Pat Ferguson, a perceptive garden writer, nailed it when she wrote, “Being a gardener means, among other things, making mistakes.” She’s correct. I make mistakes (lots of them), you make mistakes and so does every other gardener. In my many years of gardening I have observed about every kind of gardening mistake imaginable.
So how can we cut our landscaping mistakes to a minimum? In this column I will spotlight just a few of the more common mistakes that gardeners commit. The biggest mistake many of us make is to neglect planning before we start planting. Not surprisingly, most of the multitude of other mistakes we often make can be traced back to the lack of proper planning.
Mistakes in landscaping newly built homes
If you are having a new house built, you are in luck because you will start with a clean slate. First, take a tape measure and graph paper and measure your building lot. Then draw in your new proposed home to scale and what you want to include in your landscape.
If you are new to gardening and don’t have a clue about landscaping, you may want to seek professional help. If money is no object, you may want to consult with a professional landscape architect. An experienced landscape designer can also be helpful. Or you may be able to educate yourself by heading to the library and checking out books on landscaping. Likewise, there is a lot of good information available free on the Internet.
After you have come up with a plan, make a schematic drawing of your plan. Always begin by planting trees. Trees are often called the “bones” of the landscape, and since they will be the slowest to mature, get at least some of them in the ground during the first year.
Ideally, you should set aside money for landscaping soon after construction begins. The gurus of landscaping recommend that 10 to 15 percent of your building budget should go for landscaping. But unfortunately, most home builders neglect to think about landscaping because it comes after construction has been completed. Then it is unlikely there will be but a pittance left for landscaping. If you lack enough money to put your entire plan into action, you can do your landscaping in stages over the course of several years.
Common mistakes in older landscapes
Instead of building, most of us purchasing a home will buy one from a previous owner that already has a maturing landscape. This doesn’t mean you are home free, even though the earlier owner may have done a good job of landscaping. You will have your own ideas about the landscape. If you purchase your home this winter or early next spring, don’t be in a rush right away and start removing trees, shrubs, perennials or make any other big changes. Instead, wait until you have lived in the home long enough to see what plantings you care to keep and those you will want to remove.
You should also draw a landscape plan. Hopefully, most of the trees, shrubs and perennials planted by the earlier owner will fit into your plan. But almost invariably some changes will need to be made. Unfortunately, large trees and large shrubs are quite expensive to have moved or removed. Ideally, you will be able to incorporate most of the existing mature trees and shrubs in your plan. If you do decide that some trees must be removed, call an experienced professional. Your house and your own safety are far more important than the expense of having large trees removed.
If you decide you need some new trees, there are several mistakes you will want to avoid. Don’t plant a tree so the trunk flare — where the trunk meets the root system — are beneath the soil line. This can lead to root rot and depriving roots of enough air. Remove the burlap wrapping, straps, ropes or wire cages so the roots will have room to grow. Backfill the planting hole with the soil you dug out — not by bringing in better soil, compost or fertilizer. Use tough love so the roots will not stay cuddled within the comfort of the amended soil — roots need to be forced to grow far beyond the planting hole. Avoid staking your tree unless it is planted in an area that gets lots of strong wind, and remove the stakes within a year.
Before you plant, read the tree tag that tells you how tall and how wide your tree will grow at maturity. That is just ballpark estimate, so allow for even more growth than the tags lists. Then think carefully about the site where it will be planted. In older sections of town, lots of homeowners plant shade trees between the sidewalk and the street. Big mistake! If there are utility lines above, city workers will likely butcher your tree when it grows into utility lines. Growing roots can lift up and crack the sidewalk, which will have to be replaced. If you need shade trees in front of your home, locate them well back from the sidewalk.
Also, avoid planting trees too close to your house. Take into account the spread your tree will reach. Then plant several more feet away so limbs won’t rub against your house. Knowing the tree’s potential height should warn you not to plant so close that overhanging limbs can damage the roof and roots damage the foundation.
Whether you have a new home or an order one, you should plan so maintenance will not take a lot of your time. Don’t plant too close to sidewalks and pathways, and look for smaller cultivars or species with low and slow growth to avoid the need for annual pruning. Ask for help at the nursery for good choices.
In laying out beds for perennials and annuals, don’t use sharp angles. Instead, use gentle curves, which will make mowing and edging much easier and quicker. Too much togetherness isn’t a good thing when it comes to shrubs, trees and perennials since all plants need good air circulation. Crowding will cause you a lot of maintenance headaches.
Plan for enjoying your yard year-round
Many gardeners landscape to allow for a lot of color in spring, summer and fall, but they neglect to consider their gardens in winter. Evergreen plantings, both broadleaf and needled, are fine but also include deciduous plantings to counterbalance your evergreens. Choose trees and shrubs that make four-season statements. Unique bark texture, color, form and texture will add a lot of interest, as will seed clusters, berries and seed heads. And don’t forget hardscaping — including birdbaths, birdhouses, small statuary and urns, but be careful not to overdo it or your landscape will end up looking cluttered or gaudy. With careful planning you can look out your picture windows and still enjoy your landscape, even in the dead of winter.
This column has mentioned just a few of the common mistakes that gardeners make, mostly because of a lack of good planning. In 2014 I would imagine that most of us will still make at least a few common landscaping mistakes. Just keep in mind that Pat Ferguson reminds us that being gardeners we will make mistakes, but hopefully, not as many as we have made in years past.
• Freelance gardening columnist Jim McLain can be reached at 509-697-6112 or firstname.lastname@example.org.