8 Common raised garden mistakes made by beginners

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Raised beds are one of the most popular ways to garden, especially in urban spaces like a urban front yard. But there are some mistakes that you can make, especially in your first couple of years of growing that can really hamper your success, which is why we’re talking about exactly how to avoid them.

I’ve made just about all of the mistakes I’m going to show you.

And so I know the pain of them and that gives me that experience to say really avoid them.

I wish I listened to the people who told me what to do early on because in gardening your mistakes aren’t just like, “Oh, I messed something up and I can go fix it tomorrow.” It’s like, “Oh my season’s over. I ruined a season.”

I’m going to try to do these tips in order of their severity, in their permanence of the mistake.

The first one is orienting your garden in the wrong way.

If you’re in the Northern hemisphere, south is going to be the direction you want to expose your garden to.

Because most of our annual and perennial vegetables that we grow prefer full sun, which means at least six to eight hours of sun direct sun a day.

Now, if you mess this up, if you build your garden in the wrong place, let’s say on the north side of your house, on a tall wall, then you’ve just basically created a shade garden and you must plant accordingly, but you might not want to do that.

You might want some epic tomatoes and peppers, all those classic things that want that sun.

So what I would say is before you place your garden for the year or for the rest of your life, honestly, go and monitor your space. Come out and say, okay, how’s the sun falling? Is there a tree blocking me?

What’s getting in the way of my garden and if so plan for that.

There’s a really helpful website called suncalc.net I believe, where you can scroll around and on your exact GPS located property, you can see how the sun falls throughout the whole course of the year. It’s a very helpful tool, so really do not make this mistake because it is the principal mistake.

Every other mistake is less severe than this.

raised garden box

Another mistake that is very often made is not planning for irrigation.

Now there’s many ways to irrigate a garden, I’ve done drip irrigation on mine.

You need to plan for how you’re going to irrigate and if your plan is just saying, “Hey, I’m going to come out, enjoy the garden in the mornings, have my cup of coffee, do a little bit of hand watering.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

So long as you know that’s your plan because I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve had to retrofit the entire garden with drip irrigation twice and it was not a fun chore. So with just a little forethought and a little planning. It would have gone a long way.

Mistake number three

So when I first started the garden, I ordered three and a half cubic yards, which is a driveway full of soil. It was complete garbage.

It really was trash and it was supposed to be a high quality raised bed mix and it was not.

It was basically full heavy clay topsoil with like a smattering of compost in it. And I was stuck with it and I didn’t know any better at the time. And I filled most of the beds with it. Now, they got a decent season of growing out and then it was just completely compacted. The roots couldn’t go anywhere. There were nitrogen deficiencies. All sorts of problems were happening. So if you’re going to invest in something, you should invest in your soil.

Because we really don’t feed our plants. We feed the soil and then the soil and the life within it is what feeds the plants. And so that’s why it’s so important.  So you don’t go buy like a nice high quality raised bed or a nice trellis or whatever, and then try to grow plants in that system with crappy soil. It doesn’t make any sense at all. So if we don’t want to invest in crappy soil, then how do we actually create good soil? Suffice to say you want to create something with good drainage, good nutrition, and good water retention, so compost, compost, compost, blended sources of compost should make up roughly one third of your mix.

Some kind of aeration component can make up one third of your mix. That might be perlite, that might be pumice, some sort of water retentive material like peat moss or coconut coir. For those of you who are trying to use less peat moss can be the other third.

That’s a very good all-around recipe. If you want to use a lot of your native soil, you may fill around half of a raised bed with native topsoil and then mix in about 25% compost, 25% grass clippings, unfinished compost, you know, that sort of thing.

Mistake number four

Pretty common one. Honestly, it’s not mulching. I don’t know why. I think it’s maybe because when we as a beginner gardener, we hear the word mulch. We just literally do not know what that means at all and it sounds weird and so we don’t understand it. We don’t know what it does.

Mulch is basically an organic covering for the top of your soil that’s going to protect your soil. It’s going to help keep it nice and moist. The soil life will be nice and protected from the sun’s harmful rays. It’s going to keep water in the soil and overall it just manages the garden a lot better. You can almost think of mulch as sort of a buffer layer to the top of your garden soil. It’s going to really help protect and care for the plants within. I’ll fill the raised bed up and I’ll leave a couple inches at the top and that couple inches will eventually be dedicated to mulch.

Now, what sources can you use for mulch? That’s really sort of up to you. You can use things like shredded straw. That’s a very good, good source. You can use wood chip style mulch, but you just have to be careful because uncommon posted unbroken down wood chips can actually steal nitrogen from the soil for a little bit until they break down. So if you’re going to do that, I would recommend not doing it in a vegetable bed or an herb bed. Maybe use something like straw or like some sort of more broken down material.

Mistake number five is not having a workable spacing between your beds

But usually what you would do is you would leave about two feet. But I know a lot of people who’ve set gardens up and they just didn’t think about the fact that they would have to kind of come through and work in these gardens and then they get really annoyed and eventually that means that they don’t actually work in it. So as a rule of thumb, I would say 24 inches or two feet between each bed is a good rule of thumb.

Mistake number six is when you’re planting in a raised bed, not thinking about the eventuality of that plant, how that plant’s going to look once it’s fully grown.

So here’s a good example of a way that you can plant a raised bed. Remember tip number one was placement. South facing is the way which means that sun exposure is going to be coming throughout the day, which means that if I was to have planted my peas and beans up front and these newly transplanted in leafy greens behind, I would’ve completely shaded them out and they really wouldn’t grow that well.

So what did I do? I kind of created a little lift.

So I have my low growers up front, aka on the south side, and then my beans, which are my mid tier growers, these are bush beans, those are sort of in the middle. And then on the back you can see I created kind of a u-shaped, a little funky trellis for my peas, which I’ve been doing really well. I’ve created a bit of a terrace. And so if you don’t think about that, you’re just going to be unnecessarily shading and making poor use of the space in your garden.

Mistake number seven is bed preparation throughout the seasons.

And so as you move into your winter, your fall and winter, there’s a couple different ways you can approach taking care of your bed.

And if you don’t do it, you’re not going to necessarily fail, but it’s just going to be less successful

So with our raised beds and really any garden in general, you want your soil to improve, improve, improve, improve over time, and a bad way to do that would be to just let it be bare when I’m not growing.

Let’s say we’re moving from fall into winter. A couple of things you can do, you can just throw on some mulch, a couple inches of mulch and let it be, you can do what Charles Dowding does and throw a couple inches of compost on and let it be. You can take a cover crop, spread that over, exactly what it sounds like. It’s a crop that covers the soil and protects the soil and then just let thatdie in the winter.

All of that green material will die on the surface and will sort of make its way down. There are a lot of different things to do, but the thing you don’t want to do is just let it be bare and as you move into the spring again, what you can then do is perhaps amend a little bit more before you plant in. You just want to make sure that you’re preparing and caring for your bed over time. Instead of just like ripping some stuff out and just saying, okay, I’m not going to grow in that for a couple months. I’ll just let it be. The sun’s just going to beat down on it.

The soil is going to become dry and sort of crusty and just not a breeding ground for really healthy plants. The next time you plant in the bed.

Tip number eight I believe is not labelling or tracking what you’re putting in your raised bed garden.

Now, unless you’re Russell Crowe and you have a beautiful mind or an eidetic memory of some kind, you have to label and track.

But some of the stuff you just will forget and you’ll forget the specific variety and you may even forget when you planted it and for a lot of plants when you planted it is more important than what exact cultivar you planted, because let’s say for tomatoes or for our peas and beans, you want to know when it’s getting ready for that next phase. If I have to start pruning it, if I have to start pulling it, whatever the case may be. So I highly recommend labelling.  I just have a little Google sheet on my computer. You can draw it out on graph paper. It doesn’t matter. It’s just the method is I’m agnostic to the method. The way you do it is the way you do it. As long as you do it and you’re going to have much more success. You know what we measure? We manage. That’s just a truth of the universe. If you’re tracking it, you’re aware of it. And if you’re aware of it, you actually care about it enough to, to manage it. You know, and sadly one of the things that that kills a lot of new gardeners is that they just lose track. They get overwhelmed, they give up and then everything dies and they say, “I knew I didn’t have a green thumb.” And that’s just a very sad truth.

So that is our final tip.

These are just some of the many mistakes you can make in raised bed gardens.

And really if you think about gardening in general, so if you have one that you think I missed, you have one that you think is very important to share, drop it down in the comments.