When I sat down to write this list I ended up with two lists – one of design mistakes and one of garden-care mistakes. I had to scratch my head a little bit over which list to put some of the “mistakes’ on. There’s a good reason for this. Poor garden care will ruin a nice design, and poor design can make garden care a nasty uphill climb with a summit that’s always out of reach.
These ended up on the “garden care” list, but I reserve the right to move them tomorrow.
1. Use “landscape fabric” under mulch to control weeds. Or even worse, use plastic.
Landscape fabric seemed like such a great idea. Never have to weed again! What happens, though, is that as the mulch on top of the fabric decomposes, you end up with a very rich, thick “soil” ON TOP of the fabric. I’ve seen this layer up to twelve inches thick. Weeds will germinate and grow very happily in even a thin layer of decomposing material.
Mulch is not a thin layer of something pretty to cover up that unpleasant stuff that gets under your fingernails when you work in your yard. Mulch is like icing on a cake – icing that bacteria, nematodes, fungi, mice, and earthworms live in until it actually becomes part of the cake.
Landscape fabric disrupts the necessary interaction between soil and mulch.
2. Use plastic bed edging.
Plastic edging is easy to make fun of. Everyone does it (uses it and makes fun of it.) One nasty problem is that freezing and thawing of soil will push it out of the ground. The word is will, not might. And, despite your best intentions, you are not going to pull it out, re-dig the trench, set it back in place, and re-insert the stakes every year or so. It will stick up, look hideous, and you will hit it with your mower.
The worst problem with plastic edging is not the maintenance issue, however. Bed lines are not static. They change as your plants grow and your landscape evolves. You will want to reconfigure the bed lines, sometimes a little here and little there, and sometimes a lot all at once. You can make these adjustments with a sharp spade without much trouble if you have a simple spade-cut bed edge. A plastic bed edge makes this a huge chore.
3. Fail to pull, spray, or otherwise control weeds.
This should be number one – maybe even numbers one through nine.
I see a lot of landscapes that started out nicely, installed and designed either professionally or by the homeowner, but after a few months or a few seasons, weeding sort of just fell off the to-do list. Let weeding go too long and you are probably going to have to start over from scratch. No matter what, unless you want to devote way more time to it than it’s worth in new plants, you are not going to be able to weed out the grass that has grown in from your lawn into the sedum.
Keep after it from the start it will be manageable.
4. Be afraid to rip things out.
You need to be aggressive about cutting down and ripping out things that have grown too large or ugly. The rose-of Sharon that was so cute when it was three feet tall and covered with blue flowers and is now as tall as your house and has suckers coming up all over your yard? Cut it down. Grub it out.
The hydrangea that hasn’t flowered in the five years since you planted it, but it was somehow magically covered with flowers when you bought it? Pull it out and plant something else.
5. Don’t edge your bed lines.
You have to edge your bed-lines. If you don’t, grass will grow from your lawn into the planting beds. In fact, it will like growing in planting beds more than it likes growing out there where you want it to grow – in your lawn.
This is a fairly easy task if you have a sharp spade with a flat (not curved) blade. It’s a miserable task if you have a digging tool with a curved blade. You don’t need to dig a moat to keep out marauding Huns. It just needs to be a very shallow trench – maybe an inch or two deep. And don’t throw the dirt on top of the perennials in the planting bed! Put it in your wheelbarrow and dump it behind your neighbor’s garage. JUST KIDDING.
6. Ignore your irrigation system.
Get up close and personal with your irrigation timer. You need to constantly tinker with the timer throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Lawns and gardens rarely need supplemental water during the spring and fall.
7. Don’t check the soil in your flower pots every day.
If you have flowers in pots, you may have to water them every single day when it’s hot and dry.
8. Use tiny stepping stones.
I love flagstone stepping stones. They’re part of our midwestern geology. They’re functional. They look like they belong. Best of all, you can easily pick them up and move them around.
But don’t use little pieces. Use flagstones that are 2.5 to 3 square feet in size. (A sheet of copy paper is .65 square feet.)