10Totally Non-sustainable

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

your time.

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

When Planting

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

train wreck.

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.