6 Mistakes Beginner Gardeners Should Avoid, With Julia Atkinson-Dunn

Gardening is ripe with ups and downs and there are many lessons to be learnt, particularly as a beginner gardener.

It’s something that artist, writer and gardener, Julia Atkinson-Dunn knows only too well, in fact, she’s written a whole book on it.

Below in this edited extract of ‘A Guided Discovery of Gardening Knowledge: Creativity & Joy Unearthed’, Julia shares the six mistakes she made as a beginner gardener, and the lessons she learnt from them!

Julia Atkinson-Dunn

A combination of potted and planted dahlias makes for an abundant flower garden in a small area.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn.

Regularly watering your plants is gardening 101.

Placing irrigation in to their new raised garden bed without realising their mistake of using soil that lacked good organic matter for vital drainage and health, is one of the many lessons Julia learned in her gardening journey.

If the plant label says ‘sun lover’, then plant it in the sun, says Julia. Otherwise, you’ll find it growing sideways (just as she did) in order to get into the precious light.

One of Julia’s tips is to consider heights when planting!

‘A Guided Discovery of Gardening Knowledge: Creativity & Joy Unearthed’ by Julia Atkinson-Dunn. Purchase the book online here.

Julia Atkinson-Dunn
11th of October 2023

Even if you follow a recipe to the letter, your baking can emerge looking nothing like the picture. But with practice, you start to build knowledge and learn those little, passed-down tips and tricks that seem to make all the difference in arriving at a delicious success instead of a disappointing failure. The same can be said for gardening.

As a beginner, I have through experience slowly collected a list of mistakes to avoid making. Many gardening books never spell out what might be deemed ‘gardening common sense’, presuming you ‘just know’ if you are reading those pages. In an attempt to ease some pain for my fellow new growers, here are some harsh truths I have banked:

Under watering and over watering:

Both seem to be as brutal as the other and certainly are a blow to your motivation to learn about gardening at all. The best advice I ever had as a complete beginner was from a great garden centre staff member.

When I enquired about care for a certain plant she just said ‘treat them like your babies’. Meaning, you can’t just populate your garden and then walk away thinking the job is done. Regular check-ins will enable you to nurture your plant babies with life’s basics, and this includes monitoring for dehydration and disease via saturation!

The easiest way to stay in the safe zone is to actively consider the week’s weather, so you can water in reaction to it. If very wet, then don’t continue your summer watering routine; give everything a breather to dry out a little. If extra hot and dry, then pop out and dip your finger into the soil to the first knuckle. If it feels moist at your fingertip, you are good for another day. If barely damp, it’s time for a good soak. It must be said that your watering should also respond to the type of plants you have. Learn the needs of what you are planting, and group them with others of similar watering requirements. This may lead to whole beds that don’t need any additional watering at all!

Don’t ignore ‘full sun’ labels:

I will never escape the vivid memory of my first foray into flower growing, which resulted in my crop of larkspur growing horizontally to the ground. Desperately (and quite sadly, to be honest), they stretched out looking for sunlight from the shady bed I had planted them in.

As you progress and experiment, it’s true you will find those sun loving plants that don’t mind some moments of shade during the day, but I now don’t bother wasting my money or time trying to change the mind of Mother Nature. As a beginner, read the label and follow the directions.

Not nipping ‘super spreaders’ in the bud:

I cringe at the view of my cabbage tree being claimed by ivy; likewise the clover that has irretrievably entangled itself through my entire bed of violets. Yes, I saw these invaders in their early stages and no, I absolutely did not ‘nip them in the bud’ when it could have been a fast and easy job.

There is nothing fast and easy about righting these wrongs that I lazily watched happen. Wandering the garden and pulling these keen growers out at the roots in their youth would have avoided the headache I now have.

Cutting corners on garden bed prep:

I couldn’t believe my luck when my bricklaying husband agreed to build me a raised, brick-lined bed in the sunny spot on the lawn. He beautifully constructed it, laid in irrigation, and even created a block support in the centre for me to position a potted tree.

But I didn’t pay attention to the soil that arrived home one day on the trailer ready for filling it. Soil is soil, after all? Wrong. I now spend each winter digging in quality compost to attempt to loosen up what is nasty, dense earth, difficult to dig in new plants and tough on little seedlings forcing their way up to maturity.

Not considering plant heights and spacing:

In excitement, it’s easy to poorly position those purchased, gifted or newly raised seedlings on your road to achieving your lush, full garden. However, not reading the labels or doing a quick search to reference mature size and height can really shatter that vision.

Short plants behind tall or gappy or overcrowded beds (not in the artful way) are disappointing and can be so easily avoided. It really helps to draw a basic plan detailing where you will position plants, noting their heights and recommended spacing so you don’t get it wrong.

When working with perennials, the first year might still look a little spaced out, but the second year will have you smiling into your camera lens

Not taking a closer look:

We successfully transferred a dwarf maple from the garden into a wine barrel planter and I was almost disbelieving when it appeared to thrive. About four months later, in springtime, I noticed it was losing its newly unfurled leaves, looking shrivelled and generally sulky.

From my beginner playbook, I simply couldn’t work it out. I stepped up my watering, and applied plant food and still it was deteriorating. Finally, I got really up close and personal, holding a branch at nose level, and slowly turning it over. This revealed an infestation of tiny mites sucking the lifeblood out of my little tree! I immediately searched online, found a remedy, and treated the tree – with its turn to health being practically immediate.

The lesson here? Get out the magnifying glass.

This is an edited extract from ‘A Guided Discovery of Gardening Knowledge: Creativity & Joy Unearthed‘ by Julia Atkinson-Dunn. Purchase the book online here.

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