Gardening Tips for Brown Thumbs

So you think you can't grow anything? Here are 10 common excuses — and how to turn them into successes.

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Gardening is one of the most popular outdoor hobbies, yet there are lots of people who have given up on it. They may appreciate a pretty landscape, but at some point in the past they met up with failure and just won’t try a second time. Here are some of the likely reasons you’ll hear, followed by a little green thumb advice on how to overcome gardening challenges.

Whatever You Grow Dies

Perhaps it’s because they put wrong plant in the wrong spot. Even a great gardener will have trouble making shade-loving impatiens thrive in a hot sunny bed, or a water-thrifty succulent thrive by a gutter drainpipe.

When a plant is stressed, it’s much more vulnerable to disease, insects and, eventually, death. Read the plant tag before buying to make sure the plant fits the site you have in mind. That goes not only for the amount of sunlight but also the type of soil (thick clay vs. grainy sand) and amount of moisture (wet vs. dry). There’s a plant for every situation.

You Have Too Much Shade for a Garden

Homeowners tired of watering heat-stressed plants in a full-sun garden would love to have this problem! Shade gardens can be lush and beautiful if you use the right plants. Visit parks and botanical centers for ideas on plant partnerships.

That bed underneath the trio of river birch trees doesn’t have to be wood chips. You can grow hostas, ferns, Jacob’s ladder, tradescantia, impatiens and more, then mulch with shredded leaves to simulate forest conditions, adding nutrients and beneficial microbes, while also conserving moisture.

You Can’t Keep Up With All the Maintenance

New gardeners, particularly those who want to raise vegetables, sometimes overextend themselves, digging out a huge bed that will be extremely time-consuming to keep weeded.

Start small and expand as time and energy allow. Or just dip your toe in the water with a small 4×4-ft. raised bed for vegetables filled with potting mix; kits are available for less than $60. For ornamental gardens, start with a corner, which is self-contained and already has a built-in backdrop (your house, garage or fence).

When You Plant Perennials, They Don’t Come Back the Next Year

Sometimes the winter is particularly brutal, which can cause problems for plants that are marginally hardy or planted late in the season. You can help them by mulching the roots heavily after the first frost. Be sure to pull back the mulch in early spring to allow for new growth. Other times, the plant simply isn’t hardy enough.

Check the plant tag to see if it fits your USDA Hardiness Zone. Unfortunately, some retailers sell plants that are technically perennial — just not in your region. Treat those plants as annuals.

Plants Are Expensive

That depends. Are you buying in spring at the height of gardening fever? There are not many discounts available at that time. You can get good discounts in early summer and again in early fall. If your supermarket sets up a temporary garden center in the spring, it will probably offer steep discounts just before closing for the season.

In most areas, Big Box stores need to unload their inventory before winter, and you’ll sometimes see items 75 percent below the original price. Another way to save money on gardening is to sow seeds. Many easy-to-grow flowers will come back year after year because they self-seed. Some examples: bachelor’s buttons, celosia, calendula, cleome, larkspur and zinnia.

Your Soil Is No Good for Growing Anything

Well, actually, there’s a plant suited to every kind of soil — from dry ridges to boggy bottomlands. You just have to pick your plants appropriately.

Amending the soil is another option, and copious amounts of compost help clay and sandy soils. Finally, there is the option of constructing a raised bed and filling it with a special soil blend. That takes the guesswork out of the equation and lets you plant practically anything.

You Can’t Grow Roses — They Get Diseased

First, make sure the conditions are right. You’d be surprised what full sunlight and good air circulation will do for the health of roses. And fortunately, there are plenty of disease-resistant varieties available, particularly if you’d like to grow hardy shrub roses. Pick one and irrigate at the base of the plant rather than wetting the foliage.

The Rabbits Eat Everything

Set up a chicken wire fence buried several inches below ground and raised to a height of 18 to 24 inches. You can also surround garden beds with a row of marigolds, onions and garlic to repel rabbits. Also, plant white clover elsewhere in the garden (rabbits will choose that over almost anything else). Finally, surround prized plants such as an Asiatic lily with individual barriers.

You Want to Grow Vegetables but Whenever You Try, They Get Hit by Late Frost

Timing is key. Wait until your area’s last average frost date (check a weather almanac) before setting plants in the garden. Or, if you want a head start, keep an eye on the temperature and cover plants at night with plastic milk jugs (with the bottoms cut off) or old bed sheets. Some vegetables are more tolerant of cold than others and won’t object to a light frost. Think spinach, kale and sweet peas. Other plants need frost protection.

You Don’t Have Room for a Garden

Do you have room for a clay pot or a window box? Then you have room for a garden. There are lots of container options, including space-saving vertical gardens for balconies. Need more space to grow stuff? Many municipalities offer community garden plots for free or at a nominal cost.

Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.