Author: Julianne Labreche, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton; published with permission

As any gardener knows, gardening mistakes are as common as dandelions. Heaven knows, I’ve made a fair share of them myself during nearly four decades of gardening. As the old saying goes, everyone makes mistakes, but wise people learn from them.

Here are a few common gardening mistakes that many novices make. These suggestions might even save you a little time, labour and money when next year’s gardening season rolls around.

Prevent the Perils of Fabric Weed Cloth

Many years ago, I purchased a roll of black fabric cloth for a new perennial bed planned at the family farm. Once the ground was ready, I cut and draped big pieces of it over the bed, then covered the cloth in soil. It seemed like a sensible idea at the time. I anticipated it would save me hours of weeding. Big mistake! Instead, after a few years, weed seeds in the soil grew up through the cloth. Other weed seeds grew on top. It was impossible to amend the soil, and it was really difficult to yank out those weeds or split the perennials. In the end, I pulled up that fabric—not an easy job.

Avoid Planting Too Close to Your House

Walk down any suburban street, and chances are you will see lots of trees, shrubs, and plants planted under the eavestroughs of homes. The challenge in planting too close to the house is that the roof overhang will block sunlight and prevent rain from soaking into the soil. Consequently, plants may not flourish. Sometimes too, the roots of trees planted too close to a foundation can damage the house. Before digging, look around the property to determine if there’s a better location to plant.

Don’t Start to Garden Too Early in Spring

Ah, the smells and sights of spring and the feel of the warm sun after our long, cold, dark winters! If you’re like me, you can’t wait to get outside to start a new gardening season. The trouble is, the ground is too cold and wet at that time of year. If you start to work on your garden too early, you’ll end up doing more harm than good by compacting your soil and perhaps killing a few plants too.

Leave the Leaves

Busy homeowners are even busier in the fall, raking up leaves to pile into leaf bags left at curbside to be picked up by the city’s recycling trucks. I learned too late in my gardening years that those leaves are pure garden gold, an inexpensive and efficient way to add compost to the garden. These days, I pile leaves on my garden beds and leave them for winter. Large oak leaves, which take longer to break down, are put in the compost bin. In spring, earthworms and spring rains go to work and break them down. By late spring, those leaves provide valuable soil nutrients.

Read Your Seed Packet Labels

Seed packet pictures are so inspiring, leaving gardeners to imagine those gorgeous plants growing in their own gardens. But facts are found in the fine print, which gardeners sometimes forget to read or read too quickly. Check carefully before you plant to determine the best time to start your seeds and where and how to plant them. Remember too that seed packets don’t always show how long your seeds will last. It’s best to consult viability charts to see if ones you’ve saved are still likely to germinate.

Grow the Right Plant in the Right Place

Gardening ABCs involve checking first to ensure you’re putting your newly acquired plant in the right place. Some plants need sun. Others thrive in shade or semi-shade. Some plants like their soil on the acidic side; others prefer soil that is more alkaline or sweet. It’s important to check on the eventual size of the plant too. Remember that a tiny seed can grow into a big tree.

Clean and Sharpen Your Tools

Always clean your garden tools to help prevent plant diseases from spreading. Ideally, tools should be cleaned and sharpened regularly. Most certainly, they need to be cleaned after cutting infected limbs or branches. Use a solution of nine parts warm water to one part chlorine bleach. At the end of the season, garden tools can be cleaned the same way, dried, and stored for the winter. Similarly, pots and containers should also be cleaned to prevent the spread of fungus, aphids, and other plant diseases and pests.

Beware of Invasive Plants

Pity a new neighbour of mine who has a front yard nearly covered with goutweed (Aegopodium). Many gardeners are only just waking up to realize that some plants are not only garden thugs, often difficult to remove entirely, but are also invasive species that can cause terrible harm when spreading to wild spaces or planted near water. Because they spread so quickly, it’s tempting to ‘gift’ an invasive plant to a friend, pass them along at plant sales, or take them to the cottage. For a detailed list, as well as ways to get rid of them, check out the Ontario Invasive Plant Council at:

Remember to Water

After purchasing a new plant, it’s too easy to dig a hole, plant it, water it, and then walk away. For the first few weeks after planting, a new plant will require some TLC. The general rule of thumb is to remember to water it until the roots get established in their new location. Unless it rains, herbaceous perennials should be watered at least biweekly for a few weeks. After that, remember to check the plants and water as needed, especially during periods of drought.

Don’t Forget Pollinators

Given that bees, wasps, flies and other insects pollinate many fruits and vegetables and are under some significant threat these days for various reasons, it makes sense to plant for pollinators too. It’s easy to forget our buzzing, flying, crawling beneficial insects. Every gardener can make a difference. For information on planting pollinators, go to Bee City Canada.

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