Common Mistakes in New Gardens
Most new gardeners make one or even several of the following mistakes in new gardens, when first getting started. This list should help guide you and make your venture into gardening more rewarding. Mistakes will happen, but keep in mind that having any garden is better than having none (okay, I may be biased on this point).
Go out and play in the dirt, don’t worry about getting everything right the first time, and have fun. That is what gardening is all about.
Narrow Borders or Undersized Gardens
When you have lots of space don’t squish your garden right up against a wall or fence, it doesn’t look right and your plants won’t thrive. For instance, a 3’ wide border along a fence or foundation doesn’t allow for enough width for most shrubs to develop fully or for perennials to be layered with taller plants at the back and lower ones at the front.
You will end up having to trim the shrubs constantly and with a less than impressive garden display. Small beds are also out of scale with most houses and yards. A tiny island bed around the base of a tree or at the corner of a yard will look lost and will tend to disappear when viewed from across a yard or across a street.
If you are concerned about having too much garden to maintain, start by planting background plants, the taller shrubs, grasses and perennials, in your garden area, being sure to allow for their eventual spread, and adding the medium and smaller shrubs and perennials over time as you expand the garden.
Not Removing Existing Grass or Weeds
Don’t just dig holes for a group of shrubs and leave the grass in between, it doesn’t look good, the grass in between them will be difficult to maintain and it will compete with the roots of the new shrubs. Don’t depend on landscape fabric and mulch to smother established grass or weeds.
I have seen dandelions paved over with 3” of hot asphalt pop up through the pavement within a week. Existing weeds need to be removed before mulch is applied or new plants are installed. The investment in time will pay off in the amount of future weeding it will save.
Your plants will also have improved performance due to the lack of competition from established grass and weeds.
Great plans are wonderful, and spring brings out the gardener in many of us. Keep in mind maintenance that will be required in August, when we would rather be at the beach (or in the hammock) than weeding our gardens. It is far more satisfying, and encouraging, to start with a manageable garden that you can be proud of, than ending up with one that you just don’t have time to care for.
Also, be careful not to buy more plants than you have room for. A great deal on a pretty plant isn’t a great deal if it withers in the pot because there isn’t a space for it in the garden.
Not improving soil
I cannot overstress the importance of providing your plants with good quality soil. A well-enriched soil, with lots of organic matter, will provide your plants with the nutrients that they need to grow while holding on to moisture and providing good drainage.
You can’t achieve the same results with poor quality soil and chemical-based fertilizers. The soil texture and the presence of organic matter have a huge impact on maintaining the moisture and air balance in the soil and the ability of soil microorganisms that support plant growth to thrive.
Add at least 2” of compost and preferably from your own composter, but if that’s not available, from a bulk soil supplier or from bags. Mix it with the existing soil and top it with 3” of organic mulch such as shredded cedar or pine bark. Your plants will thank you by thriving.
Skimping on Mulch
When starting a garden many sources recommend adding a layer of mulch to your planting area, keeping it a few inches back from the base of your plants. This is great advice. Where things begin to come apart is when the time comes to actually purchase and spread the mulch. It should be installed to a depth of approximately 3” to be effective for suppressing weeds and retaining moisture.
Most bags of mulch contain 3 cubic feet of mulch. If this is spread to a thickness of 3” it will cover 12 square feet. A typical garden at the front of a house at 14′ x 7′ is 98 sq. ft. will need 8 bags. Most people start with about 4 bags and then find that it isn’t accomplishing much in the garden. In most cases, if you are purchasing soil in bulk you will need mulch in bulk as well.
Planting too Close to Walls or Walkways
Houses cast what is called a rain shadow, which is an area next to a wall where little rain falls and the soil tends to be excessively dry. This is caused by overhanging eaves and the house itself blocking the rain on its downwind side. Avoid planting in such an area, as you will have to provide watering for years to come.
Instead, plant shrubs just outside these areas and as these shrubs mature (without struggling for moisture) they will tend to branch out into these rain shadow areas. Planting too close to walkways, or driveways is a problem for a different reason.
If you plant a tree too close you are likely to have problems with roots disturbing the paving surface over time. If you plant a shrub too close to a walk you will be trimming it for years to come, or losing walkway width. You will also likely be brushing by it as you come and go, not pleasant in rainy weather.
The Wrong Plant in the Wrong Place
Too Big, and Too Small:
That cute little ‘Baby Blue’ Spruce maybe three feet tall and look perfect near the corner of your house when you are planting it. It will however grow to be taller than your house and will be over 10’ wide at the base. A Hydrangea standard in the middle of the lawn will never replace a specimen tree, no matter how often you fertilize it.
Always check the mature size of trees and shrubs before adding them to your landscape. Most people over plant their gardens the first time, especially with shrubs. Perennials are more forgiving since they are usually easier to transplant, but it is still best to follow the spacing suggestions on the plant tag in the first place.
Thorny plants don’t belong next to walkways or patios, Pine trees and Honey Locusts don’t belong next to your swimming pool where they will clog your filter with little bits of foliage every summer. Japanese Maples and Rhododendrons don’t belong in exposed windy sites.
Check the tag for information about the ideal conditions, and if that isn’t offered, check the internet, it is much quicker than digging up and moving a shrub in a couple of years, or worse yet, pulling out a failed plant after a season or two.
Free (invasive) Plants
When offered divisions of perennials from well-meaning friends, family, neighbours and co-workers, ask them how it behaves in their garden, or look it up. All too often people have divisions to give away because the plant has spread throughout their garden.
It will probably do the same thing in your garden That having been said, plant trading can be a great way to keep costs down, and a free Hosta is not only a great price, but it is also probably going to be much larger than the one in the gallon pot at the garden centre.
Not Respecting Growing Conditions
That tomato plant isn’t going to grow in the shade; the fern won’t thrive in the sun. Some aspects of the growing conditions of your site can be altered; some should simply be respected and worked with.
Unless you are willing to remove the source of shade you should focus on selecting plants that will thrive in the conditions that you have. Very sandy or very clay-based soils can be enriched, but they will still remain well-drained or retain moisture respectively.
Not Balancing Bloom Times
We go to garden centres in May and June, and we all like to buy plants with pretty blooms on them. The problem is it is all too easy to end up with a garden that is only in bloom during May and June.
Be sure to look for perennials, shrubs and grasses that will add colour and interest for late summer as well as through the fall and winter.