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Flower-Bed Flubs: Five Common Mistakes New Gardeners Make

I have good news to share: the basil plant I bought two weeks ago is still alive! Matter of fact, it looks downright lush. This is by far the longest I’ve ever kept any sort of greenery healthy. I’m both black-thumbed and absentminded, which has led to the downfall of so many once-thriving plants. I couldn’t even manage to keep the gorgeous flowers on my office desk from drying out, and they only lasted as long as they did because my kind coworkers watered them from time to time. But that’s all in the past. With the basil plant’s success, my confidence in gardening is soaring to new heights, and I feel ready to tackle an even bigger goal: starting an outdoor garden.

I don’t want anything too elaborate—just a few rows of pretty flowers. But given my track record, even a simple flower bed is ripe with danger. Rather than kill a bunch of plants again, I decided to find out the most common mistakes new gardeners make when it comes to flower beds, and how I can avoid them.

Not thinking about the plant’s needs.
“It’s fairly common to hear that a plant’s been put in the wrong spot,” says Spence Koehler of San Francisco’s Sloat Garden Center. “People think, ‘Oh, I’ve got this spot and I’m going to put a plant in it,’ rather than considering what the plant wants and needs.” New gardeners should know what conditions their plants thrive under best: shade versus sunlight, cold temperatures versus hot ones, seasonal changes, and so forth. When you buy your seeds and/or flowers, talk to an employee at the nursery or home-improvement store to learn as much as you can about them.

Equally important is factoring in how much space a plant needs to grow. “Your seed can go further … if you give it some space,” Spence advises. If you crowd too many seeds together, it’s likely your plants will never reach their full growth potential. He suggests putting only two or three good-quality seeds (like the kind you’d find at a nursery) in each hole; anything more than that is overkill.

Giving plants too much or too little water and fertilizer.
This is one of the biggest mistakes gardeners make when they’re just starting out. Ideally, you want to give plants water consistently. Letting them dry out and then overwatering them later to compensate leads to rotting roots. Check the soil and see how it feels; slightly damp is usually best. But don’t just run your fingers on the soil surface—go a few inches deeper to make sure that the water’s getting to the plants’ roots.

Fertilizer is a great way to keep the soil nitrogen-rich and healthy, but according to Spence, many new gardeners underfertilize. He says that adding a little bit once a month is a good idea. Be sure not to overdo it, though, since too much fertilizer can actually harm plants. As is the case when we’re sick, an overdose of medicine often has the opposite effect on unhealthy plants.

Putting plants in the wrong kind of soil.
Part of knowing how to care for your flowers properly is knowing what kind of soil they prefer. Standard flowers like pansies, marigolds, and petunias respond well to a general, balanced potting soil. But acid-loving varieties like gardenias and azaleas require more of an acidic blend. Finding the right soil shouldn’t be a problem if you’re starting from scratch, but if you’re working with an existing patch of dirt, test the soil to see what nutrients it has and needs. (Garden centers and home-improvement stores sell soil-testing kits.) Otherwise, you could plant a marigold in acidic dirt and kill its chances for growth. Make sure soil conditions are in tune with what works best for the plant. If you’re unsure about the soil’s history, Spence advises mixing a couple of bags of amendment (any material that’ll make the soil healthier, like compost or wood chips) into the dirt before planting a flower bed.

Mistaking burgeoning flowers for weeds.
It’s hard to tell what’s what in the beginning stages of a flower’s development, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the plant or with gardening in general. That’s why novice gardeners should put markers next to where they plant the seeds; that way, when something green emerges from the soil, you’ll have a better idea of whether it’s a weed or plant. Getting pictures of what the plant looks like throughout its development is a good idea, too.

Starting with too big a garden.
The cliché “Go big or go home” doesn’t apply to new gardeners. It’s best to start with a small, manageable space, or you risk getting overwhelmed and giving up. “Trying to start a small garden in a pot might be a good way to start learning how to [garden], and then go into the ground,” Spence says. “It’s a nicer controlled environment to work from, and it’s pretty easy to put together a small flower collection.” However, using pots or half-line barrels involves its own pitfalls. According to the Daily Green’s Web site, plants in containers are more prone to illness and don’t absorb water as well. But those problems are easily overcome by adding a little bit more water and fertilizer into the mix. Also, don’t put too many seeds into one container.

Some flowers actually do quite well in pots and barrels; the Daily Green recommends planting marigolds, geraniums, ferns, and begonias in these types of vessels.

Evidently, keeping a store-bought basil plant alive for two weeks doesn’t mean I can plant a dozen roses in my backyard successfully. But it does give me hope that I can plant a few flowers in a pot and see how they fare. Eventually, I just might have a flower bed in my backyard. And when I feel skilled enough to start one, I’ll know exactly what to do, and, perhaps more important, what not to do. The biggest mistake of all—even bigger than pulling out flowers instead of weeds—would be to let fear of a black thumb get in the way of having a gorgeous little garden to call your own.