5 things I won’t do in my garden again

I‘m not sure if I’ll ever consider myself to be a gardener, but each spring I can be found hunched over a pile of dirt, dropping spinach seeds into a shallow trench, and daydreaming of an early salad crop.

If I was a real gardener, I probably would have dug the remaining carrots last fall and stashed them in my cold storage. Instead the boys uprooted them yesterday, and set aside half a bucket of rubbery orange specimens to offer the hens for snack.

I like to think that back in autumn I would have made the effort to turn the compost one last time, or put away the wire trellises, or at the very least, rolled the hose. Alas, the last of the snow melted this weekend, leaving behind the evidence of a very distracted -and hardly dedicated- gardener.

Aimee's Way Homegrown Goodness

Last week, superstore Canadian Tire launched their spring digital catalog, and included in it is Aimee’s Way: Homegrown Goodness, a short feature on me and my backyard garden. The art team did a beautiful job on the project, Tim’s photos really pop, and gosh, do I ever sound like I know what I’m doing.

Which I totally don’t.

I’ve always made an effort to keep things real in this space, so when the feature came out, my first reaction was “I have to disclose that I’m not an expert!” I am the first to admit I have a ton to learn about gardening and, like many people, I imagine, am just trying to grow something yummy for dinner.

Each season brings new challenges. Every failed crop leads to a lesson learned. All hours spent in the garden are completely worth the effort.

Today I’m sharing a handful of examples where I’ve totally done the wrong thing – and how this season will be different.  Maybe my tips can help you avoid my pitfalls.

5 things I won't do in my garden again on simplebites.netAll photos by Tim Chin

1. ‘Wing’ my crop selection.

I like to read the backs of seed packages. Yes, that makes me sound like a total nut-ball, but there’s something about that line “…as soon as the soil can be worked.” that speaks of such promise. And there’s a lot of good information on that little rectangle of paper. But not enough.

Good gardening requires a solid handle on your growing conditions, and then a bit of research to decide what will thrive in your plots. Research that I skipped last year, and resulted in beets that took forever to mature and zucchini plants that flowered but never produced fruit. This year, I’ll try to plan a little better.

Oh, and it’s a good idea to check for your last frost date (USA and Canada) to get a better idea of when it’s time for those plants and seeds to go into the ground.

Aimee garden

2. Ignore sun and shade requirements.

My raised beds just don’t get as much sun as I’d like, a condition that I disregarded last year, and planted whatever I felt like, wherever. I don’t recommend this.  I’ve come to accept my partially shaded garden, and will be sowing accordingly.

A basic rule I have learned is that if you grow a plant for the fruit or the root, it needs full sun. If you grow it for the leaves, stems, or buds, shade is just fine.

Guess what? Many culinary herbs love shade, and so I will be focusing more on plants like chives, parsley, cilantro, and oregano this year. I use herbs in almost every meal during the summer and nothing makes me happier than harvesting them myself.

3. Hope and pray that the pests will cease and desist

The squirrels stole many of the tomatoes just as they were ripening, a groundhog family wreaked havoc on my pots of herbs, and toward the end of the summer, the tomato plants were succumbing to some sort of nasty beetle.

This year, I’m marking my territory early and won’t stand for pests, furry or fluffy. However, I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to go about this. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments!

Mateo Garden

4. Plant crops that my children dislike.

This spring I plan to involve my  boys in gardening by planting produce that will capture their imagination and tickle their fancy. Unlike tomatoes, which they both currently dislike, and which took over my raised beds last year.

Half of the reason I tend a garden is to help my children make that key connection between field and fork. I believe kids can take for granted the effort that goes into producing fruits and vegetables without being exposed to gardening and harvesting. Also, what better way to explain seasonal eating than by observing it first-hand as the seasons change?

People of all ages support what they create, and I’ve seen how growing their own vegetables has helped curb my sons’ fears of new foods – they love big summer salads as much as we do. And this year, they are sowing those greens, along with green beans, peas, and potatoes.

We’ll work on the tomato issue too, but I don’t need to grow rows and rows of them.

5. Let Mother Nature do the tending.

Right. Maintaining a vegetable garden does actually require a fair bit of maintenance between sowing seed and harvesting fruit. You think I would know this.

Spring is such a busy time, that getting the crops planted – raised beds, front flower beds, hanging baskets, and deck pots – feels like a supernatural accomplishment every season. I then tend to block off ‘Gardening’ from my to-do list for a bit while I catch up on work and house responsibilities. Oops.

This year I’ll be more rigorous in ensuring the earth stays damp where seeds are planted, root crops are properly thinned, and the herb are harvested before they ‘bolt’. Among a dozen other jobs, of course. Good thing I enjoy this part of urban homesteading.

I did do one thing right last year. My chief gardening mentor, my mother, tipped me onto something to maintain healthy soil. She suggested I mulch around the plants to protect the soil, retain moisture and keep the weeds down. I used a combination of leaves and compost to mulch my raised beds and it worked!  I hardly had to weed all summer.

Hey, it’s Earth Day! Get out and plant something. This post on Things to Think about When Planning Your Backyard Garden is a good place to get started.

Note: All the photos in this post were taken in early summer of 2012. My backyard is a current brown mud hole, so who wants to see that? Thanks to Tim Chin for the snaps.

What have you learned from your gardening mistakes? Any tips to share?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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  1. Great post! I don’t have much space for a garden and so I’ve only gotten as far as some potted herbs, but you definitely look like you know what you’re doing.Congrats for the feature!

  2. Loved the article, Aimee! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  3. Great points Aimee! Thanks for sharing! I’ve discovered a simple and effective tip for keeping the critters from dining on my garden greens. I place toy snakes in the garden, in and among the plants. I’ve found a bunch of different ones at toy stores and dollar stores, and have built up quite a collection over the years! They really seem to do the trick! We live right on a large park, so there are lots of rabbits & squirrels around. They seem to be sufficiently scared off and haven’t eaten up my crops since I started doing this! (Although my neighbour was terrified when she looked out her window and saw what was lurking in my garden!).

    • I will have to try this! We have rabbits in the ‘hood, and they like to munch! Can the snakes be the same color as the mulch, or should they stand out?

      • Very interesting, Janet! I wonder if it would work, here as we don’t have many snakes, so the wildlife may not recognize them as predators…. Really cool tip, though!

      • Holly, I have a bunch of different snakes, but most of them do stand out from the mulch.
        Aimee, we don’t have a lot of snakes around here either (suburbs of Toronto), but somehow they seem to do the trick! Let me know what happens if you give it a try!

    • Those fake snakes would keep me out of your garden! Fascinating idea. We have tons of real ones so I’m working on getting over my snake phobia.

  4. Thanks for the post. I’m learning about a number of flowers that you can plant around your veggies to keep critters away. Try looking into companion gardening to get some ideas. Happy planting!

    • Yes, I need to research this a bit more. Thanks!

      • Marigolds are one such plant; I always planted them around tomatoes and zucchini and had few issues with pests. Maybe it was luck but really…marigold scent is not particularly to me even!

        My kids are grown and I just sold my home with a large garden but you’ve hit on many of the issues that we learn over the years. For me, the neighbors tree that got bigger and bigger saw my sun get less and less but I did what you suggested and planted a bunch of herbs. Considering their relative expense to tomatoes when they’re in season; I accepted I would be buying fresh tomatoes and relished having abundant herbs!

  5. Aimee, check out “companion planting” (online search such as “carrots love tomatoes”) and you should be able to get some natural pest control. It’s amazing!

  6. Aimee! I love this post! The photographs are gorgeous too! I thought that was you in the Canadian Tire catalog! Congrats! That is exciting! I’m in love with your blog, by the way!

    We have a farm and though it’s a beef farm, we do have a few large gardens. Each year I try a different way to keep the weeds away. One year I did the black gardening material, another year I did mulching. I’ve found for me, a combination of some mulching and some raised beds help. One thing I love, but may never do too much of again is plant copious amounts of corn! The raccoons love it too much and the deer all bed down in it.

  7. Great tips! One big change I’m making this year is not biting off more than I can chew … literally. In a nutshell, scale down from 26 tomato plants to about 4. I tend to get overzealous, and then busy, and then overwhelmed with the crop and maintenance.

  8. Loved this Aimee! Thanks for sharing!

  9. Gosh, Aimee, you are homesteadin stud! The fact that you do all this in addition to everything else just makes my jaw drop.

    Gardening is something I love to learn how to do but I’m really terrible at it 🙁

  10. What great tips Aimee! When I get to have a garden someday, I will be using these tips for sure! xoxo

  11. Aimee – great lessons. I’ve learned many of these too along the way.
    A great resource for your northern climate in selecting crops is Eliot Coleman’s 4 Season Garden – With this book we’ve been eating out of your garden from May to February – lots of short season and cold season suggestions!

    For pests, we’ve had to use pellet guns for particularly pesky squirrels – just a little ping on the butt to scare them away w/ a low velocity pump. They learn that the garden is a place where they get stung.
    We’re trying out some garlic-imbued spray this year. We’ve also got it well fenced off and I have some old CD’s hanging around the perimeter to add a little extra noise and distraction.
    Mulch is the best!!!!

  12. Ah – one more thing – while I agree it’s best not to plant Yucky Veggies – it’s interesting how many vegetables my kids wouldn’t eat otherwise are transformed when they grow them. I had one friend whose son hated beans. He picked a bag of our rattlesnake beans and happily sat munching them for the afternoon. It might be transformative! Don’t hold off completely in exploring and trying things they ordinarily won’t eat!

  13. i dream of the day where i can have a lush and full garden and backyard like you! these are great tips and it’s so nice to hear it from a first hand experience instead of just “by the books.” Thanks for sharing 🙂

  14. Your gardening plots are beautiful! I can only dream of such things since all our gardening efforts are currently in pots. Love this post, especially point number 2. My little shaded backyard taught me that lesson the hard way.
    So glad to have found your blog.

    • Welcome, Sharmila. I gardened in pots for a good many years. In fact, this is only my second summer to have the raised beds. Keep dreaming, you’ll get there. =)

  15. That picture of you with the graphics is AMAZING. I love this post. I am trying and trying each year to be a better gardener, and it is SUCH a learning process. I m sure that this will help people 🙂

  16. Congratulations, Aimee! How amazing is that, and the article on you is awesome!
    Loved your gardening tips too – I certainly don’t have a green thumb, so these are so helpful!

  17. We’ve had a vegetable and herb garden for at least 10 years now. My backyard is wooded which is home to many animals and birds (raccoons, squirrels, deer, chipmunks, rabbits, owl, and hawks to name a few). They pretty much left the garden alone for the first 5 or 6 years. I’ve had to fence it to keep them out now but the squirrels still climb over the fence and take bites out of my ripe tomatoes that are still on the vine! It drives me nuts. Does anyone have a good solution to keep them out? Would love to hear ANY advice. I may have to try the snakes!

    • My garden is quite far from the house, and the squirrels have plenty of time to get in and get out. It drives me nuts too! I can see them running along the fence wit a tomato in their mouth. Grr.
      We are going to try a pellet gun, to see if we can deter them somewhat…

  18. Hi Aimee

    Great post. Love hearing about beginning gardeners and their trials and tribulations. Here’s a tip . Plant marigolds around your vegetables. They are a natural pesticide and with all the varieties out there you can have an amazing burst of bright colours. Also try to keep your oregano contained. It can get very invasive. I had it once growing so prolifically that it was all over my lawn. Smelled great when I mowed though. Feel free to pick my horticultural brain anytime if you want.

    • I am laughing about smelling the oregano when you mowed the grass! That would be fabulous 🙂 I keep watching mine spread and grow and have been wondering if I’ll have to take drastic measures. I would love to have a lot of it, because I cut it and dry it (and we go through the dried stuff so fast), but I don’t know if I want an oregano lawn 🙂

      Also, Aimee, thanks for the part about roots/fruit needing sun and leaves doing ok in the shade. That’s super easy to remember and will help me out a lot–I’ve made a lot of mistakes in that area before. 🙂 Gardening is tough to learn well because it takes an entire season to try something new and see if it works. But it’s impossible for me not to try again the next year! 🙂

    • Thank you, Heather. Yes, I remember in my first garden years ago, the oregano and the mint taking over. I loved it for a while, but then it was too much. And thank you for your marigold tip! I did that last year and it worked pretty well.

  19. Great advice! I am thinking about doing a very small bit of gardening again after taking a gardening hiatus last year. The hardest gardening lesson I’ve had to learn is that I just can’t handle as big of a garden as I dream of. Letting Mother Nature tend things definitely doesn’t work out so well! 😉

  20. When I saw the article,I thought, “Hey, I “know” her!”. I second the marigolds. Lady bugs are good too, but our stores never got them last year. 🙁

    We moved from a house with a garden I had transformed to a rental house that has “too” much grass. ;). There is a small patch where we did some gardening last year, without much luck. But we are not doing as much travelling this year, so hopefully it will be better. Thanks for the frost link. Now I know how much time I have to research!

    Thanks to everyone for all the tips.

  21. I too struggled through denial with a partial to full shade garden for years. What always got me was it grew-and well- but took forever, especially in our colder Maine summers. I’ve learned to start with what grows well and easily and then add in a couple of “test” crops I think might be doable.
    I agree though that kids think veggies are yummier if they’ve tended and picked them themselves. Colorful varieties are helpful. Yellow pear tomatoes, purple beans, purple carrots, watermelon radishes, orange watermelon, etc.

    And after growing up with a grandfather with 7acres who fed three kids and taught me all I know about organic and almost organic gardening, I still have much to learn, even at 33yrs. Which is why I still subscribe to Organic Gardening just like he did and chat with the greenhouse staff and farmers every year.

  22. I always love looking at your garden photos. The green is so inspiring (especially as my yard is still covered in the white fluff of winter). I look forward to getting started (much later this year than last), but while I’m dreaming of sunshine and yard work, I’ll gladly take note of your tips. I need to be better about rotating my tomatoes from bed to bed. I finally did last year, and it was such a blessing in the end, even though it was more work to move the trellis system in the beginning. I am also a terrible waterer (new word!). My mom constantly nags at me about the perennial gardens she helped me plant, but they seem to be doing just fine…in my opinion. I know my vegetable and fruit crops would love me for a bit more tender care and pruning. Wonderful tips, Aimee!

  23. I appreciate your honesty and advice, Aimee. We just moved north to Canada, so I’ll be referring back to your gardening posts as we start small.

    Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for the snow drifts in the yard to melt…

  24. Great, great post! I’m looking to finally get some raised beds in the ground this year and although I know of a few methods to seed and harvest, I don’t know nearly enough. This was incredibly informative, Aimee! I’m sure your garden will be stronger than ever this year. I can only hope for the same with me. Cheers.

  25. I’ve never had a problem with anything eating my veggies and we lived in an area where we had deer, rabbits, something else that I’m not sure of (woodchuck, maybe?) and a chipmunk that lived under our steps. I had a chicken wire fence around the garden which was short enough for me to step over. I also heard that animals don’t like cucumbers and will actively stay away. Which must be at least somewhat true because I always have cukes and even things that would grow through & outside of my fence were never touched.

  26. I would love to know what others are planting in shady gardens. I did lots of lettuces last year and they were fine, but I wanted something with more oomph.

  27. Oh, Aimee where were you when I was starting my little patio garden last year?! 🙂 I swear I planted everything under the sun–from a fig tree to monster tomato plants that wouldn’t fruit to cucumbers and lettuces, blueberries and raspberries and carrots and beets and just about everything else that sounded good. Some of it was successful–the kale that flourished until the caterpillars arrived (again, LOTS of praying) and the strawberries, which were leftover from previous tenants and probably the easiest to care for! This year, I am being much more intentional about things and even starting seedlings inside before putting them outdoors. I’m also planting a ton more flowers to attract my friends the bees 🙂 Things I wish I could do? Get my soil tested… oh and have someone who knows gardening a little more help me to plan better.

  28. Jerry Baker has several books out with garden/plant tips and solutions made from household items. To keep squirrels away from bird feeders, he suggested adding chilli powder; the birds can’t taste it and the squirrels hate it. Maybe that would work as a spray on your veggies. Low, shallow dishes of beer catch the slugs and snails.

  29. Theresa F. says

    I’m curious what you learned about why your beets took a long time to mature. I’d love to know, since mine did the same last year!

  30. Living in a very hot climate it is very important to pay attention to the shade and sunny part of the seed packet. A lot of things would die if we didn’t pay attention to that here.

  31. Excellent article! My man and I are planning on doing some in-the-pot gardening at our new apartment this year. Hopefully we will get some nice herbs since it will most likely be a mix of sun and shade.
    As far as pests go…my dad tried everything known to man aside from building a giant 6-foot-tall deer fence to keep the furries out of his garden. After murdering a woodchuck with a 2×4 (because it was stealing his brussels sprouts, dangit!), he built the fence, and we’ve all been a lot happier ever since. Especially the woodchucks.
    (On a separate note, my grandfather used to catch woodchucks in Have-a-Heart traps and then take them to the river to drown them…I guess we just aren’t a woodchuck-loving family).

  32. Great tips, Aimee! I have GOT to get out there and start a veggie garden before it gets too stinkin’ hot in Texas! Yours is beautiful.

  33. All such great advice for a newbie gardener like myself!

  34. Linda Crosbie says

    Cheap fencing keeps out most of the furry creatures! I use a roll type 6′ mesh fence with
    stakes (wood works well as long as they’re tall enough), and make a “gate” so I can get to my garden for weeding, tending etc. Looks kinda like this which you can find at any Home Depot, or the like.

    • Linda Crosbie says

      Plus, we use a natural repellent spray ( it is made of some animal urine that repels “fury creatures” and human hair clippings from the salons (they give this away for free!). If you space the fencing right, it still allows for you to get to your garden and tend it. Also pennies scattered around your Lettuce or other green leaves like Kale, keep the slugs away. I guess they don’t like copper. Also, pour a bit of beer into a jar lid and place under your greens. They will drown themselves in it! Downside is you keep having to refill it… 😉

  35. 1. Read a seed catalog. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Territorial Seed Company puts out a great one (and they have great seed too)! Perhaps there is a local one for your area.
    2. Wall o waters to plant your tender plants earlier (tomatoes, cukes, zucchini, tomatillos, etc.)
    3. Mulch, mulch and more mulch..

  36. I’m not successful because I do all these mistakes every year!!! But This year, my daughter asks me to have à garden. So I will grow more herbs ans Jalapeños 🙂
    Last year I’ve put egg shells around some plants and some says that coffee marc helps…
    You could get a dog! 🙂
    I love the photos. They must be precious.

  37. Laurie Christensen says

    Best 10 tips I have read/used are:
    1- Use newspaper placed on the area you want a garden. Place heavy and water. It will kill all plants & their root systems so next year you won’t have to till at all!
    2- Use black gardener’s cloth over your plot. Stops most weeds. Just cut where you want a plant. Mulch/compost on top.
    3- Use urine soaked hair in medium bags at different levels to scare animals. Remember to ‘refresh’ monthly.
    4- Foil, pennies, or tin cans cut to fit over plants will help with bugs.
    5- Recycle old plastic/metal bottles and cans (2ltr soda, fruit juice bottles, #5 can from juices. Bury them almost level to surface .. I cut out part of the bottoms & poke holes in the tops for slow water drain & fertilizer addition. This puts water/fertilizer at the roots so they grow deep & heavy while much less waste of water on surface. Will almost double roots/crops.
    6- I use cayenne pepper on bird food and saved me plenty. So I am going to be trying a mix of hot peppers & garlic this year. Soaked, blended, & sieved will make a powerful spray.
    7- Using a pallet to make a vertical herb garden saves space & increases fresh greens. Use gardener’s cloth to separate ‘shelves’. 1 Roll has lasted 2 years. Google how to build the pallet garden online.
    8- Eliot Coleman & Jerry Baker have great ideas and their books are worth green gold.
    9- Composting is like blood to humans. Can’t thrive without it. Even small will help. Visit someone with cows/chickens/rabbits to help them get rid of manure. Compost or make a tea with it. Your garden will love you.
    10- Search Google, Pinterest, and other how-to sites to keep your ideas, enthusiasm, and knowledge fresh and fruitful. Hope that helps .. Laurie

  38. Great suggestions! I envy your raised garden beds. I’ve heard of a few pest control methods that I’m trying out this year:
    – There’s mixed reviews on using french marigold to keep pest away. But we are talking about a beautiful, colorful flower so what’s the harm? Might as well try it, right?
    – I’ve heard laying down human hair will keep animal away. We may try to use some hair from our hair brushes since something is already eating my squash & zucchini leaves…
    – One of the best ways to keep your plants alive from best is maintaining a healthy plant. But it sounds like you’re already doing that with compost. It’s a bit complicated but maybe you can look into what minerals your tomatoes need?

    You have such a beautiful garden! I hope it turns into a plentiful harvest!

  39. Love these tips 🙂 I hope to have a garden of my own one day. For now I try and keep up with my tiny herb garden.

  40. I will totally remember that shade/sun rule, I like it! I’m such a rookie gardener, but I try every year! This is my first summer since I’ve started that I’m not pregnant or caring for a tiny baby, so I’m pretty excited. Of course, I have two little girls “helping” me weed. I think I go the radishes back in the ground in time….

    • Hanna, DITTO on the pregnancy/baby thing. Clara’s old enough now to walk around and play with sticks. Fingers are crossed that I’ll get something done.

  41. Congratulations Aimée, on your Saveur.com win! You must be so very proud. Congrats also to Danny and to of all of the contributors to Simple Bites. I’m looking forward to many more posts!

  42. I love your honesty in this! I’d love to make a garden, but even the flower beds surrounding my house can’t be maintained. I have a black thumb, it’s ridiculous. I’m currently trying to figure out what disease destroyed a few of my annuals over the winter… they normally are covered in leaves all year, and instead they are covered in a creepy looking mold/something? I need to dig them up and get them out before they spread more… or maybe I should just hire a gardener… know anyone who would work for cookies? 🙂

  43. I’m jealous of your garden! I wish I had more space to garden but we are in the city so…

  44. Gail @ A Stack of Dishes says

    Lovely post- thank you! I’m about to embark on a garden in Louisiana with just a smattering of NY knowledge. I figure it’s the process. I say the same things to myself- I promise to be a good “garden mother”. Trowel on!

  45. I always love how you keep it real & your tips!

  46. Melanie Johnson says

    We save up newspapers or get them from the recycling drop off and lay them down around all of our plants and then put grass clippings over them and we have no weeds to pull! Also, my mother-in-law raises chickens so she gives us the manure from the chickens to till into our garden before planting. When we do this we have the biggest, most beautiful plants! I let my husband do that part though. 🙂

  47. Gardens are just so daily 🙂 I laughed when you talked about having to fall back and recoup on housework after planting season. That happens to me every. single. year.
    I’ve had great luck with Neem oil for buggy pests and mildews. It’s not usually marketed as Neem here in the States, though. They like to call it “organic pesticide”. I think Ortho makes the kind I use.
    My goal for the next few years is learning four season gardening so I have less “puttin’ up” to do. I’ve got 10 beautiful raised beds in full sun and a squash patch, so hopefully we can make it work. I really enjoyed the pictures of you in your garden and the wisdom you shared.

  48. I have learned many ways not to garden over the years. Such as you cannot just let a tomato plant grow as it chooses you actually have to prune it. You should also never choose metal bins for growing vegetables in especially if your yard gets full sun almost the entire day because the soil will get so hot it will create spindle plants that can never soak up enough water to last them. I have also learned that even if you are a poor gardener 6 zucchini plants is way too many!

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