Growing your own produce can be a cost-effective way to ensure you’re getting enough fruits and veggies in your diet.

It’s also an excuse to spend some time outdoors, whether by yourself or in the company of family and friends. Not to mention it can also be a good form of exercise.

If you’re looking to reap the rewards of gardening but fear you may have a black thumb or aren’t sure how to get started, don’t fret. Candace Harrell, former teaching garden coordinator with the North End Community Improvement Collaborative, has some pointers. Harrell has been gardening for approximately 30 years — the first decade in Tennessee and the last 20 years in Ohio. She has experience with both small- and large-scale gardening.

Try to avoid making these mistakes.

Mistake #1: Think there’s only one way to grow produce

Would you like to garden in the ground, or would you like to garden upside down? Would you like to garden in a dish, or would you like to garden with some fish? The variations are vast.

“There are so many gardening methods that I think as long as you come out with some produce at the end of the season, then you've been successful,” Harrell said.

Even if the harvest is scant, don’t get discouraged.

“You learn from your mistakes as you garden,” Harrell said.

And don’t get swept up into creating a picture-perfect garden.

“So many people have this fantasy of creating perfectly straight rows in a garden that is perfectly square or rectangular and everything is coming in at the exact same time, and that is so much fantasy,” Harrell said.

You don’t even have to garden in rows. You could opt for patches, or small beds or one huge bed.

“You can mix your crops,” Harrell said. “You can plant your tomatoes and your beans together rather than having just your tomatoes in one section and just your beans in another section. That's actually great for your soil and it confuses the pests, so that's a plus.”

As for the timing, remember, produce grow at different rates, so certain items will develop more quickly than others. So that perfect salad that you’re picturing may not have all of the ingredients right away.

Mistake #2: Ignore your environment

“Location is important,” Harrell said. 

You might get away with growing some shade-friendly flowers and herbs in the shade, but, for the most part, your produce need the sunshine, Harrell said.

Tomatoes and peppers especially enjoy the heat, while lettuce likes it a little cooler, so you might be able to grow some lettuce in the shade, but it still needs enough sunlight in order for the seeds to mature fully, Harrell said.

Mistake #3: Plant in unhealthy soil

One way to tell if you’re planting in healthy soil is by taking an earthworm census. The presence of earthworms is generally an indicator of healthy soil, Harrell said.

Try avoiding soil that’s rocky or full of clay to ensure your plants get good irrigation and drainage, Harrell said.

“No plant likes wet feet. Drainage is important,” she said.

As for fertilizer, if you have healthy soil, you shouldn’t need much; in fact, excessive amounts of nitrogen could cause the plants to burn, she said.

“If you're going to use any fertilizer at all, I would recommend something like Miracle-Gro or something along those lines (if you're going for a chemical fertilizer),” she said.

A natural way to nourish your soil is through the use of compost (organic matter that has been decomposed).

Adding mulch around your plants can also improve the soil, helping it retain moisture and stay cool. There are many different kinds of mulch, such as grass clippings, straw, chopped leaves, shredded bark, even black plastic. 

Harrell cautions the use of fresh wood chips, which, as they break down and decompose, can pull nitrogen from the soil, she said.

Mistake #4: Water too much/too little

Depending on which gardening method you choose, make sure your crops aren’t drowning or dehydrated. For instance, in-ground beds won't dry out as quickly as raised beds, meaning they require less water.

Once plants are fully established and have developed a good root system, try watering them at regular intervals.

And don’t be afraid to water them during the day.

“I was always told to water at night after the sun went down because if you water during the day, your plants would burn — that’s a garden myth,” Harrell said.

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“Your plants will actually be happy to have a nice drink of water on a hot day, so if it's really, really hot and they're looking a little wilted, feel free to give them some water.”

Ideally, the leaves should be dry before the sun goes down because a wet garden at night could lead to bacterial, viral and/or fungal problems, Harrell said.

Mistake #5: Run for the pesticide at first bug sighting

“That’s a huge mistake that most gardeners make. They see a bug in their garden and they immediately want to start spraying stuff on it,” Harrell said.

Check to see what the insect is; after all, it could actually be beneficial for your garden to help keep pests at bay, Harrell said.

“Unless you see a huge infestation, like a swarm of locusts of biblical proportions, most likely a few insects are not going to damage your crops significantly, not for the home gardener, so there’s really no reason to poison yourself just to get rid of a few bugs,” she said.

Likewise, before you start pulling a bunch of weeds from your garden, do some research first.

“It might be something edible that you would like to have in your garden or something that makes a great companion plant,” Harrell said.

Mistake #6: Neglect your personal health, hygiene

Don’t forget to apply sunscreen, wear a hat and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Also, spores of tetanus bacteria can be found in soil and manure, so make sure you wash your hands and produce and that you are up to date with your tetanus vaccine, which is the best way to prevent tetanus, according to the CDC

Mistake #7: Forget to have fun

“Gardening is supposed to be relaxing and fun,” Harrell said. “Grow what you like to eat, but experiment with new things.”

If you have any additional gardening inquiries, feel free to contact Harrell at Another resource is the NECIC Blust Avenue Teaching Garden and the Richland County Master Gardener Association

Oh, and if you have a gardening fail, don’t worry. You can just stop by your local farmer’s market.


Thrive Reporter

Thrive reporter. Graduate of Ontario High School and Ohio State Mansfield. Wife. Mom. Dog lover. Fitness enthusiast. Plant collector. Mac and cheese consumer.