Gardening hurdles are those challenges that stop us from gardening as much as we’d like to — or that stop us from getting started in the first place. On this week’s podcast, I share advice on overcoming common gardening hurdles that listeners have shared.
Joining me this week is Amy Prentice, my Director of Marketing and Communications. Amy has helped facilitate Q&A episodes before, but this time we’re doing things a bit differently. Instead of me answering questions from listeners, we put out questions to our followers on Instagram and the members of the Online Gardening Academy™ community. Amy compiled those answers for me to analyze and provide teachable moments.
When gardening feels more intimidating than fun, I want you to remember that gardening is a journey, not a destination. You’re not going to learn everything there is to know in one year. I’ve been doing it for decades, and the thing I love most about gardening is that I still don’t know it all and I will never know it all. But I know more today than I did yesterday, and tomorrow I will know more than today. That’s what keeps me excited and gets me out of the bed in the morning. Gardening will come with challenges, but each challenge is an opportunity to educate yourself a little bit more. As you do, you’re going to become a better, smarter, more confident gardener.
My biggest gardening hurdle this year is fulfilling a long-time goal of having a greenhouse at the GardenFarm™. The cement slab has been poured — as you can see in the photo at the top of the page — but I don’t have my greenhouse yet. There are still some regulatory hoops to jump through. Seeing this project through will take persistence, which is one of the greatest assets a gardener can have.
Online Gardening Academy™ member Tom Fisher shared that he owes his gardening success to “accepting that I won’t be able to do everything right, but never giving up.” That really resonated with me. You’re not going to get everything right, but as long as you make progress along the way, that’s okay. Gardening always keeps me on my toes, and I look at that as a good thing.
Before proceeding with solutions to common gardening hurdles, I want to let you know that my popular Online Gardening Academy course Beginning Gardener Fundamentals, is open for enrollment now. And until April 5, I’m offering a $100 discount off the course, which comes with lifetime access and access to a private course-members-only online community. You’ll learn how to successfully make compost and build healthy soil, how to plant properly, the best watering techniques, and raised bed and other gardening methods.
Gardening Hurdle, No. 1: I live in a rental
The first question we posed to listeners was: If you wanted to start a garden last year, but you didn’t, what held you back?
“I live in a rental,” was a very common answer, and that’s understandable, but it’s not insurmountable.
I can relate to this because at times in my life I have lived in apartments without the best gardening conditions. That doesn’t mean you can’t do something related to gardening. You can get your hands a little bit dirty, even if it’s raising some indoor plants with a grow light or near a sunny window. I know that may not be ideally what people have in mind when they talk about wanting to start a garden, but the reality of life is that you’re in certain seasons as you go through it, just like your plants are, and you have to make the most of it.
Even if you can’t physically have the garden that you’re hoping for during that time that you rent, you can still be sharpening your saw and improving your skills by studying, watching videos, joining courses and working in gardening communities to get to know people and see what they’re doing. You can bank that education so when you do have a piece of land, you can hit the ground running.
If your rented space includes a balcony, deck or patio, you can get some grow bags and a bag of soil and start there. The main thing is starting. Just don’t buy into the belief that you can’t have a garden just because you’re a renter. You’ll be surprised by how much you can accomplish with limited space.
Gardening Hurdle, No. 2: I don’t know what to plant and when
Some gardeners felt held back because they didn’t know what to plant and when they should plant it. Getting over this hurdle is a matter of getting to know the seasons, and that comes with practice, education and making mistakes. (I like to think of mistakes as “learning opportunities,” because making mistakes is how we grow as gardeners.)
Plants are much more resilient than I think we give them credit for, yet they have their preferred growing seasons and there are limits to plants’ tolerance of heat and cold. If you are having a hard time understanding the correct timing where you live, the first thing you need to look up is your frost-free date. That’s the date in spring after which there is no more risk of frost until fall comes around. That date, in many cases, dictates what plants will survive outdoors.
Also important is your first frost date of fall. Do the math and work backward to find out if a plant will have enough time to mature before frosts start. A number of websites, including The Farmers’ Alamanac, can tell you the last frost and first frost date in your ZIP code.
Though this knowledge is important to have, don’t let it make you afraid to push the limits. Your garden has a microclimate — the unique environment specifically where you live — which may work in your favor. For the cost of a pack of seeds or a couple of seedlings, the risk is low, so experiment and see what happens.
Gardening Hurdle, No. 3: The materials I never bought
The cost of starting a garden from scratch can appear high, but the reality is you can garden on a very small budget. Don’t let the materials you don’t have hold you back. You’ll find that you can make do with less and that many materials can be had for free.
Several years ago I was challenged to do a campaign for this very reason. To show that it could be done, I started a new garden for my family of four on a budget of only $25. I refrained from using any of the equipment, seeds and soil that I already owned, so it would be just like I was a first-time gardener.
The first thing I did was to reach out on Twitter and ask for seeds. Within days, people I never met before had sent seeds, plant tags and more. Next came my daughter’s birthday party, where I realized that the pizza boxes looked like seed trays and the birthday cake came with a clear plastic lid that would make a perfect humidity dome. I was able to improvise other seed-starting supplies as well.
For the soil, I was able to pick up free municipal compost made from leaves that the city had collected. For my raised bed, I used lumber offered on Freecycle that was salvaged from an old barn teardown.
Once you put your mind to it, you won’t believe how many opportunities open up for free supplies and equipment. There are a lot of people who got into gardening and gave it up, and they will be happy to give you their unneeded stuff rather than seeing it go into a landfill.
When all was said and done, I got through the entire growing season and fed my entire family all their veggie needs for only $15.05.
Gardening Hurdle, No. 4: I don’t have enough space to grow
No matter how little land you have to grow on, it’s enough to have a garden. Even the hell strip — that piece of grass between the sidewalk and the street — is an opportunity for a garden. It is maybe 18 inches wide, if you’re lucky, but some of the prettiest little gardens I’ve ever seen have been planted in that narrow strip.
These days, there are more and more plants on the market that were bred with urban gardeners in mind, specifically for small spaces. Breeders have created versions of the plants we love that will stop growing once they have reached a certain size.
Another option is using grow bags. You can grow just about anything you want in a grow bag, and the plants won’t get all that big because they have limited space for their roots.
Look up “patio plants” and “dwarf plants” and you’ll find options that fit your space.
Gardening Hurdle, No. 5: I waited too long to prep and plant
Timing is important, and as I mentioned above, I am a big advocate of understanding your frost-free date and first-frost date. The gardening season does not wait until we’re ready — it’s happening, ready or not. It’s up to us to anticipate those important dates and plan accordingly.
Your success in your garden will be due in large part to the time you invest in preparing the soil and getting your garden ready. Still, don’t underestimate a plant’s ability to catch up, Amy points out. Sometimes you can put a plant in the ground at a time that seems too late and it will get to where it needs to be in summer.
Gardening Hurdle, No. 6: I’m overwhelmed by weeds
Weeds are a fact of life, like death and taxes. Many gardeners hate weeding, and the thought of taming weeds to start a new bed or having to weed all summer can be very discouraging to them. I call this “weed overwhelm,” and it’s a challenge that can be difficult to overcome.
I’m the rare gardener who actually loves to weed. I find weeding very Zen, and I like doing it in the early morning — maybe after a rain when the weeds come up more easily — as the birds are singing and the garden is really peaceful. I don’t even listen to podcasts when I’m weeding because I enjoy the quiet time.
My trick to weeding is putting my blinders on and focusing on weeding and nothing else that might sidetrack me. I set a timer for an hour, walk my gardens and pull weeds until the timer goes off. Compartmentalizing the task stops it from becoming endless and overwhelming. You can focus your weeding on just one space and then walk away from it when you’re done. That gives you a sense of accomplishment and victory plus the confidence in knowing that you can do the same thing the next day and make progress.
Gardening Hurdle, No. 7: I have no sunlight
Most vegetables require between six and eight hours a day of direct sunlight to produce fruit. If your space receives fewer hours of sun, it can limit you but it shouldn’t stop you from gardening. There are plants that will produce food with limited sunlight, such as lettuce, spinach and arugula.
In the meantime, focus on those shade-tolerant and shade-loving ornamentals: hostas, ferns, azaleas, rhododendrons, etc.
It goes back to an old maxim of gardening: put the right plant in the right place.
Gardening Pain Points, No. 1: Pests
Pests are a universal problem for gardeners. There are a number of organic pest mitigation strategies that you can employ, and one of the best echoes what was just said above: put the right plant in the right place.
If you choose a plant that is suited to your area and you plant it in the ideal growing conditions, it can shake off considerable pest damage. A plant in the right place will thrive in its environment, and a healthy plant will be less susceptible to both pests and diseases.
The second most important thing to do is be proactive: Get out in your garden once or twice a day and observe the changes. When you make frequent inspections, you can detect pest activity and do something about it before it becomes a full-blown infestation. The more a gardener’s shadow is in the garden, the fewer problems the gardens will have.
Take, for example, the squash vine borer. If you know when the squash vine borer moth arrives in your garden, you can take preventative measures — like installing row cover — to stop it from laying its eggs on your plants.
Gardening Pain Points, No. 2: Weather challenges
Our community of gardeners who belong to the Online Gardening Academy and/or listen to the podcast hail from all over North America and even farther afield. The climate is different in each place, and the weather in each of those places is different from year to year. Periods of drought, too much rain or intense summer heat come into play,
When faced with a weather challenge, you just have to work with it. You can’t change the weather, as we all know, and it’s going to do what it’s going to do. No two years are the same (which is another thing I love about gardening) so you just have to be prepared. Work on the things that you can control, like making your soil the best it can be so it drains well in heavy rain. At the same time, your soil will be armed with enough organic material that it will retain enough water to keep your plants happy. You can also water deeply, but less frequently, so your plants will grow deep roots that are resilient in periods of drought.
Some plants can take more heat or more cold than others, so learn your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone and choose varieties that can handle the temperature extremes of your zone.
Gardening Pain Points, No. 3: Plant diseases
Plant diseases are frustrating and can turn people off to gardening for good. Diseases are a fact of gardening, and you are more likely to experience plant diseases in your garden than not. Even disease-resistant plant varieties are not disease proof, so you should always brace yourself for dealing with plant diseases.
You can take proactive steps to mitigate occurrences and reoccurrences of diseases. Practice good garden sanitation by removing diseased plant material and disposing of it away from your garden and compost pile. Build healthy soil that has beneficial microbial activity to fend off pathogens. Apply mulch to create a barrier between soil-borne pathogens and plant foliage. Water at the soil level rather than overhead to stop pathogens from splashing around and to prevent wet foliage, which is inviting for pathogens. Clean your garden tools between cuts with alcohol or a bleach solution.
Use apps to identify plant diseases so you’ll know the right approach to slowing their spread. You can also take the Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds course from the Online Gardening Academy for comprehensive lessons on identifying and managing plant diseases.
Reason for Throwing in the Towel: No plan for harvest
In summer when so many plants are maturing all at once, the excitement over having fruit to harvest can soon lead to dread over having no idea of what to do with it all. You can learn canning and preservation for all that abundance, but the easier answer is to do less in the future.
Fruit are not going to wait for us to be ready before they ripen. If we don’t get out there and pick ripe fruit, they will fall to the ground and attract pests, which will cause us to get even more discouraged.
Many first-time gardeners go overboard and end up with more produce than they could possibly keep up with. If this happens to you, know that you can always scale back. The following year, don’t plant as many tomatoes, for instance, if you had unharvested fruit rotting on the ground.
Success will whet your appetite to keep coming back to gardening each year and scaling up. But don’t be afraid to scale back when your garden feels more like work than something that brings joy.
An Elusive Gardening Goal, No 1: Getting pepper seeds to germinate
I can say with no ego that I am an expert seed starter, but pepper seeds take their sweet time no matter what I do. Maybe people describe pepper seeds as divas because they do everything at their own pace. Germination can take anywhere from a few days to 30 days, and there are reasons for that, as I learned during a recent conversation with Dr. Paul Bosland, aka “The Chileman.”
You can improve germination rates and shorten germination time by using a seedling heat mat, but chile pepper seeds will always have spotty germination. Sometimes all you need to have is more patience. Start chile seeds 10 or 12 weeks before your frost-free date, and just wait.
An Elusive Gardening Goal: Overcoming a lack of experience
When I informally ask would-be gardeners what’s holding them back, I often hear that they never get started because they believe they need to know it all just to start. But the fact is no one really understands gardening until they have gone out and done it themselves. You can be book smart, but you’re only really going to learn when you have your hands in the soil and you’re out there making mistakes. It’s the lessons that we’ve learned from mistakes that really stick.
More important than learning the “how-to” is learning the “why-do.” Knowing “why” things are done a certain way helps us understand why something we tried worked or why it didn’t work. A lot of times we are successful in spite of our efforts, but when plants don’t do what they should be doing, it’s time to start asking questions and come up with answers and improvements.
An Elusive Gardening Goal: Feeling like my garden is enough
On Instagram, it’s easy to compare ourselves to others and to compare our gardens to others’ gardens. Those perfect photographs with great lighting and no pests or diseases don’t tell the whole story though. All gardens encounter challenges, whether the challenges are posted on social media or not.
There is an expression I use all the time: Contentment is destroyed by comparison.
You may have a garden that you are so proud of. You love it, and you think it’s everything you need — until you see that other person post on Instagram. All of a sudden, you feel a little bit inadequate, or you wonder, well, why can’t I have that?
You’re never going to feel satisfied if you allow that voice to creep in. You need to remember that the pursuit of perfection is a waste of time, especially in gardening. Pursue progress, not perfection.
To What Do You Owe Your Gardening Success
Education and online learning came up again and again when we asked gardeners to share what made them successful last year.
Beginning Gardener Fundamentals, which is opening for enrollment again now (with a $100 discount offered through April 5) covers everything from soil building to planting and harvesting. It’s designed for new gardeners and anyone who wants to raise the bar and improve their skills.
No matter where you source your information, make sure you get it from a reliable place. If you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s hard to separate bad gardening advice from the good.
Besides becoming better educated, gardeners credited their success to feeding their soil, mulching for the first time, being more attentive and consistent, and having a friend to garden with. I love and agree with all these answers.
I hope this episode inspired you to overcome any gardening hurdles you may be facing. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
What gardening hurdles do you struggle with? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.