Gardening Mistakes

I went to visit some old friends recently—my former
next-door neighbors, in fact. Visiting
them meant seeing, for the first time in years, the house I used to live in. I tried not to look, but it was hard to
avoid. There lay my first garden, in
ruin and neglect. When I lived there, I
could make constant corrections, learning from my amateur mistakes and making
some feeble attempts to fix them. But
now that a pair of non-gardeners lived in the house, my greatest errors had run
amok. The morning glory had climbed a
tree and threatened to destroy it. A
salvia had overgrown its spot and blocked the walkway. Tender groundcovers wilted against a hot,
south-facing wall. Weeds had taken
over. It was embarrassing. As I sat sipping tea and chatting with my
neighbors, I kept wishing I could borrow a pair of pruning shears and run over
there for a couple of hours. Maybe I
can’t erase the past, but couldn’t I chop it down?


 Here, then,
are some of my own worst gardening mistakes. Learn from them. Avoid
them. Do better next time. And when things don’t work out, remember
that a shovel and a pair of pruning shears can turn today’s mistake into
tomorrow’s compost.

Number One: Planting Invasives
. This is an easy mistake to make when you
move to a new community. I remember
moving to Santa Cruz, California, and thinking, “Oh, what lovely yellow shrubs
those are blooming along the highway. I
should plant some in my garden.” Well,
that lovely yellow flower was the invasive and widely detested Spanish broom,
and planting it in my garden would have incurred the wrath of my entire
neighborhood. Fortunately, I couldn’t
find it at the nursery, but what I did find was morning glory seed. The vines leapt out of the ground and
covered the fence, the gate, a small tree, and everything else in their
path. Even worse, I learned too late
that just coming into contact with the stems and leaves gave me a rash, and
that made pruning them difficult. 

The lesson? Ask at your nursery about plants that may be
invasive locally, and when somebody praises a plant by saying that it “will
take over,” be very, very suspicious.


Number Two: Underestimating a Plant’s
Mature Size
. When you buy some
adorable little pansies in six-packs, they’re about four inches high at the
nursery and they’ll be four inches high at the end of the season. But vines, shrubs and trees are like
puppies—they’re cute when they’re little, but they do grow up. When I bought a new home recently, I noticed
that the former owners had planted a young liquidambar tree about three feet
from the house. These trees reach sixty
feet tall, with limbs spreading twenty-five feet. I stood across the street, looking at that tree, and looking at
the power lines directly above it. What
were they thinking? But I’d learned my
lesson. The tree came out. 

If you’re not sure how a plant will
look when it’s mature, try this: Take a
photograph of the garden and print it out on ordinary computer paper. Sketch in the shape of the tree or shrub at
its mature size. Does it fit? Does it run into buildings or power
lines? Does it cast a shadow or
obstruct a view? If so, look for
something smaller.

Mistake Number Three: Ignoring the Soil. Believe me, I know how it feels to walk into
the nursery on Saturday morning. You want to buy everything in sight, and the
idea of spending money on compost seems so dull when there are blooming
perennials begging to go home with you. But the best plants can’t survive in the wrong soil. There’s an old saying among gardeners that
if you have a dollar to spend on the garden, spend ninety cents on soil and ten
cents on plants. Remember that when you
look at a garden, there is more plant matter belowground than aboveground. A plant is only as healthy as the soil it’s
planted in.

Before you order up a truckload of
compost, think about what you’re going to plant. Are you growing natives that may prefer poor, dry soil? Bog plants that don’t mind slow-draining
clay? Fruits, vegetables, and cut
flowers that require fertile, fast-draining soil? You may find that you can divide your garden into zones,
nourishing high-maintenance, showy plants near the house by adding lots of aged
compost and manure, but adding very little to the soil at the edges of your
property, where you want to plant natives and encourage birds and other

A few quick hints for getting to
the bottom of your soil situation: Call
your local agricultural extension office and order up a soil test, especially
where you’ll be growing food crops. If
you do need to improve the soil, find a source of weed-free compost or manure,
and work it in at least 12 inches deep. Some gardeners also like to use a
layering method in which you clear an area of weeds, cover the ground with
overlapping layers of cardboard or newspaper, then pile on several inches of
compost, mulch, or bagged soil amendments. Plant a cover crop like fava or vetch into this mix in the fall, let it
put down roots over winter, and in the spring you can cut down the cover crop
and plant directly into your new, no-dig bed.


Number Four: Giving Up on Weeds
. This is war, my friend. Let
bindweed or oxalis get the upper hand once, and you’re lost. No matter what kind of weed threatens to
take over your garden, there’s one approach that will always work: attacking it while it’s young. Don’t let it bloom, set seed, or put out runners. If you’re just getting settled in a new
garden that is overrun with weeds, it is worthwhile to hire a crew to help you
get it cleared. Once you’ve knocked the
weeds back once, it’s easier to stay on top of it, spending just a little time
each weekend clearing away the seedlings. To keep weeds from springing up in cracks in the pavement or in between
paving stones, try pouring boiling water on them. It’s quick and non-toxic.

Number Five: Forgetting to Plan
. I left this for last because it is a mistake
that I commit over and over again, never really learning from past errors. I can stand and look at an empty spot in the
garden and ponder what should go there for about five seconds, and then I’m off
to the nursery with the checkbook. This
is no way to create a habitat, a refuge, a sanctuary, a showboat, a playground,
a miniature farm, or whatever you want your garden to be. Even a garden that looks like it’s just been
carelessly thrown together probably hasn’t been. You know those gorgeous, untamed gardens you see in magazines—the
overstuffed cottage gardens, the flower meadows, the wild thickets of trees and
shrubs? All planned. 

yourself the heartache of having to rip out grown plants later by sketching out
a simple plan on graph paper. Draw in
the rough shapes, and use some colored pencils to just make a few squiggles of
color. Make note of each plant’s
blooming season and sunlight needs. (Remember that a spot that seems sunny during summer may be half-shaded
six months later.) If you’re gardening
for habitat, ask yourself if you’ve planted appropriate food sources for the
birds in your area. What about nesting sites? Nectar for hummingbirds?

When you do get ready to plant,
work slowly, taking your time to clear weeds and improve the soil, and putting
in the larger trees and shrubs first to see how they fit together. (It’s a good idea to plant larger perennials
in the fall and let them get established over the winter.) Most importantly, if you’re not sure what
you want, leave the space alone for a season and think about it. You might plant a cover crop or some annual
wildflowers that will provide a food source for birds and keep the space
occupied while you mull over your options.


learned that mistakes are part of gardening. Every year I go through a sort of editing process, digging up a plant that
doesn’t work where it is and moving it to a better location, adjusting color
schemes, and pruning or training anything that gets out of control. This process of rethinking and rearranging
keeps the garden interesting, but it doesn’t cure me of my foolish
behavior. I can still be caught
bringing home a shrub I have no room for, or planting a red-hot penstemon in a
pastel border. You can call it lunacy,
but I prefer to think of it as optimism. Someday, this jumbled assortment of plants will come together and look
like a real garden, and all those errors will suddenly seem like finely honed
horticultural skill—or maybe just random good luck.