A beautiful landscape is a
source of ongoing enjoyment. In our mind’s eye, we can
imagine the Eden that we will create around our homes as
we shop for plants and tend our plantings. However, when
gardening fever hits, we gardeners often make some
hasty, ill-informed purchases and plant-care decisions
that can result in less-than-hoped-for results.
In several decades as an Extension agent, I’ve witnessed
many gardening mistakes that “seemed like a good idea at
the time,” and (to be honest) made quite of few of my
own! Here are a few of the more common ones, with the
hope of helping you avoid disappointment and maximize
your enjoyment and satisfaction as you build you own
corner of Eden.
Planting before preparing
the planting area. As the self-appointed
president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty
to Plants, I would like to propose new legislation to
set up a three-day “cooling-off period” before
purchasing new plants at the garden center. It works
like this. As you check out at the register, the clerk
asks if you have prepared the planting beds for these
plants yet. If not, they set them aside while you go
home and do the needed preparations before returning to
pick up your plants. This law isn’t my idea — the plants
ask me to advocate for it!
Start with a soil
test. Mix in the recommended fertilizer prior to
planting, together with some compost to improve soil
structure, internal drainage and moisture-holding
capacity. It is easiest and most effective to eradicate
perennial weeds, whether by digging or spraying, before
the desirable plants are planted. Create raised beds if
drainage is at all in question. Remember this: By the
time you place the plants in the ground, you are at
least 75 percent of the way to success or failure!
Not considering the mature size of a shrub.
When we purchase a shrub, it is deceptively small. After
planting at a proper distance, they look way too small
and far apart! But in time their genetics kick in and
they show their true potential. If not spaced properly,
roses become crowded, which increases disease problems.
That tiny shrub you placed under the bay window engulfs
the window, exchanging your landscape vista for a view
of its leafless interior backside. Those shrubs lining
the walkway crowd it so much your guests parking at the
street have to join hands and get a running head start
to burst through the vegetative gauntlet that once was a
When possible, choose dwarf species or
more compact cultivars. While pruning can help manage
size, don’t sentence yourself to years of battling
against a plant’s genetics to prevent it from taking
Inappropriate planting location for
a tree. Trees also look so tiny out there in
the landscape after we plant them. It is tempting to try
to squeeze them into a space they will soon outgrow.
Take their mature size into account when deciding where
to plant them to avoid limbs rubbing the eaves and
shingles of the home, or roots lifting up the sidewalk
and driveway. Modern-lot sizes are quite small, making
some of our traditional tree species less than ideal
options. A smaller species may be the better choice,
especially if you hope to have a long-term lawn or
flowerbed in the area. Also look up for power lines
before planting. If there is a utility line overhead,
the power company will prune your tree for you for free,
but you won’t like the results!
poorly adapted species or cultivars. Just
because something is for sale in a local garden center
doesn’t mean it should be planted in your area. Most
garden centers are conscientious about only selling
adapted plants, but I cringe sometimes at what is being
offered for sale in some garden centers. Plants,
especially woody ornamentals, are a long-term
investment. Avoid fast-growing “trash trees” that will
end up being removed a few decades later, when a
long-lived, well-adapted species would be in its prime.
Do some research before purchasing a shrub, shade
tree, fruit plant or even annual and perennial flowers.
We’ve killed a lot of peonies, forsythias, lilacs and
other wonderful plants trying to get them to like it
here in Texas. Crapemyrtles not resistant to powdery
mildew, roses prone to mildew or black spot, fruit
cultivars with the wrong chilling requirements for your
region and plants not tolerant of your area’s soil type
and pH, summer heat or winter cold are all a recipe for
disappointment, no matter how pretty the fruit and
flowers are on the plant tags, or what you saw on that
gardening show filmed in New Jersey or California!
We have many awesome species and varieties for the
various soils and climate conditions across the Lone
Star State. Talk to knowledgeable nursery professionals,
local experienced gardeners and the agents and Master
Gardeners at your County Extension Office as you choose
the best Texas-tough plants for your landscape.
Improper planting practices. Consider
this: A tree’s roots may extend 2-1/2 times its branch
spread in all directions. Grown in a pot, all those
roots are wound up in that relatively tiny container.
When you plant it in the soil, those roots don’t unwind,
but rather keep expanding in size as the trunk expands,
eventually strangling the base of the trunk, leading to
poor performance or death.
When you remove a tree
from the pot, cut any circling roots you find. Trust me,
new roots will quickly regrow from near the cut ends,
extending out into the surrounding soil. Some tree
specialists advocate for washing the container soil off
of the root ball to expose inner circling roots from
when the tree was in a smaller container during the
Plant it so the topmost root is
at or slightly above the soil line. Planting too deep
can significantly set a tree back. Either dig the hole
two or three times wider than the root ball or use a
spading fork to slightly loosen the soil beyond the
original hole area after planting. Only put soil from
the site back in around the tree roots; not compost,
potting mix or fertilizer.
Build a circular berm
of soil extending about a foot beyond the original root
ball and about 4” high around the newly planted tree.
This way, you can fill the area inside the berm with
water and ensure a deep soaking of the root ball when
you water. Finish with a 3–4” thick mulch as wide as the
berm, if not a little wider. Trees hate grass and the
wider the mulch area, the better for the tree. This also
keeps the mower and string trimmer away from the tender
Putting plants where you
want them rather than where they want to be.
Plants have an opinion about where they want to grow,
and they are pretty hardheaded about it. We may picture
a beautiful rose loaded with blooms under that live oak,
an azalea out in that drought-prone spot in the blazing
sun, or a Texas mountain laurel in that low, soggy area,
but that doesn’t change the plant’s genetic programming.
Give them the exposure and soil moisture conditions that
make them thrive and they’ll reward you with the healthy
growth and the fabulous bloom show you envisioned.
Planting without a landscape plan.
I love to buy new plants! Walk me through a garden
center or show me a nursery catalog and I can point out
dozens of things I just must have. We gardeners tend to
become “plant collectors.” You know, “So many plants, so
little space.” Adding plants without planning first ends
up creating a “hodge-podge plant museum” rather than a
We can excuse our random results by
calling our landscape a “cottage garden” or “eclectic,”
but it really makes sense to start out with a general
plan. You can learn some basics of landscape design to
help you create an attractive layout of beds and
gardens. These basics will help you think through how
you want your landscape to look from the bay window,
patio or deck area. Then choose plants that will enhance
your aesthetic preferences. Remember to consider all
four seasons and select some plants to extend interest
beyond spring throughout the landscape, throughout the
Poor training and pruning
practices. Training begins when you plant your
landscape woody ornamental or fruit tree. The decisions
you make early on will determine the structural
strength, attractive form, bloom shows and fruit
production for years to come. By thinking through what
the end results will be years down the line, you can
make training cuts the first few years with hand pruners
that will avoid your having to saw off large limbs
several years later. Consider this: When you pull out a
saw to remove a limb, it is an admission that you made a
mistake in training the plant a few years earlier.
Advice and guidance for training landscape trees
properly are easy to find online, as is help with
training fruit trees. Learn about how plants respond to
pruning and how to make proper cuts rather than just
doing what seems right at the time. If you need to hire
work, remember that owning a pickup truck and a chain
saw doesn’t make someone a professional arborist! Avoid
the “Two Jerks on a Chain Saw” tree service that left a
flyer at your door and hire a certified arborist to do
the work that will determine the strength and beauty of
your trees for the remainder of the trees’ life!
Watering incorrectly. While a lack of
water is certainly a problem, the two most common
watering mistakes are applying too little, too often,
and keeping the soil too wet. Shallow, frequent wetting
of the lawn or a landscape bed promotes shallow rooting,
can increase foliar disease problems and results in a
greater percentage of what we apply being lost to
evaporation. Roots need oxygen, so keeping the soil
soggy wet can kill roots and promote root-rot diseases.
The best irrigation run times and frequencies depend
on factors such as soil type, temperature, plant species
and sun exposure, but as a general guide give the soil a
good soaking and then allow it to dry out considerably
before watering again. This minimizes disease, promotes
deeper root systems and gives you the most benefit from
your watering dollars. When possible, use drip rather
than sprinkler irrigation to minimize foliage wetting
and to increase efficiency.
weed killers. Weed killers are designed to kill
plants, not necessarily just the plants you consider to
be weeds. Some products work on many types of plants,
while others target either grassy or broadleaf plants.
Most flowers, shrubs and trees are also broadleaf
If an herbicide drifts onto desirable
plants that are the same type as the targeted weeds, it
will damage or kill them. If you overapply an herbicide,
especially prior to a rainy period, it can wash into the
root zone and also damage the trees and shrubs, whose
roots extend out into the lawn.
It is a mistake
to think a “weed killer” is going to work on all the
weeds in your lawn. Some herbicides prevent weed seeds
from establishing, while others kill existing weeds.
Both types can be included in fertilizers as “weed and
feed” products. These too can damage desirable plants
when misapplied or over-applied.
If you must use
an herbicide in your lawn, choose a product based on the
weed you wish to prevent or kill, and fertilize
separately because the time to prevent weeds is often
not the best time to apply turf fertilizer. Many of the
broadleaf products can damage sensitive St. Augustine
grass when temperatures are above the mid-80s, while
some of the preventative products can inhibit turf
rooting, which makes the grass less able to withstand
drought and recover from disease, insect or foot-traffic
Before purchasing and applying a product,
get some assistance with weed identification and
identifying the best ingredients and timing to control
your lawn’s weed species. Remember that a dense turf
will choke out most weed problems, so a weedy lawn is
often the sign of a thin, unhealthy lawn. Focus first on
proper mowing, watering and fertilizing rather than on
repeated herbicide applications year after year to
create an attractive lawn.