7 Gardening Mistakes to Avoid
Even veteran gardeners make rookie mistakes, like giving plants too much water and too little space. Here are common garden blunders. Consider yourself warned.
#1 Gardening is not rocket science: if you can dig a hole, turn on a spigot, and snip a dead flower off a vine, you can tend a garden.
Still, gardeners have to make some judgment calls. How much water does this shrub need? Will this tree get enough sun? Is this hole deep enough?
It’s easy to misjudge and make a mess out of your landscaping. Here are seven common garden blunders, and how to avoid them.
#2 Too many changes, too soon
The excitement of buying a new home, plus a stretch of warm spring weather, often creates a passion for yard work. But don’t just do something, stand there! What looks like a spring weed might be a fall-blooming vine; that bare spot in March might reveal tulips in April.
Try this instead: Live with your land for a year. Observe how many hours of sunlight each part of your garden gets. Test the pH of your soil to determine if acid-loving or alkaline-loving plants will be happy in that particular patch of heaven. Observe when your lawn greens up in spring and becomes dormant in late summer.
The money and time you save by watching and waiting will be your own.
Trees and shrubs that look properly spaced when you plant them will crowd each other and compete for water, sun, and nutrients in a few years. If you’re lucky, you can transplant some bushes; if you’re not, you’ll have to throw away starved shrubs.
Try this instead: Before digging, read spacing instructions. Give trees plenty of space—you can always fill in later. Stagger bushes and plants and create two rows, which will create more breathing room. The results will look absurdly sparse at first. But live with it. In a few years, your shrubs will fill empty spaces without suffocating each other.
Mistake #3: Planting without a plan
Planting new garden beds without a long-term landscape plan is like pouring a house foundation without blueprints. Your haste results in a waste of time, money, and muscles.
Try this instead: Draw a simple sketch of your yard—what’s there now and what you might add later, such as patios, outbuildings, and pools. Bone up on the trees and shrubs that grow best in your soil and climate. Go online and click around landscaping sites that help you pick plants and design beds.
Visit your local nursery or home improvement center where design staff can answer questions and make suggestions. Or hire a professional landscape designer to create a starter plan for as little as $250 to $500. Find a professional at the Association of Professional Landscape Designers or the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Mistake #4: Neglecting the root of it all
Even the hardiest plants need a little help putting down roots in new locations. Sprinkling the foliage doesn’t nourish the roots, the plant’s nerve center. You must deliver water to the root ball below the ground, or your plants will be stunted and short-lived.
Try this instead: Place the hose at the base of new bushes, trees, and plants and let the water trickle out for 20 to 30 minutes, twice a week (more during hot spells), for 4 to 12 weeks. Or snake a soaker hose ($20 for 50 feet) through your beds, which will deliver slow and steady water to roots.
Mistake #5: Forgetting the sun
Too many gardeners pick plants based only on looks, not the growing conditions plants require and the conditions that exist. Rookies will plant sun-loving perennials under an old oak tree or sun-shy hostas in the open. They look great for about a week, and then die.
Try this instead: Observing the spot where you’re going to put the plant and estimating the amount of sun it gets over the course of a day during the growing season. To translate that into the language on plant labels, use this key:
Full Sun – 6 hours a day or more
Part Sun/Part Shade – 3 to 5 hours
Full Shade Less than 3 hours
Mistake #6: Over-watering
An automatic irrigation system is a luxury that keeps your landscape hydrated throughout the growing season with almost no effort. Unfortunately, auto-watering can bring disease, root rot, and a premature death to plants; it also wastes water.
Many gardeners set watering timers for 15 to 20 minutes each morning, which wets the surface but doesn’t soak deeply to nourish roots of large trees and shrubs.
Try this instead: Water for 40 to 60 minutes only two to three times a week. Check with the company that maintains your irrigation system for local recommendations. A deeper soak also helps lawns develop deeper root systems.
Mistake #7: Budget blunders
Your landscaping can fall victim to construction bulldozers that park on lawns and dig too closely to trees and shrubs. New construction also demands rethinking your landscape plan to accommodate additions.
Unfortunately, many home owners don’t include landscaping in their construction budget. They end up with a beautiful new family room, screened porch, or solarium, and a few lonely azaleas planted around the foundation as an afterthought.
Try this instead: Allocate 10% to 20% of your construction budget to the landscape—both hardscaping and plants. If your construction spreadsheet can’t stand another line item, make a plan to landscape—in stages, if necessary—as soon as possible after construction is completed.
Oliver Marks is a former carpenter and newspaper reporter who has been writing about home improvements for 16 years.