Landscaping Mistakes and
How to Avoid Them
In This Article
▶ Knowing the nonsustainable landscaping pitfalls
▶ Avoiding resource- and money-sucking mistakes
Considering all the nonsense that’s out there about landscaping and
gardening practices, I don’t think you need to feel bad about committing
some of the gaffes listed in this chapter. After all, it’s human nature to think
that if everyone’s doing something, it must be right.
Yet many common gardening practices are foolish, and imitating them
doesn’t help anyone. If you’re wasting time and money or creating a big
environmental impact, now is the time to change your ways. A little knowledge
and willingness to change behavior can solve the majority of gardening
problems in a big hurry, with no downside and often little or no cost.
Making Hasty Decisions
The first rule is to slow down. Very few landscaping emergencies exist at any
time — and none at all exist during the early stages of your project. The best
gardens have been developed over years, decades, and even centuries. Take
There’s a phenomenon that I call Saturday Morning Syndrome. Here’s how it
works: You get up on Saturday morning and say, “Hey, today is the day I
landscape my yard! All right!” You drive down to the nursery, where you pick
out a bunch of plants you’ve never even heard of before and a bag of soil
amendment; maybe you throw in a fountain that caught your eye and a
couple of plaster gnomes. You come home with your stuff and spend the rest
of the day trying to figure out what to do with it. Because you don’t have a
clue what the plants want or how big they get, they eventually kick the
bucket; lift your house off its foundation; or grow into the next block,
strangling small children along the way. The fountain doesn’t go with the
house. And the gnomes? Well, I won’t even go there.
You’re going to live with your new landscaping for a very long time. Why not
do yourself a favor and give the design phase all the attention it needs? You’ll
be happy you did. The chapters in Part II can help.
Not Giving Plants Room to Grow
Each plant has a genetic destiny. Its ultimate size is built into its DNA, and
you can’t do a thing to change it. Based on a rigorous scientific survey —
one that involved walking around my neighborhood looking at all the plants
that want to be much bigger than the spaces they’re in — I estimate that
40 percent of all gardening work consists of cutting things back. This is
madness. And of course, it’s also nonsustainable, because it requires fossil
fuels to run the hedge trimmers and truck the decapitated plant parts to the
landfill. Fortunately, you can employ a simple solution.
Check the mature height and width of the plant in any good gardening book or
on a good gardening Web site. Or see what the tag that comes with the plant
says. And believe it. Make sure to place each and every plant so that it has
room to grow — make sure it’s far enough from other plants, paved surfaces,
and structures. (Check out Chapter 16 for more information on giving plants
the room they need.) That way, you’ll never have to prune your plants.
Ignoring Growing Conditions
Plants are living things, and they need what they need. Planting a shadeloving
plant in the hot sun or a drought-loving plant in a wet spot is a recipe
for failure. So is putting a delicate plant where it’ll be pummeled by wind.
Once again, the simple solution is to match your plants carefully to the
conditions you have. Flip to Chapter 16 for some pointers.
Note: At times, it makes sense to change conditions to accommodate plants
that normally wouldn’t be happy in that particular spot, but it’s far wiser,
easier, and more sustainable to choose plants that will be happy with things
as they are.
There’s something satisfying about watering — so satisfying that overwatering
is among the most widely practiced of gardening mistakes. Not only does
overwatering waste water that could be used for better things, but it also kills
plants or makes them grow too fast so that they become soft and vulnerable
to problems. Overwatering costs you a lot of money, too!
If you have a manual watering system (or if you water by standing at the
business end of a hose), be sure to use a soil probe or put a shovel into the
soil to check moisture levels before you water. Don’t depend on the surface
appearance of the soil; conditions may be quite different down where the
roots live. If the soil is dry 6 to 12 inches below ground, consider watering —
depending, of course, on the root depth of the plants in the area.
If you have an automatic controller (see Chapter 7 for details), be sure to
reprogram it periodically to account for seasonal changes in water use. The
heat of the summer increases water demand, but then many people forget
to turn the controller back down in the fall. Refer to the water management
information in Chapter 9 or talk to your local water purveyor for specific programming
suggestions. Better yet, invest in one of the new smart controllers;
these devices automatically adjust to ever-changing conditions.
Using Chemical Fertilizers
Many chemical fertilizers are made from natural gas and other nonsustainable
resources. They also often have a high salt index, which means that they
salt the soil, making conditions tough for the many beneficial microorganisms
on which your plants depend for true well-being. Also, many chemical
fertilizers act very quickly, which means that they can burn plants by overloading
them with excessive nutrients — and then go away, leaving the plants
stranded. Using chemical fertilizers on plants is like expecting your body to
live on coffee and chocolate bars. It’s tempting but not so healthy.
Sustainable gardeners depend on organic fertilizers that provide nourishment
for the entire soil food web, not just the plants (see Chapter 16 for
details). Organic fertilizers are made from renewable natural sources rather
than petroleum. They’re much less likely to cause pollution from runoff and
to leach into groundwater. And they don’t burn plants. They apply nutrients
gradually — as plants prefer — and stick around for the long haul.
The truly sustainable landscape doesn’t depend on fertilizers, because nutrients
never leave the site. Everything that’s pruned from a plant is returned to
the soil in the form of compost or sheet mulch (find out more in Chapter 20).
It’s fine to use fertilizers for the occasional special treat or when nutrient
levels need to be high for spring growth or other situations, but your plants
should be able to coast along on their own waste most of the time.
Being Hooked On Pesticides
Tell me that you don’t use harsh chemical pesticides. Please. They’re so
unnecessary! Plants get pests for any number of reasons, generally because
something is wrong with the growing conditions: too much or too little
water, sickly soil, oddball weather conditions, and so on. The pests know a
stressed plant from a happy one, and they make their move when a plant’s
defenses are down. Pests also attack soft growth, which can be a result of
A well-planned landscape has little need for conventional pesticides, which
cause pollution and health risks. Still, even in the most sustainable gardens, a
plant may suffer an attack of some kind. Your first line of defense should be
to evaluate growing conditions and make any necessary improvements. Then
sit back and watch for positive change. More often than not, the newly
healthy plant will defend itself without any further help from you.
The other cool thing that happens is that beneficial insects often move in to
mop up the pests for you. If not, organic remedies are available for most pest
and disease problems; you should have no trouble finding a treatment that’s
consistent with sustainable practices. If all else fails, take the plant out and
replace it with something tougher. Visit Chapter 21 for more information on
combating pests and plant diseases.
Applying Harsh Chemical Herbicides
You end up with weeds because nature fills voids — and not usually with
azaleas. Weeds are aggressive, opportunistic plants that are poised to exploit
any gap in vegetation. When conditions are right, weeds happen.
Weed growth and the use of herbicides are the result of design failure.
Correcting the problem with proper planting and mulch is easy. For instance,
if you make sure that every square inch of your garden is filled with robust
plants or covered with weed-discouraging mulch, you greatly reduce the
problem; as a result, you don’t need to use herbicides. Then you can deal with
the few remaining weeds (yes, you’ll still have some) by hand-weeding or
using some horticultural vinegar spray when they’re young. (See Chapter 22
for what you need to know to get started.)
Choosing Power Tools When
Hand Tools Would Do
Power tools seem to make your gardening life easier, but when you factor in
all the variables — working to buy and maintain them, keeping them adjusted
and running properly, storing them, using gas and oil to keep them going, and
dealing with the impact of eventual disposal — they really aren’t that great a
deal. Add in the terrible noise and air pollution, and what you get is a hightech
Sure, sometimes power equipment is the best way to go if you want to get the
job done in a reasonable period of time, but remember that humans built the
Giza pyramids and Stonehenge and a whole lot of other stuff by hand. Why
have we gone soft on our ancestors?
If you have a lawn, consider using a push mower (see Chapter 22) or try
converting the lawn to a natural meadow that requires little or no mowing.
Drag out those rusty old hedge shears and give them a whirl on the hedges;
your pecs will perk up marvelously. Just remember that the key is to design
(or redesign) your property so that power tools just aren’t necessary. You
want to design so that everything is in a state of balance that makes all that
hard work a thing of the past.
Tilling the Soil
Everyone has been taught that fluffy, thoroughly cultivated soil is the very
best stuff for your plants. As it turns out, that’s not true. Instead, cultivating
soil destroys its texture, along with the elegant network of mycorrhizal fungi
and other beneficial organisms that are essential to the well-being of your
plants. Tilled soil can become clumpy or powdery, and the effects are worse
if the soil is wet when tilled. Tilling also turns up weed seeds and can undo
years of patient weeding in a single, pollution-spewing pass.
Yes, tillers suck up dinosaur juice (also known as fossil fuels) and spit out
smog and noise just like all other power equipment.. Not sustainable.
Not sustainable at all.
Tilling the soil to grow plants is like tearing the roof off your house to let a
little fresh air in. The sustainable way is to practice no-till or low-till growing.
For the home gardener, this ancient practice involves covering your vegetable
garden with an organic mulch, which keeps weeds down, reduces water
use, and returns nutrients to the soil. Place plants in small, hand-dug holes
within the mulch, never again turning the soil over. Mulch may not be as
sexy as a big plot of fragrant, fluffy black earth, but it’s a whole lot better for
the environment, your plants, and you.
At times, you have to do grading during the course of constructing your
new landscape, and you may be tempted to soften the soil with a rototiller.
Resist — the same soil damage will occur. Instead, water if necessary to
bring soil to proper physical condition; then grade by hand (or with minimal
use of heavy equipment in large areas).
Unimproving the Soil
One of the biggest myths in landscaping is that you have to “improve” the
soil to get the best performance from plants. The truth is that you really
can’t fix soil. Some pioneering research in the 1970s proved that in most
cases, amending soil is detrimental both to the soil and to the plants. Here
are several reasons:
✓ Incorporating amendments into the soil displaces nutrients and reduces
its water-holding capacity in many cases (depending on your soil type).
✓ Fluffy, highly porous planting pits invite rainwater in, drowning the
plants if internal soil drainage is poor.
✓ Conversely (and perversely), those fluffy pits dry out much faster than
the surrounding native soil during dry periods, so plants suffer.
✓ Roots circle around in soft, amended soil and never venture out into the
native soil where they belong, especially in clay soils.
Spend your time and money improving the soil food web by inoculating it
with mycorrhizal fungi, beneficial bacteria, and other living goodies — not by
working on the texture.