Common landscape mistakes and how to avoid them

Well-built landscape can add considerable value to a home. It can be a source of satisfaction and years of enjoyment. It can also be frustrating when things don’t work out like you expected, and a lot of extra work if poorly planned or installed.

The fall and winter seasons are a prime time for establishing a new landscape or renovating an existing one. Perhaps you are planning some landscape changes this year. Watch a few gardening programs on television, go visit a home and garden show, or glance through some gardening books and magazines and you’ll gain a lot of inspiration.

However, when spring fever hits, the inspiration to get out there and plant can lead to some hasty decisions and ill-fated efforts. Let’s take a look at some of the more common landscape mistakes we gardeners make and how they can be avoided.

Mistake #1 — Not starting with a good plan.

Oh how we love to buy new plants! Walk me through a garden center and I can show you dozens of things I just must have. But you see I am a recovering plant person. We plant people need a 12-step program badly. Plant people become plant collectors. We need one of everything . maybe two or three. We buy it because we want that plant, not because we have a place for it. We have to move often to get more space.

There are other similar strains of this malady. You may know of a lady for example with 500 ceramic chickens in the kitchen or someone with 780 Beanie Babies. At least the home can hold their collections. But when it comes to plants we can fill up the entire property really fast. Then it looks like a hodge-podge rather than a design. Failure to begin with a plan results in a lack of continuity in the landscape design.

Some of this is due to impulse buying and some to just jumping off into building a planting bed without knowing why it is there. Just because you have plants is no reason to build a bed. Such an approach results in those “postage stamp” beds lost out in a sea of turf or set in the corner where the curb meets the driveway. They typically end up being either an eyesore or a maintenance headache.

Now I am the first to understand the desire to gather all those great new plants you can’t live without. But we just need to recognize that plant collecting and landscaping are two different things.

Lack of planning results in other maintenance headaches. For example, a landscape with lots of angles may become a mowing headache. The more beds you put in, the more edging you will have to do every time you mow.

When you plan a landscape, start with the landscape’s foundational features, the meat and potatoes, rather than the dessert. Turf areas, a few basic beds, some shade trees, use of groundcovers and evergreens all form a foundation. Then perennial beds, annual color beds and other features, the dessert if you will, can be added.

I know it is more fun to go buy a few flats of flowers and head home to make a flower bed, but the end results are not as effective as if you get the foundation set and then add some well-planned extras to enhance the design. Figure out what you want it to look like, draw out the beds and decide on the appropriate plants. Then you can do your shopping with much better long-term return on your time and money.

One more planning tip is to consider the four seasons. Everything looks good in the spring. Don’t put all your money into spring color. What looks good in summer? What about fall? There are plenty of late season bloomers and even some leaf color choices for fall. Then consider winter. This is where evergreens really earn their keep, as do berrying plants. Have you spread them out or are they all on one side of the landscape…oops, still time to fix that if you plan before you plant!

Mistake #2 — Putting plants where you want them rather than where they want to be.

Make sure to select a spot with the right sunlight exposure for the plant you have in mind. You may want an azalea out in full sun by the mailbox or a row of roses along the front of the house under the shade of the eaves and a live oak tree, but the plants won’t agree to that deal. Every plant has a sun exposure or light levels requirement. Ignore it and that azalea will fry and the only rose blooms you see will be at the flower shop.

The same can be said for soil drainage. Some areas are destined to be a swamp. Most plants won’t tolerate this but a few actually prefer it. I once saw a long row of hedges die of root rot in a low area where water tended to stand after a rain while a more tolerant species could have done just fine. It was a costly lesson when the owner had to replace dozens of plants.

Likewise various species have their natural range. We love to plant things that don’t want to grow here. Blue spruce in San Antonio or Houston, oranges in Amarillo, azaleas in El Paso, lilacs in Austin, dogwoods in Corpus Christi … you get the idea.

Sometimes by going to great lengths we can make a plant feel at home. But fighting against nature comes at considerable effort and expense, and it is generally better to not try. Work with what you have: acid sand, thin rocky clay over limestone, extended torrents of rain and poor drainage, bitter winter cold, or a lack of winter chill hours. There are many plants that want to grow where you live. Find out what grows best in your area and invest most of your landscape dollars in such plants.

On a related note, if you read in a gardening catalog that a plant establishes quickly or fills in fast, or reseeds, what they are not telling you is that in a few short seasons it will take over the entire property if not nuked. Seriously, some plants are downright invasive. They are a pleasure to have for a season or two and then pass nutgrass and bermudagrass on the list of chores to do in the garden. I find the tall types of Mexican petunia very attractive but think that they should be sold in a combo pack with a pint of Roundup!

Think twice…no make that three times…before planting anything that may have a little too much enthusiasm. Ask your gardening friends and garden center professionals about any plants that you may be wondering about.

Mistake #3 — Not preparing the planting area first.

Before you plant, you must prepare the area where the plants are to grow. Nobody builds a house without preparing the foundation first. Yet we often make the mistake of sticking plants into a spot that has not been prepared.

Spend a dollar on your soil before you spend a dollar on a plant. Most plants really benefit from added organic matter. Your plants will grow faster in well prepared soil and you’ll save money by not having to replace dead plants. Building up raised beds, especially in rainy eastern parts of the state, will protect plants from drowning during extended rainy spells.

Have the soil tested and see what nutrients are needed. Some nutrients don’t move well in the soil and really need to be mixed in prior to planting for best results. The pre-planting soil preparation stage is also the time to make any pH adjustments that are needed.

Eradicate weeds before you plant. It is much easier to destroy weeds before there are plants in the beds. Those notorious invaders like nutsedge, bermudagrass, and Johnsongrass thrive in the new beds you build if you leave them around to enjoy it. Whether you dig or spray, get it done before you plant.

Mistake #4 — Failing to consider ultimate size of a shrub or tree.

Plants grow up. That thin whip of a tree out there in the yard may one day stretch across the entire property and reach 40 feet in height. The compact little shrub may be taller than the eaves on your house in a few years.

One of the most common mistakes made in landscaping is to plant shrubs under a window that get too tall and end up hiding the view. This gives you the opportunity to get more practice at shearing than an Australian sheep rancher. Another common practice is to plant a potentially tall shrub beneath the eaves of a home. There are compact forms of many species and when a dwarf is not available then another species that is smaller would be a better choice. Ask how big they get before you buy.

imageThen there is the common mistake of planting shrubs close to a walkway, typically on both sides of the sidewalk. Visitors must get a running start to plunge through the foliage of the living gauntlet lining the path to your door. Or you can just add the letters BYOP to any party invitations (Bring Your Own Pruners). Find out the mature width of a plant. Half that number is the absolute closest you want to plant it to a walkway.

Trees under power lines are waiting for their destined appointment with the butcher. Trees near a home are likewise going to have to be pruned a lot to prevent branches from rubbing the roof. There are times when a tall tree is planted fairly close to the home for shading purposes, but you’ll need to accept the fact that some pruning will be needed down the line.

If you put them too close, the issue of foundation damage arises. I know that the new little tree with the broomstick sized trunk looks lost way out there in the middle of the yard. But in the long run it will look right and save you time and perhaps some expense too.

We also tend to crowd plants together. We want a hedge or at least a full line of shrubs and those we purchased look so small now. Again, consider mature size. Save that money spent on too many plants and use it elsewhere in the landscape. Some plants such as roses will be more prone to diseases as crowding reduces air circulation.

Mistake #5 — Too much of a good thing.

How much is enough? Well, probably less than you think. New gardeners are especially prone to overplanting, but even experienced gardeners can willfully forget. Large expanses of annual color are striking but must be maintained. Several bedding plant changeouts a year, plus weeding, watering, etc. can make for lots of work.

Perennials may not require replanting but must be maintained if they are to be kept attractive. Giant lawns are another example. Just because you own the property doesn’t mean it has to be turf from border to border. I actually enjoy mowing.for about a half hour a week in April, May, and October. The rest is done, because I have to. I also dislike paying to sprinkle our drinking water on it to keep it alive. So I keep my lawn areas to a minimum.

imageLook at those fabulous estates you see on TV with giant patchworks of color, tightly clipped hedges all about the place, decorative fountains, and well, you name it. Stare at the horizon and imagine that just out of view is an army of gardening staff who are constantly maintaining these horticultural Disneylands with a budget to match.

Anything can be done…at a cost. Decide how much time you want to spend mowing, weeding and in general maintenance before you create acres of Eden.

So with the fall and winter planting season upon us this is the time to pause and think over what you want your landscape to be. What design or overall look do you want to achieve. A little time spent planning and preparing will help you get the most benefit out of your gardening dollars and the most satisfaction from your landscape.

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