The most surprising garden mistakes I made this season

vegetable gardening mistakes in a yard

There are lots of glossy photos of amazing gardens out there, and sometimes they seem too good to be true. (That includes the ones on this website.)

Last year when I was a keynote speaker at a gardening conference, after my talk one of the participants approached me and said, “I loved your talk and your photos are beautiful. But, let’s be honest, what’s behind all of the colorful photos and funny anecdotes? What’s the real story?”

I thought this was an interesting question and it cuts to the heart of what can be a problem in the gardening world – putting forth the impression that our gardens are perfect.

As a garden educator, writer, and speaker, I can be guilty of this myself. It’s way more fun to share the most beautiful photos of my garden and talk about the success I’m having each season.

But, that’s not always the most helpful story to share. Because, even if you’re a very experienced gardener, you still make mistakes and have total failures each season.

And since The Creative Vegetable Gardener is run by a real person with an actual yard, I think it’s just as important for me to share what’s not going well in my garden so you know that I’m far from a perfect gardener.

There are plenty of times each season when I ask myself, “Why did I do that? I should know better.” and pledge to do better next season.

So, in an effort to be more transparent and show the not so glossy side of vegetable gardening, here are my disappointing garden mistakes of this season.

The most surprising garden mistakes I made this season

Garden Mistakes

Problems with Temperature

I’ve been having tons of fun pushing the limits of the growing season here in Wisconsin by growing in low tunnels and cold frames. But, I learned the hard way that they can get really hot underneath the plastic on a cold and sunny early spring day.

One afternoon when I checked my low tunnel it was 109 degrees in there! Spring vegetables don’t like hot temperatures so they got stressed out and bolted prematurely. Lesson learned. Next year, I’ll take the plastic off much earlier and replace it with row cover.

Vegetable Garden Mistakes

Challenges with Insect Pests

See that little white-winged lady in the photo above? That’s a cabbage moth. On any given day I have many of these moths swirling around my garden and laying eggs on my brassica plants.

This past season, they destroyed my entire lacinato kale crop. Luckily, they don’t seem to bother the curly varieties, so I have still have plenty of usable kale.

But, there are so many that it’s not practical to pick them off by hand after a few months. Next year I may experiment with keeping some kale under row cover for the entire season. (Read more about the little buggers here.)

Common Garden Mistakes

Trouble with Plant Varieties

One of my favorite flowers for the vegetable garden is verbena bonariensis, a tall and airy purple verbena that mixes perfectly with vegetables.

I haven’t had much luck growing it from seed at home, so I usually buy plants from a local nursery. I was so disappointed this year when the plants I bought turned out not to be true to that variety. They had very little color, like in the photo above, when they’re usually bright purple, like the photo below.

I’ve pulled most of the ugly ones out so they don’t reseed themselves next year. I may try starting my own seeds again, or buying plants from a better source.

Mistakes in Vegetable Garden

Soil Quality Questions

Ever since I built my current vegetable garden I’ve struggled with soil health issues. You can see in the photo below that my beans turned yellow right when they started producing fruit. This is a clear signal that they aren’t getting the nutrients they need to thrive in my garden.

I’ve gotten several soil tests done and now mix soil amendments into my garden before planting, but sometimes the vegetable plants are still unhappy. I spread an extra layer of fertilizer around the plants and they bounced back, but they never were as healthy as a second planting I sowed in another bed.

I’m learning that building the fertility of my garden soil is a longer term project than I first anticipated. I’ll reassess next spring with a new soil test and continue mixing and adding amendments based on those results.

Common Vegetable Garden Mistakes

Tomato Failures

My tomatoes were almost a complete bust. The plants looked healthy enough, but they didn’t get that tall and I didn’t harvest nearly the amount of tomatoes I was expecting. For our yearly salsa making I had to go out and buy tomatoes.

The plants that produced the best were the Red Zebras that I’m harvesting in the photo below. My husband commented that they don’t even taste that good – which was true. Next year I’ll plant them in a different location, work on soil fertility, and prune them well for air flow.


Mistakes with Overplanting

I was really happy with the cattle panel trellises I built for my side yard garden. But, in my enthusiasm, I completely over planted both of them.

The curved one was taken over by Love Vine, which was a big disappointment in the flower department. It bloomed very late and they were difficult to see from a distance. If I’m going to give up valuable space for a flower it better be showy!

Common Mistakes in Garden

On the second trellis, I planted cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, winter squash, and pole beans. They shaded each other out most of the season, although I think the cucumbers really liked it because the plants are super healthy and still producing fruit!

I need to restrain myself next year and only plant a few seeds and seedlings on each trellis.

Vegetable Garden Mistakes

Luckily, one of the gifts of gardening is that it’s cyclical. In Wisconsin where I live, it comes to a complete stop (for a long time!) and then we get to begin fresh again the next spring. The slate is wiped clean and each new season is a blank canvas filled with all of our gardening aspirations.

The end of the gardening season is a great time of year to reflect on what didn’t go so well in your garden, so that next year you can address those things and try to improve your garden bit by bit. Before the season fades away into your memory, take a few moments to jot down some notes about what you want to do differently next year.

Your notes will serve as a gentle reminder to your enthusiastic spring self of what new things to experiment with and what to leave behind next season.

Want to read about this year’s successes? You can do that in this post.

More garden reading:

39 Garden Bloggers Share Their Biggest Mistakes

Why Growing a Fall Garden Is So Easy

4 Ways to Add Beauty to Your Garden




  • Susan Hobart

    Thanks for the obsevations. Makes me want to sit with our teachers and talk this month!

    • Susan- You’re welcome! Yes, it’s a great time to think about the season. It’s difficult to remember back to last year in spring. At least for me!

  • I appreciate hearing that you have “challenges” with your vegetable gardening too. I have a large yard, in a rural western Wisconsin area, and people often stop just to look around, and enjoy the numerous areas of our yard.

    I recently had a request from a group of 30 – 35 people to enjoy our gardens, and I wanted to make sure that they realized that gardening is a constant time of change. I found that some of the information that they appreciated the most was when I let them know what I would do differently, and what I would suggest that they could do if they wanted to create a specific design. I wanted them to learn from my mistakes.

    I also pointed out that even though I enjoy my gardening, I also realized last year that I always looked at what wasn’t perfect, instead of being amazed at the beauty of everything that was happily growing in our gardens, even if it was a weed!

    • Betty- Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it. It’s interesting that we often notice what’s not going well in our gardens (and life in general) more than what is. I, too, have been trying to bask in the beauty more and worry about the to do list less. Thanks for reminding me to continue!

    • Jackie Marie Beyer

      Becky That sounds beautiful. Would you be interested in sharing your story on the Organic Gardener Podcast? Jackie:~)

  • I live in Madison as well, north side, near Cherokee Marsh. I’m not sure your tomato issues were your fault, since I had the exact same problem, and I know I have no soil amendment issues in terms of tomatoes. Last year my tomatoes went nuts, and were so rich and delicious. This year, my determinates produced really well early, but the indeterminates where short, and very slow to ripen, and all of them were very bland. I think this had a lot to do with the very wet, cool start to summer, and the fact it never got very hot for an extended amount of time. I also think I need to keep up with pruning my indeterminates to get them to produce well. I planted twice as many tomatoes as last year, and ended up with less than last year. 🙁

  • I think our relatively cool summer was the cause of the less-flavorful tomatoes this year. At temperatures below about 58, the flavor profile changes (why to never refrigerate tomatoes). In east-central WI we had many nights below that during the time my tomatoes were (slowly) ripening. And then late blight came along and all but wiped them out entirely. Sigh. Onward, fellow Badgers!

    • Joy & Heather- I think you’re right, although I visited a friend who had extremely lush and tall tomatoes not far from me. So, I suspect soil issues may have made the temperature situation worse. His plants weren’t stunted at all! I was jealous.

  • Daryle in VT

    I do a live demo of pesto making by hand with a mortar and pestle at the Vermont State Fair, in early September. I have a couple friends grow basil, so if one source is hit by disease, another will provide basil for the demo. This year my main supply, protected by row cover, was perfect – one week before the fair. By mid-week the entire crop had been hit by basil downy mildew! Basil grown out in the open was untouched. In fact I cut the last of my own basil last week to flavor some pasta sauce, about a month after the mildew attack. It seems that the seeds may be the source of the BDM. Seeds started under red light were unaffected by the mildew. Normally started seeds were hit or miss. Any thoughts?

  • Jackie Marie Beyer

    The biggest things I learned this year that I am going to try differently is I need to PLAN waaayyyyy more. Your strategic tips really made me realize how I can make gardening so much easier if I answer some basic questions about what I really eat and use and what I don’t. I am going to make a schedule too and stick to it in the spring, planting once a week so my harvest is more scattered and spread out instead of everything at once. And finally I am going to plant my fall seeds in June/July so I can put plants out at the end of August. Thanks Megan for your amazing advice and inspiration. Your photos are stunning!

    • Hi Jackie- Those are great goals for next year. The nice thing about gardening in climates like ours is that we get to start fresh in the spring!

  • I’ve been searching for a great gardening site and I believe I’ve found it Hee. Thank you. I was wondering how you keep your weeds under control. I live in Arizona so our seasons are different here then in Wisconsin but I know you have weeds too. Also If you have any advise on setting up a greenhouse with growing boxes and ventilation and how to care for the plants I’d really appreciate it. We are building one hopefully next month.

    • Hi Diane – Thanks for stopping to say hi! I use hay mulch in my veggie garden and woodchips in my perennial beds to keep down weeds. It’s best to use materials that are available locally. Do you have access to straw or hay? You could also use leaves and grass clippings. Do you know what other people use for mulch in your area? As for a greenhouse, I don’t have experience with building one. I use low tech row cover and low tunnels in my garden to keep things going into winter. Good luck, it sounds like so much fun to have a greenhouse.

  • Susanne Smebak

    I planted garlic cloves this year at the end of October as always and.because of the unusual warm weather it’s sprouting. Will it survive the winter per normal or rot?

    • Hi Susanne – Great question! One tip is to mulch your garlic thickly with hay, leaves, or straw to keep the soil cool and to hopefully prevent sprouting in fall. If they do sprout, the greens will die back once it gets really cold (depending on where you live) and will regrow in the spring. The garlic should be fine.

  • jim belcoff

    Planting my first garden this year. Live in zone 6. What and when should I start planting? Should I wait until after the last frost. Some days it’s 32 degrees and then other days it 55 degrees.

    • Hi Jim- You can definitely start planting before the last frost. In fact, if you wait until planting then you miss out on a whole season of the garden – the spring season. There are a lot of cold tolerant vegetables that don’t care if the temps go below 32 degrees, such as lettuces, greens, kale, broccoli, cabbage, and more. My new garden planning book contains a planting calendar worksheet that helps you figure out when to plant in spring.

  • These are great lessons learned. Last year we had a problem with apple maggots which made the apples less thank desirable. This year I plan to put out traps in June.

    Best of luck for your garden this year!

  • Tomato blight has been my biggest challenge and the heat last summer was pretty bad. Tell me, do you oversee and run the community gardens at where in Madison? Do you have a degree in Horticulture or other fields of interest that got you interested in growing vegetables? Do you have any fruit growing experience, I want to expand on my Blueberry gardens, need input please!

    • Hi Rita- I don’t oversee the community gardens. I don’t have a degree in Horticulture, I learned by working on farms and running educational gardening programs. I grow raspberries and cherries in my garden. Blubeberries are need very specific soil conditions, so I’d recommend reading more about them if you decide to plant.

  • I don’t know if this will help and my gardening zone is completely different from yours (Georgia) but my uncle was saying his tomatoes weren’t doing well either but mine were beautiful and he asked what did I do differently. I told him I did as his mother said do lime the soil (makes the soil sweeter she says) but it puts calcium back in the soil. I also used 10 10 10 a month ahead of time. So in February I kill weeds in grass (only in grass) throw 101010 in veggie garden then come back and till pulverized lime in veggie garden and in April I test the soil and plant by Good Friday. (Plus I check the farmers almanac I know its old school but last year it said plant early and it made a big difference when the summer heat came I had strong tomatoes plants by summer) a week can make a difference (might need to plant later for your zone). Plus after my tomatoes get 7 feet I pinch the tops off so they can focus on blossoms no blossom no tomatoes (essential to prune tomatoes every day!!!) and I cut limbs that don’t have blossoms (not off main vine though) I don’t know if this helps. (In the south tomatoes do very well)
    I will tell you this though I noticed your tomatoes are too close (looking at picture) For that box I’d put four in there (my rule of thumb you should be able to walk around your cages) quality will give you quantity. Plus that stupid soil test works (I hate it but true) my leaves turning yellow I test my soil first before I think blight
    I hope this helps
    ?Happy Gardening ?

    • Thanks for sharing your experience! It’s great that you’re finding so much success with your tomatoes.

  • Hi Megan!

    Just bought your preserving book. So excited and can’t wait to get. Got to get your planner book too because I want to extend my growing season beyond frost periods. THIS year I learned the ins and out of watering. I learned it’s better to water longer and less frequently. Using the combo of soaker hoses and straw mulch it keeps my soil insulted and at just the right moisture level. I also learned with tomatoes specifically I need to change their location each year. It’s been a tough season and lost two plants to disease but my other plants are almost six feet tall! That’s a first for me! Everything is huge but I can’t take all the credit. My hens have me the best fertilizer. I’ve been nurturing that soil for three years now and been mixing it in all winter. I’m going to keep the beds mulched all winter. I didn’t do that before. Lastly not sure if this is a no no but I’ve learned the benefits of neem oil! It’s amazing! Plants are super healthy and bugs are not destroying my plants. What’s your take on that?

  • Hi there, I’m sorry to read about your disappointments with your garden. Just remember, next time is the chance to make it right. I noticed that you said you were disappointed in your tomato yield. Something that I learned from an old time gardener is that to bump up your tomato harvest, it’s a good idea to give the tomatoes a shot of mild fertilizer. Especially if you are growing any Heirloom tomatoes. I have followed his advice and have enjoyed large harvests from my tomatoes. And,I love tomatoes. Good luck.

  • Hey again, that should have said:
    It’s a good idea to give the tomatoes a shot of a mild fertilizer EVERY WEEK. Don’t know why I didn’t add the most important part.

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