Losing plants is an inevitable part of garden renewal, but if it keeps happening, having plants die on you can put you off gardening forever.
We asked Gardening Australia’s Tassie expert Tino Carnevale to share the biggest mistakes newbies make — and how to avoid them.
Planting too soon
If you’re starting in a brand new garden, ideally you’d give yourself a year to get to know the weather patterns and microclimates before spending up big on mature trees or landscaping.
Seeing tiny seeds shoot up into flowers and trees is breathtaking but be patient — some take years to mature so take the time to get it right — and expect to keep tweaking things along the way.
“A spot that is wet and shady when you plant out in autumn or winter could be in dry, baking sun come summer, killing the sensitive woodland gem you put there,” says Tino.
“Identify the different areas’ strengths and weaknesses in your garden. Look at the aspect, where the sun falls, the soil type, rainfall and drainage.”
Ignoring the soil
“Your plants will only be as good as the soil you grow them in, so while you’re getting to know your garden, start improving the soil,” Tino says.
How? Tino’s go-to conditioner is compost.
If your soil is sandy, you can never add enough organic matter (i.e. compost and manure) to help it retain nutrients and moisture.
If you’re on clay, consider digging in some gypsum before you start anything else, as this makes it easier for air and water to penetrate, and for you to dig it over and add compost.
For veggies, Tino digs in compost — and often manure — before planting each new crop.
Not getting help from others
Tino says the simplest way to get a sense of what plants do well in your area is to check out what your neighbours are growing.
Take a few walks and check out the gardens in your neighbourhood that are glowing with healthy plants. If you’re not sure what they are, be brave, knock on the door and ask. You might even be rewarded with some handy advice or a few free cuttings to take home.
“Another idea is to join a garden club,” Tino suggests. You may get flooded with more advice than you knew you needed, but by joining a club you will definitely meet the local experts, and maybe some other newbies you can learn with.
Many clubs also run swap events, where you can pick up seeds, seedlings or cuttings of plants, and ask advice from the people who grew it.
It’s a great, cheap way to get started but remember that this can be a double-edged sword; an easy-to-grow plant could also be a potential pest, so beware of planting the weedy species you’ll never get rid of.
Going on a shopping frenzy before researching
So you’re heading off to the nursery full of excitement and inspiration. You’ve decided to get tomatoes, lettuce and some herbs for your first veggie patch. When you get there, the options are overwhelming. The plants all look so colourful and you end up leaving with 10 trays of seedlings, a fruit tree, two roses — and no idea what to do with them.
“Like food shopping when you’re hungry — you need to be focused,” Tino says.
Do some research before you go. Have an idea of whether you want bush tomatoes that are suited to a pot or tall vine tomatoes that will need staking.
“Take your shopping list and stick to it.”
Diving in at the deep end
“Start with something simple. I learnt by growing peas with my dad,” Tino says.
Another great option is silverbeet, as it’s easy to grow and easy to use in the kitchen. Rather than start with asparagus, which takes 2-3 years to mature, or something not suited to your climate, try some easy herbs or leafy greens to give your confidence a boost.
Parsley, rocket, bok choy, radishes and zucchini are all worth a try, or perennial herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary.
Of course, you might have beginner’s luck, but don’t bank on it.
Buying sub-par, cheap plants
Some experts can wave their green-thumbed magic over the reject plants in a nursery’s sick bay and make them thrive, but if you’re just starting out then give yourself the best possible chance by picking the healthiest plants.
Look for seedlings that are not too lanky, and look like they’ve been well cared for.
Don’t be tempted to buy the tall tomato plant that already has a fruit on it — it might be the last one you get.
And when you’re buying shrubs and trees, get them from a reputable grower who can offer advice, not a bulk store where the staff have no idea what they’re selling.
If a tree is too root bound it’s not a bargain — you will simply waste some years watching it struggle before it dies and needs replacing.
Squeezing in too many plants
Some of the world’s tallest trees come from the tiniest of seeds; what looks like an innocuous stick in a plastic tube could eventually be the landmark tree in your whole suburb, so do some research (or at least, read the size estimates on the plant label).
That especially applies to native shrubs, many of which grow wider than they are tall.
Spacing is also vital in the vegetable garden. Don’t be tempted to cram in the last two seedlings just to use up the whole punnet — overcrowded plants rarely thrive, and lack of air flow can cause fungal problems or invite pest attack, so you might lose the whole harvest, not just the two last seedlings.
Instead, give the leftovers to a friend or neighbour — it might earn you a favour down the track.
Position, position, position
“Don’t fight your garden’s conditions — just accept what it is and choose plants accordingly.”
Vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight a day, so don’t stick them in semi-shade or under a tree and expect them to do well.
If you have a boggy spot, consider digging it out to make a seasonal pond.
If you have sandy soil, grow carrots that don’t mind, or glorious coastal plants that will thrive.
Other plants might need frost protection, so consider growing them in a container you can move to a protected area over winter.
Growing what’s trendy vs what’s practical
Garden trends have included rows of white roses, heritage purple carrots, curly kale and the spikiest of succulents.
There are all sorts of weird, wonderful and “on-point” things out there, and sometimes it’s fun to experiment, but to guarantee a good feed from a veggie patch — or shrubs that will last the distance — grow the stuff you like.
“That can contradict the idea of growing what is best suited to your garden,” Tino admits, “so you might have to compromise. But there’s no point growing veggies the kids won’t eat, flowers you don’t like, or plants that struggle in your garden.”
Finally, the best advice is to keep at it.
“Gardening is relaxing, good exercise, good fun and can be productive, so I really urge everyone to give it a try,” Tino says.
“If you have physical limitations there are raised beds and other solutions that can make it possible.
“And don’t give up — even the most experienced gardeners are still learning new things about plants and soil and weather conditions, so don’t expect to get it right first time.
And don’t forget that, as Tino says, “A dead plant isn’t a failure. It’s compost.”