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Ten Most Common Gardening Mistakes

Gardening season is nearly upon us and as I look out over my rose bushes, hydrangeas, rosemary, fruit trees, and thyme, I remember a time when all these plants were synonymous: the same in the world of fertile soil, ample water, and sunlight. I’ve since come to understand all my plants more like children—some need more love, some need more discipline, and some just need freedom to roam.

Plant knowledge is a bit like raising children—some things you learn by consulting others and reading and some things you learn by trial and error (often with a heavy dose of sorrow). I’ve lived through enough of the errors to recognize how easy they are to make and more importantly, how to avoid them.

1. Too Little/Much Water
Watering plants can be one of the most confusing and deceptively difficult gardening tasks. When plants are given frequent, small amounts of water, a shallow root system is developed, thus encouraging disease. For those of you with children, imagine over-sheltering your child. Once this kid hits the playground, it’s like sending a lamb to slaughter. Water plants when they need it. If testing the soil results in cool soil, hold off. If the soil is dry to the touch, then water. It’s best to water early in the morning to avoid evaporation. And water until the soil is a few inches deep. This will create healthy roots and resistance to drought. The soil should be watered, not the plant leaves. Watering foliage can encourage mildew and other problems. Yellow leaves are a sign of over-watering, a poor drainage system, or a potted plant being root bound. Give this plant less love or more room to grow.

2. Not Planting According to Your Climate
Just because you plant it, doesn’t mean it will grow. Most plants thrive in native climates and growing plants adapted to your climate will nearly always result in success. Yet so often, people try to plant water-loving plants in summer dry climates or sun-loving plants in the shade. Natives and climate-appropriate plants not only have a better chance of survival and thriving, they require less fertilizer, water, and care; they also attract native pollinators like butterflies and bees. If confused, tempted to try something exotic, or otherwise inexperienced, check with your local nursery. Like a trustworthy therapist, they can guide you toward a satisfying and fruitful experience. Also useful are native plant societies, which can help choose plants that grow naturally in your area.

3. Poor Planting Technique
When placing plants in the ground, a common mistake is to plant too deep. Sure, fertile soil is good, so more must be better, right? Wrong. The roots of a plant need sunlight too; therefore, the hole that is dug for a plant should never be bigger than the root ball of the plant. And if the roots of a plant seem to be tight and twisted, don’t be afraid to loosen them up by hand or by dipping in some water and separating before placing in the soil.

Correct planting also requires some knowledge of your soil. Is it sandy, clay, or silty? You may need to augment with compost, loam, sand, or other amendments to ensure your plants have proper amounts of nutrients, drainage, and space for roots to thrive.

4. Letting the Gophers Get It
There are plenty of vermin and wildlife that would love nothing more than to tear up your freshly planted bulbs or veggies. Before planting either, check with your local experts to avoid carnage and tears. Many plants are naturally deer resistant; you can also line raised vegetables beds with chicken wire to prevent underground vermin from chewing up your salads.

5. Forgetting to Maintain the Containers
Containers have only so much soil and therefore only so many nutrients. These nutrients run deplete very quickly, making it necessary to supplement the soil often. Also, since containers are generally small, they tend to dry out quickly—especially in the heat. Don’t be afraid to shower your containers with supplements, added compost, or water during dry spells.

Having said this, make sure that all containers have plenty of drainage holes. Even though containers need to be watered daily in the heat, the plants will suffer if they cannot drain properly. And with proper drainage, over-watering and over-feeding can be avoided.

6. Giving Up Too Early
What if you are out of town for the 4th of July weekend and little Tommy neighbor boy did not water your plants as instructed? Even the driest container plants can usually be revived by submerging the entire container in water. Leave the container in water until the bubbles stop coming to the surface. With larger containers, poke holes in the soil to aerate, then water generously.

7. Succumbing to the Shine of a Store
Never buy plants based on the way they look in a nursery or garden center. This can be dangerous territory, as plants usually look their best and brightest in stores. In addition to knowing how specific plants grow in a specific climate, it is also wise to determine which plants will go where. Take note of how tall, wide, or aggressively a plant grows and plan accordingly. For instance, a large plant with substantial root development would not be advisable above any type of pipe system. Plan your landscape prior to planting with a sketch of fully mature plants. This will provide an accurate idea of the overall landscape of the plants.

8. Believing All Herbs Are Created Equal
These last two points are specific to herbs (which are planted with enthusiasm and often abandoned in despair) but can be applied to other plants as well. Herbs are very picky about the soil and sunlight in which they’re planted. For instance, rosemary absolutely loves a dry, almost barren soil. If it is planted in soil rich in nutrients, it will wither and die within weeks. There are herbs that love the sun, herbs that prefer shade, and herbs that pests love (slugs love basil). Know what you’re dealing with before you plant. This is knowledge that can be acquired through reading or your local nursery.

9. Too Much Space Devoted to Lawn
Lawns are a hallmark of American suburbs, but with any luck, they’ll soon go the way of the beehive hairdo. Lawns not only require large amounts of water, fertilizer, toxic chemicals, and lawnmower gas to maintain, they also a perfectly good space left to a boring patch of green. Instead, think about enhancing the landscape with colorful perennials, natural-looking groundcovers, small trees, and fragrant shrubs. Not only will these make your yard more interesting and environmentally friendly, they will provide nectar, seeds, and habitats for birds, bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. 

If you do want a lawn, try to make it green. Leave the lawn cuttings on the lawn, which act as natural fertilizer. Think about switching from a gas-powered mower to a push mower.

10. Too Scared to Prune
Roses, herbs, fruit trees, and other plants love to be pruned. In fact, with many plants, you need to prune regularly in order to promote continuous growth. Regular pruning will promote bushy leafy growth, with a continuous production of leaves. For instance, when an herb starts to flower, it will grow taller with fewer leaves. This signals the “death” of the plant. It will go into the final stages of its plant cycle and discontinue its production of the very thing for which it was planted.

Live, read, watch, love, and pay attention—your garden will thrive.

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