Nine Ways To Screw Up Your First Home Garden

My garden, also dubbed "Fox Farm."

With the current skyrocketing grocery prices and uncertain economy, more and more people are looking for ways to save money and become self-sustaining. At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, doomsday scenarios don’t seem so farfetched anymore. I’m kept up at night worried about some disaster striking and me unprepared with two little ones.


One of the steps my family has taken to become more independent is to grow a mini-farm in our backyard. (I would have chickens right now except a city ordinance forbids free people from having fresh eggs.) When we started this project it was just a few garden beds, but it has now grown to a much grander scale with a full-on harvest in August that takes many weeks to properly can and store. As a result, our grocery bills have gone down, our fresh produce intake has gone up, and our stockpile of delicious homegrown goodies is growing.

But before you jump into the home-growing scene, take some time to learn from my mistakes. The following are nine ways to ruin your garden.

9. Soak your plants in pesticides

One of the advantages to having your own garden is feeding your family chemical-free, organic produce that is actually cheaper than non-organic produce. Bugs are not that big of a deal. I’ve had more problems with varmints than bugs. If you see some bug activity on the leaves of fruit-bearing plants, fear not. Most of them are harmless and if they aren’t eating your fruit then leave them alone. If you do find that bugs are attacking your vegetables or fruit there are several natural remedies that will work just as well as poison. Mr. Fox discovered a rosemary oil blend that when atomized over our plants not only kept the bugs away but made our whole yard smell wonderful. Having used poison in the past, there is simply no comparison to the peace of mind that comes when you know what you’re breathing in or eating isn’t going to give you a third eye. If you have a particularly difficult bug, simply use Google to find the appropriate natural defense. (How did we survive all these millennia without Google?)

While I’m not one of those people who gets overly worked up over the use of pesticides –I still use fertilizer — it’s common sense to try to limit the chemicals we ingest. Growing your own pesticide-free veggies and fruit is a great way to start.


Mr. Fox and 2-year-old Violet hauling cornstalks to decorate the front porch.

8. Plant corn

Unless you just want the stalks for decoration in the fall, forget corn. I’ve tried and failed so many times. It’s never edible. Corn is not for the beginner gardener, or even the intermediate gardener. I followed all the directions, spaced it correctly, arranged it for pollination, watered, coaxed… and all I got was inedible, deformed mush. However, the stalks are going to look lovely on my front porch and I’ll probably plant again next year just for the fall decor. And if anyone figures it out, let me know!

It seems as if every gardener has their “Moby Dick.” For me, it’s corn. However, there is a certain excitement to the possibility of getting it right this time, which is what drives me to continue trying. If you are going to try to plant something challenging, make sure you plant others that will reward you so you don’t end up feeling defeated.

My celery, after thinning, recovering nicely

7. Don’t follow directions

I love homegrown celery and last year the few I had were so awesome I over-planted this year and didn’t space them far enough apart. As a result my crop was very thin. Still tasty, but thin. It would have been better to plant all over the garden willy-nilly as long as there was sun instead of plant all together in rows in a raised bed close together. Celery needs more room than I thought. Still, it’s a great vegetable to grow and so much more flavorful when you do it yourself compared with anything you’ll find in the grocery store.

When I identified the problem, I thinned out the bed and the remaining celery did recover. In fact, by the beginning of October they started going strong and are still growing! Garden celery has many fine uses in the kitchen. First, it is much greener and darker than store-bought celery and also has incredible flavor. The leaves are wonderful for salads, soups, and even chopped up in meatballs! One of my favorite recipes I invented for garden celery is a crockpot chicken potpie.


Crockpot Chicken Potpie

Chop chicken breasts (4) and put in bottom of crockpot

Chop up celery, carrots, onions, cauliflower (and anything else you like in your potpie — peas?) and throw on top.

Place 2 T of butter in a pan and melt, then add 1 to 2 T of flour and whisk into roux. Add half a cup of cream or milk and whisk and then add as much chicken broth as necessary to get the roux to a creamy sauce texture. Add garlic salt and pepper to taste. Pour over chicken and veggies in crockpot. Top with refrigerated/canned rolls (like Pillsbury or similar) and cook on low 6 to 8 hours.

No matter what vegetable you are growing, be sure to pay attention to plant spacing. It can make or break your harvest.

6. Ignore your inner voice

The voice that says, “I don’t think there’s enough sun here.” If you want to be totally frustrated, just ignore that voice and plant anyway.

If you want great crops, put sun-loving plants in the sunniest spot in your yard. Keep in mind that to truly get a great yield, sun-lovers need at least 6 hours of full sun. Watch the sun patterns on your yard in the spring, making sure to take into account that the leaves will be fuller later in the summer. Once you determine the sunniest spots, dig your gardens there.

Plant lettuce in the shade and early in the cool spring. It does wonderfully there and you can plant all different kinds and serve fantastic gourmet salads that are very expensive in the stores and will only cost you pennies to grow. Consider planting lettuce in containers on a porch and clip with scissors about 2 inches from the root so it will keep growing and producing throughout the season.

5. Go cheap on soil

You must buy enough top soil if your soil is not rich in nutrients. If you can compost your own soil, using leftover peels, egg shellls, coffee grounds, and the like, that’s the best option. One of the good “mistakes” we made was planting our tomatoes on a compost pile the previous owner had made. Not knowing that’s what it had been, we were bewildered by our giant tomatoes. They were twice the size of the tomatoes we had planted in another part of the yard.


We finally figured out that the source of the rich soil was the nutrients from compost. A composting bin can be bought for about $65-$200 at a home improvement store or you can even make one with chicken wire. It’s an investment that will save you hundreds in topsoil later on. If composting isn’t an option, shell out the money in the beginning for proper gardening soil. If your soil is decent, still mix in plenty of peat moss. I’ve had good results with using mulch to top the soil and keep moisture in.

If planting in raised beds, make sure to use deep enough soil. The first year we planted carrots in one of our raised beds and I hadn’t considered that under the beds we had put down landscaping fabric to keep out the weeds. It did the job but stunted the growth of our carrots!

Carrots like to grow deep and as a result of the shallow soil our carrots were short and squatty. And keep in mind, if you’re planting again the next season, move your vegetables around. Don’t plant the same things in the same spots. Different plants use different nutrients so tomatoes will deplete all the nutrients they need in one spot. By keeping them there you increase the chance they won’t do well the second year unless you make sure to replace the soil with composted new soil.

One of my beautiful eggplants flanked by jalapenos

4. Don’t read

If you want a successful garden you must research every plant you want to grow. Plants are like people — each one has different needs and likes and dislikes. If you don’t find out about them and instead treat them the same you will be disappointed when some simply give up on you. I made this mistake with zucchini and treated it like my cucumbers. The result was no fruit. I am still determining why it happened. One thing I didn’t do was plant the zucchini on a tall enough hill. It’s those sorts of details that can derail even the best plans. Of course, things outside of your control can always cause havoc. This summer we had a bad heat wave and high temperatures can keep zucchini from bearing fruit. I think that’s what happened, but it’s a great mystery! Maybe that’s why I love gardening. It’s a battle against the elements, nature, and wildlife. And when you’re at the top of the food chain, you usually win. So our zucchini didn’t do so well, but our eggplants and peppers were awesome!


If you’re new to the gardening game, pick up an easy reference book that will help you get started.

3. Be friendly to varmints

5-year-old Veronica on guard-duty

If you send regular checks to PETA you might not be ready for this tip. However, if you don’t want to lose half to two thirds of your crops to the critters in your yard you must fence and guard your plants. We put up a 4 foot chicken wire fence and invested in a large BB gun. The wire keeps out the rabbits, but the squirrels do the most damage and can’t be kept out with wire fences. That’s where the gun comes in handy. If you shoot enough of them, eventually word gets around the squirrel community and they go elsewhere. It’s also great target practice for children. BB rifles are a good introduction to firearms for little ones. My 5 year old loves shooting at squirrels. She hasn’t hit one yet but she’s scared plenty away.

If shooting at squirrels is frowned upon in your neighborhood, invest in wolf’s urine. It sounds disgusting but the scent will scare smaller rodents away. It is also not poisonous and washes off easily. Planting rosemary near and around tomatoes and other plants that interest rabbits is another natural deterrent.

2. Plant more than you will eat or can

It is tempting to go hog-crazy and plant every conceivable thing on earth when you resolve to start your own veggie garden. But consider your schedule in the late summer and early fall. The kids are going back to school and life gets very busy. Then your harvest starts rolling in. One cucumber plant can suddenly yield 4 or 5 fruits a day! If you don’t have canning supplies, consider downsizing your plan.

If you only want as much as you can eat, you won’t need many plants. However, if you’re like me and want to have lots of fresh goodies all year long, you have to plan your harvest time carefully and accept that you will be spending many a steamy day canning in your kitchen. I promise the end result is incredible. My cellar is stocked with giardiniera, cucumber relish, green tomato relish, pickles, tomato sauce, marinara, salsa…the list goes on and on. What you don’t can you can freeze if you have a large enough freezer. Frozen veggies work great in soups. And if you don’t have time to can all your tomatoes, you can chop them up fresh and throw them in bags in the freezer. Don’t even peel them. Some experts would gasp at that, but I’ve been doing it for years both ways and I can’t tell the difference. Neither will you.


1. Inconsistent watering

Contrary to what you might think, how much you water is less important than how consistently you water. Now, of course you can’t starve your plants of water, but it isn’t important to water every day as long as you water for a good amount of time to give the plants a soak and do it at regular intervals. We usually water every other day unless it rains and then we adjust. Inconsistent watering will give you “corking” on tomatoes and peppers. This is where the skin splits and turns brown in the split. It doesn’t affect the taste of the fruit but it does mar the beauty. (It’s exactly like the stretch marks I was horrified to find on my thighs the year I turned 15 after a 6-inch growth spurt that happened over one summer.) Inconsistent water can also stress your plants and nobody needs stressed out plants that need therapy and yoga to recover. Save that for your teen daughter when she finds her first stretch marks.

I have a lot more to learn, but have found that growing food for my family is challenging, fun, and economical. The opportunities to exercise the brain are endless where gardening is concerned. My 85-year-old grandmother finally has the answers to all horticultural questions, but I think it took her all 85 years to get them. The most important thing to know is that with a little consistency, care, and interest, you can have fresh vegetables all year long.


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