Mistakes You Should Avoid When It Comes To Soil.

Everybody makes mistakes. It’s part of human nature, after all. But there are some mistakes that are very easy to make and if you ask practically any gardener (even the best informed and most careful), they will admit to making exactly these mistakes before they really got into their stride. So this chapter is about the mistakes everyone makes—in the hope that you’ll be able to avoid at least a few of them.

”I Don’t Know What Kind Of Soil I’ve Got”

If you read the last chapter, you know how to find out. And you do really need to know this before you start unless you are planting raised beds full of expensively bought topsoil and compost.

If you don’t know what kind of soil you’ve got, you don’t know which amendments to add. You don’t know how well it will retain water, so you don’t know how often to water your plants. You really cannot achieve anything at all in your garden unless you know what you’ve got to work with.

Once you know what soil you have, then you have a choice of two directions you can go in. Either choose the right seeds and plants for your soil—that’s the easy way—or work on amending the soil so that you can grow the plants you want. That might be a bit more effort.

How do you avoid the mistake? Simple—test the soil before you even start planning, let alone plants.

Too Much Digging

A lot of people take over a garden and the first thing they do is dig up all the soil. This is particularly tempting to men (yes, it’s nearly always men) who have a rotavator or a garden tractor. They fire it up and off they go, ripping up the soil.

There are a lot of problems with this. First, if you have couch grass or any other weed that grows through an extensive root system, you’ve just cloned it!

Chopping up the roots and dispersing them through the soil will encourage each snippet of room to grow. Any weed seeds in the soil will have been disturbed, too, and they will soon take advantage of their wake-up call to turn your garden into a jungle.

The other problem with digging is that it disturbs the soil. Leaving bare soil open to the elements can lead to erosion; the wind can carry away topsoil remarkably fast. That’s what created the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Water can more easily leach out minerals and nutrients. Organic matter may also be carried away, leaving only heavier but less nutrient-rich and less water-retentive particles. So you may end up with much poorer soil than you started with.

How do you avoid this mistake? Adopt a ‘no dig’ or minimal digging approach; it’s simpler than it sounds. For instance, if you have a lot of weeds to get rid of, trim the biggest weeds down, then lay cardboard, old carpet, newspapers, or even tarpaulin down over the soil. Make sure whatever you lay down is opaque, so light can’t get through; without light, weeds can’t grow, because they can’t photosynthesize. You might want to lay a good few inches of straw under a tarp. Weigh it down well and leave it over the winter.

What will happen is that you have a nice, dark, moist place underneath your barrier. It’s dark, so no weeds grow. It’s moist, so earthworms are going to love it, and so are all kinds of little micro-organisms and bugs, which will start to break down the organic materials and make pathways through the soil, improving the texture. It will take six months or so but at the end of the process, the worms have done most of your digging for you.

Not Mulching

Mulching is one of the techniques that help you manage a no-dig garden. If you mulch, you are covering the earth up so that it doesn’t erode and water doesn’t evaporate. In most cases, you’re also providing organic materials in the mulch which will decompose and form humus, improving your soil quality significantly (in very dry climates, sometimes rocks are used as mulch. Obviously, they won’t break down).

You can make mulch out of many different materials, depending on what you have available, and also on whether you want your garden to look pretty, or whether you don’t mind if your vegetable patch looks a little untidy.

Examples of mulch materials:

Because you aren’t digging, you won’t be disturbing plant roots, and because the mulch stops water from evaporating, they will be able to access more water. That helps the roots thrive and also helps them support the many microbes and fungi that help condition your soil.

Planting Into Areas With Low Fertility

I’m always amazed how people who really should know better spend big bucks on plants from the garden center, than just plant them in poor soil with no help of any kind. It’s such a waste of money.

Before you plant anything, improve the soil! For instance, sow green manure such as clover, alfalfa, fenugreek, grazing rye, mustard, or phacelia. These plants will grow fast and can be dug into the soil once they have matured. Their roots will also start opening up the soil texture. They’re particularly useful for growing over the winter when the soil would otherwise be bare, but if you’re taking over a plot with poor soil, plant green manure first before you do anything else! You can also use these plants as cover crops, just to cover the soil in between other crops. You can then either use them as mulch or compost them for later use.

You could also use sheet mulch, spreading out organic material to cover the soil completely. Using heavy cardboard over a scattering of organic materials to cover the soil can work really well to help suppress weeds and improve fertility.

If you want to get started planting major features, such as a big fruit tree or showy magnolia, then it is worth buying compost and good soil to line the hole and ensure the plant has enough nutrients. Don’t just put it in the existing soil and hope it will be okay.

Over-Watering, Under-Watering

More people kill plants by over- or under-watering than any other way. There are two things you need to get right: the first is how much water each plant needs and the second is how moisture retentive your soil is.

If you over-water a plant, its roots can become waterlogged; that means the roots won’t be able to get any oxygen and they’ll begin to die off and rot. Overwatering, and particularly watering the leaves, can also increase the likelihood of damping off and other plant diseases, such as blight. This is particularly true for tomatoes. While they like a lot of water, they like to dry off well between waterings. Always water the soil around the roots; don’t water the leaves or stems. Remember that some plants will need more water at some times, and less at others. For instance, at the early stages of growth, they need just a couple of days between waterings. But when they begin to fruit, cut down on the watering; once or twice a week will be enough. If you over-water, the fruit can grow faster than its skin and burst.

Of course, if you don’t water enough, plants will begin to wilt or will fail to grow as well as they should. The best way to ensure you’re watering correctly is to plunge your middle finger all the way into the soil and test the moisture level right at your fingertip. If it’s dry down there, the plant needs watering; if it’s moist, you shouldn’t water, even if the ground on top looks dry.

You can ensure that your soil drains freely but also retains enough moisture by adding organic matter. Remember, too, that raised beds will usually need more watering than regular garden beds, as well as containers.

Watering The Wrong Way

Water early in the day, before sunrise, if possible. Then the water has a chance to soak in deeply before the sun gets really hot. If you water when it’s already hot, a lot of the water will evaporate before it’s able to soak in properly. You can also scorch the leaves, as water droplets can act like magnifying glasses when the sun shines through them.

It’s probably best not to water in the evening: slugs and snails will come out later!

And remember water for the roots; don’t water the leaves.

Leaving Bare Soil

I remember my grandad’s vegetable beds. He was a very neat and tidy gardener. The beds were always planted with regimented rows of vegetables, leaving a big gap between each row. Every morning, he’d hoe the gap, to make sure there were no weeds growing there. So the garden always looked like a big expanse of bare earth, with a few tiny green lines drawn across.

The irony is that if he’d underplanted with a cover crop, or used mulch to cover the soil, he wouldn’t have needed to do all that hoeing, and he probably would have needed to water the garden less, too. Leaving areas of bare soil leads to erosion. Water evaporates, valuable nutrients are lost to leaching and the soil gets depleted of carbon. So always ensure the soil is covered, whether with a permeable membrane, mulch, a cover crop, or green manure.

Compacting The Soil

Healthy soil is springy or loose, full of earthworm tunnels, and easy for plant roots to make their way through. If you compact the soil by walking on it every day or by using heavy machinery, you’re damaging it, even though you may not be able to see the damage you do. Compacted soil can become difficult to drain, or even waterlogged; if worms can’t get through, they’re not helping to increase the organic matter in the soil or to improve its texture.

If you planned your garden so that you have to walk between the rows of vegetables or on the flower beds, it’s time to replan! Try to position your paths so that you stand on and compact the soil as little as possible. If you really do need to get to some hard-to-reach plants, you could always use a board, so as to avoid standing on the soil.

Working the soil when it’s very wet will also compact it, so try to wait till it’s dried out a bit. If you try to squeeze the soil in your hands, and it stays in a clump, it’s too wet (you should also try to avoid working the soil when it’s too dry).

Keep your soil aerated. You can easily loosen the soil with a garden fork. Push the fork in and move it a little back and forth. This is much less invasive than digging. You can also use a spike to aerate around the roots of a larger plant. If your soil is very wet and you’ve bought some new plants, find a place where you can dig a trench and put them with their roots in the trench for the short term. Then you can wait till the soil is ready to work.

Not Putting Nutrients Back

The soil will gradually lose its fertility over time. When a plant grows, it takes nutrients from the soil. In a natural environment, it releases those nutrients back to the soil when it dies, but in our gardens, we’re probably going to take it away and eat it instead, removing those nutrients from the cycle. So, we need to keep adding nutrients all the time.

A good way to do that is to use compost. We’ll go into that in more detail later on. If you compost all your potato peelings, teabags, coffee grounds, grass clippings, and old cardboard boxes, you’ll end up with nice, friable (crumbly) organic matter that you can put onto the soil as a mulch.

You could also use green manures, or even ‘chop and drop’—chopping up what’s left of a plant once you’ve taken the edible parts and just leaving it there as mulch. Encourage earthworms (talked about later in the book) and the mulch will soon get broken down into organic matter.

For nitrogen, it’s important that you remember which plants ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil and which consume it. Tomatoes need nitrogen, as do peppers, aubergines, squash, and cucumber. But legumes (peas, beans, and wildflowers like vetch) and groundnuts will redress the balance. Alternate the two types of planting and you’re keeping your soil healthy.

Poor Spacing

Growing vegetables too closely together can be a disaster. Plants like squash, tomatoes, and peppers need a lot more space at maturity than they do when they start growing. If you don’t allow enough space when you sow or plant out seedlings, the plants will not grow well. They can’t get enough sunlight. Air can’t circulate between the leaves, which can lead to disease. The roots may not be able to grow to full size.

Some species may need more or less space than others, so always look closely at the recommendations on the seed packet, particularly if you’re growing an unusual or heritage variety.

To get more out of your space, rather than packing plants in too closely, use interplanting. You can plant smaller plants underneath taller ones, or you can plant fast-growing salad plants around young plants which will need more space later on. By the time the other plants need the space, you’ll have eaten the salad.

Not Enough Sunlight

You’ve read about photosynthesis. Without the sun, plants can’t photosynthesize. And without enough sun, they won’t be able to grow properly. Most vegetable plants need at least six hours of direct sun a day in the growing season. If your house, a tree, or a hill blocks out the light for half the day, they might not get it. If you have a shady area, you’ll need to find shade-tolerant or shade-loving plants that can make do with three to six hours of the sun instead.


Sun is also vital in the spring to warm the soil up before you start sowing or planting. And microorganisms in the soil need a certain amount of sunlight and warmth to do their jobs.

Growing The Wrong Plants For Your Climate And Microclimate

Growing the wrong plants for your climate zone doesn’t usually get great results, so check that the plants you want to grow will thrive in your climate zone. Sometimes, you may want to buy a different variety that is frost-tolerant, drought-tolerant, or late-flowering.

However, if you have particular microclimates, you may be able to get away with it. For instance, if you have a south-east facing bed with a brick wall behind it, in full sun, you may be able to grow a fig tree even if your climate usually wouldn’t support figs. In the same way, if you live in a hot, arid climate but you have an area of garden with water and shade, you’ll be able to mix and match a bit.

It’s worth spending some time looking at your garden to work out where the shadows lie, the path of the sun across the garden, and whether you have any frost pockets. Consider the wind as well; sometimes all it takes is a windbreak to turn a disastrous garden into a productive one.