AND an art. Knowing just what to save, how to clean certain seeds, how to store them. This article explains how to combine seeds in miniature “seed vaults”, which I think is an awesome idea to give as gifts, for barter, and just to have the best selection of your saved seeds all in one place.

Mistakes are for Learning

Mistakes are how I’m learning and I expect to make many, many more as I continue my gardening journey. Be sure to take our quick gardening self-assessment so you can see where you are on your own journey! When you are starting out make sure to find experts that can help you along in your gardening endeavors.

I highly recommend Melissa K. Norris, who has a blog, podcasts and a book full of gardening tips and know-how. Also, check out the other gardening articles on this website, The Survival Mom. The gardening page is just what you need to get started.


Learn From My Many Gardening Mistakes

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18 thoughts on “Learn from My Many Gardening Mistakes”

  1. The green pepper seeds need to be saved from a mature green pepper, not necessarily from a mature pepper plant!

  2. Great article! There is always more nature has to teach us. 🙂

    I, personally, don’t start seeds indoors. I do drape a cloth over the raised beds and start them outdoors under the cloth. It’s a white garden fabric that I pick up at a nursery. I believe it is $20 for 50’x8′. The cloth keeps the frost and snow off of everything yet lets the sunlight through. I roll it back when it is warm enough and cover everything back up when it goes below 40.

    If I tried to start seeds indoors I would always be fighting the frosts as I live in the mountains and sometimes get snaps at the most unpredictable of times. Like the middle of August, for instance. By putting cloths (cloches if you want to be all fancy) over the beds I often have tomatoes into October still on the vine. I also put white garbage bags on plants further out that need little mini greenhouses to survive the zone 4 winter. I just took the cut bags off the oregano and revealed massive bushes of it. Which is delicious.

  3. Your pepper plant seed problem may be harvesting from GMO plants which may or may not be able to reproduce viable seeds. …

    1. Also, I did not have good luck starting pepper plants from seeds until I started putting them on a damp paper towel and then in a Ziploc bag until I could see that they had started sprouting. I have heard they are difficult to start from seeds, but doing it this way I have had almost 100% germination.

  4. I always get antsy and start tomatoes too early inside too. My transplants get tall and gangly. I just pull off all but the top 3 or 4 leaf branches and plant them that much deeper. They do fine. One year we had late HARD freezes forecast and I held off planting tomatoes. That year I did an intermediate transplant into 32 oz drink cups I’d saved. Those made well too. The big disaster was the 23 inches of rain we had in May last year in Oklahoma. I ended up buying plants to replace all my drowned out ones. We had very few tomatoes until September.

    1. Whether starting our own or buying starters, take any container off (even the “biodegradable” ones. Gently break up the root ball, then plant up to the first set of true leaves (no matter how tall and gangly)

      It will take a little longer for your plants to shoot up (a good thing for colder climates because small plants are easy to cover) because the initial energy of the plant is going to root repair and generation – but this gets the roots to spread more thoroughly, providing a sturdier plant.

      Last tip (for now) is that when the bottom leaves start to yellow, there is usually a sprout at the base of the leaf. Trim the old leaf, leave the new. Promotes a bushiet plant and more “fruit-limbs”.

  5. Sarah,
    I enjoyed your article so much that I decided to leave a comment (which I rarely do on blog sites). Gardening is truly fraught with mistakes, as you’ve learned. But the mistakes can be learning experiences that will pay dividends, as I’ve learned. Some of my suggestions are sure to incite the ire of many who are smug in their gardening knowledge, but here goes:
    1) Keep a garden journal. It will be invaluable.
    2) If possible, abandon the raised beds in favor of planting in the ground. Raised bed may be necessary for some, but they are not worth the trouble. There is no substitute for ground planting. Your plants will be healthier, and yields will be much greater, if done correctly. (That one should start the “experts” crying “foul”.)
    3) If you must use raised beds, keep it simple and don’t plant too much, as you learned. But more importantly, don’t crowd your plants. Spread them out, and be happy with fewer vegetables, but healthier plants.
    That’s it for now. There’s so much more, but the books you recommend should cover it. But the garden journal you keep will be more important than any book written by others. Write EVERYTHING down, with the date. Include your thoughts and ideas. Trial and error will ingrain the lessons better than any book can. Keep up the good work!

    1. A garden journal is invaluable.

      I have always had an in-ground garden. Instinctively I felt it was better for me even when all the cool kids were putting in raised beds. This summer I have been the sole caretaker of a raised bed vegetable garden at a nearby church to benefit a local charity. I also have my normal garden at home. At the end of June I went out of town for a week. Both gardens were neglected and depended on rain for their water needs. My garden did fine; the raised bed floundered. I have found the raised bed garden needs watered every two days for all sizes of plants. At home I only water seedlings and transplants every two-three days; if no rain, then everything gets water every five days. Water is a big deal for me because I am on city water. I have clay soil, but it doesn’t flood and it drains reasonably well, so I am happy. A raised bed drains too quickly for me.

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  7. Jennifer Ahlhorn

    This is a great article and very helpful. I have tried the last couple of years as well just trying to start learning at an urban gardening level before we get to the country in a few years. I tried pallet gardening, but its not for me. I’m still learning how to grow things inside (limited space) before planting outside. I really need to stick to a good planting schedule. I need raised garden beds, but have limited funds! Anyway, practice makes perfect!

  8. I no longer have the space to garden, but I remember my first one as an adult. We were newlyweds with a lovely large field out back. My husband borrowed a plow and dug up a section that was easily 30′ wide and 100′ long. We readied the soil, spent a small fortune on seeds, and happily planted away. Unfortunately, we’d forgotten the part where we both worked 35 miles from home. I had a 6-day work week, and he was always on call. His father was dying a short distance down the road, but he rallied long enough to tell us we’d plowed the only section of the field that floods after every rain. We wound up with a healthy crop of leaf lettuce, far more than I could use, but between the water and the lack of time to weed that monstrosity, we didn’t have more than a dozen other plants that came up. We learned a very expensive lesson that year, and the next garden was much smaller and in a different area.

  9. I was lucky enough to marry a man with gardening in his blood! Our first year garden produced 270 g peppers in Central Washington State! All the old timers in the area we live now (huge homesteading valley community) made it easy to know when to start what. I have a tiny apt porch that is flourishing as much as I hope your whole garden does this year! Good luck!

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  12. When we moved into the house we’re in now, it has a much smaller yard (and my husband and I are empty-nesters now so we don’t need to grow as much anyway) so I just had DH take our small tiller and dig up areas about 3 ft by 3 ft wherever the sun seemed to shine most of the day, throughout the yard. It looks like a patchwork quilt! But it does the job.

    In our old home where we had a much larger yard and I was a much younger person with 3 children to feed, I always planted a medicine wheel type garden (round, with paths to walk on – some called it a wagon wheel if you made more paths!) so that watering, weeding and tending was easier. I wish I could still do it that way, but there’s just no room. I also now have quite a few things planted in large pots on the front (full sun) and back (varying degrees of sun as the season winds down) decks and they are doing well. Last year my granddaughter (age 9) planted some Moon and Sun watermelon in a container and ended up with 4 huge watermelons! She also planted some of the small *sweet pie* pumpkins and we just let the tentacles go wherever they went and the first one that actually touched the ground was the one I used to teach her how to grow a milk-fed pumpkin. It ended up being much larger than any of the other pumpkins and was a great lesson for her.

    I’ve been gardening for so long I don’t make too many mistakes anymore, and most of my gardening experience came from my gramma who was an expert, so she taught me much of what I still know and do. However now I order organic seeds, otherwise you never know what you’re getting.

    My favorite thing has always been to plant like the Indians did – corn first and once it’s up about 6 inches, then plant green beans around the base (it will use the corn to climb on as it grows) and then plant squash around the beans. The squash will crawl along the ground and help shade the beans. Here’s a great article with some explanations and more reasons to grow corn, etc., this way:


    Hope those ideas are helpful to someone.

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