The other day, I was outside in my Zen-weeding mode (how does chickweed have the energy to grow year-round?) and found myself going over the successes and failures of my gardening past — kind of like mental worry beads.
In the hope of saving someone else horticultural grief, I thought I’d set down some of the common mistakes we gardeners make. I should add that this falls firmly in the “do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do” category because, although I am very cognizant of my error-strewn history, I do seem doomed to repeat it; well, some of it. So here they are, Letterman-style, my top ten mistakes.
#10 Planting trees too close to power lines. Doing this condemns the tree to being hacked, whacked, mutilated and deformed. Urban streets are full of such sorry examples. Planted too close to your house, trees can undermine your foundations, wreck your roof and make you think you’re living in a cave. So be kind to trees and yourself: choose varieties that won’t get too tall and plant them well away from any structures.
#9 Buying plants on impulse. There may be gardeners who actually make a list of plants to buy before hitting the nursery, but I doubt there are many who abide by it. Confronted with a tempting array of luscious plants, we easily succumb. We all want to be first with the new, the unusual, the lusted-after. It’s what we do. At the very least, only buy a plant if you know where it’s going to go or, like me, you’ll spend hours wandering around, pot in hand, searching for a spot.
#8 Making pathways too narrow, too late. That flagstone path looks charming, but then you try to get a wheelbarrow along it or negotiate it with an armload of shrubbery and the air turns blue. Pathways are one place where function must meet form. Ideally, they should also be installed first and the garden planned around them. Of course, that rarely happens: like many homeowner (versus designer) gardens, our garden evolves, growing as our interest, time and budget allow, and paths get added along the way. We always swear (as we wrestle the wheelbarrow to a standstill) that the next path will be sooo much wider.
#7 Being afraid. Gardeners can be nervous nellies, fretting that they are doing something wrong and not daring to make changes. Well, plants are amazingly forgiving. So plunge into pruning, yank out that unruly shrub, transplant that tree, experiment with that weird specimen from South Africa. It’s your garden so fling red, orange and magenta flowers together if you so desire, get that gaggle of gnomes you adore, create a Dr. Seuss topiary, just go fearlessly where the passion takes you.
#6 Making a pond too small. If you’re going to install a garden pond, measure out the size you’d like, then double, no, triple it. I guarantee the first one will end up being dis-satisfyingly puny. It took my husband and me — we’re slow learners — three pond makeovers to get it right.
#5 Using an arsenal of chemicals. I think, I hope, the days are gone when gardeners automatically grabbed some toxic spray at the first sight of a dandelion or bug. There is little or no reason to use herbicides or pesticides in our gardens, especially veggie gardens. Chemicals kill off beneficial insects, contaminate ground water and harm wildlife and pets (and children). Gardening organically means healthier plants, healthier gardeners and a healthier planet.
#4 Planting invasive species. Beware of plants whose not-so-hidden agenda is to take over the world. Look out for the euphemisms “vigorous grower” and “spread: indefinite” on the tags. “Weed” in the plant’s common name is another clue (goutweed, bugleweed, etc.). Many of these vigorous plants are exotic (i.e. non-native) invaders that are so incredibly adaptable they thrive anywhere, running roughshod over native plants. Also, beware of plants that self-seed promiscuously, unless you really want lots of babies.
#3 Starving the soil. Healthy plants need nutrient-rich soil, so feed the soil by adding lots of organic matter such as chopped leaf mould, compost or well-rotted manure. Just spreading this material on top as a mulch once a year (twice is even better, in spring and fall) not only nourishes the plants but also keeps the soil moist and, best bonus, discourages weeds.
#2 Putting plants in the wrong place. It may take a bit of homework beyond reading the tags, but the plants and you will be much happier if you site them in their preferred conditions, i.e., the right soil, light, moisture and exposure to wind. Despite one’s best placement efforts, plants sometimes struggle. I have a three-strike rule. I’ll try a plant in three different spots and if it still languishes, then it’s out. And I have another planting space.
And the top mistake is….drum roll, please….
#1 Ignoring a plant’s ultimate size. Do this at your peril. Read the tags, which usually give height and spread. That cute little blue spruce at the nursery can become a yard-eating giant before you know it. It’s a make-work project to be constantly pruning to keep a plant in check or having to move it because it’s outgrown the space. Yes, we all want a new garden to look lush and full but, rather than stuff things in cheek by leafy jowl, give the keepers (the plants you want for the long term) plenty of room and fill the spaces between them with annuals or easy-to-move perennials or a nice big rock. Having said that, I must now go and move some plants I seem to have put way too close together.
“Cute but not very practical pathway” © 2010 Karen York
“Garden bench” Daisy Little Cottage @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Crazy topiary tree” © 2010 Karen York
“A lovely pond” © 2010 Karen York
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