Mistakes to Learn By

07-18-02 – Being a gardener means making mistakes. Quite often little mistakes, such as planting impatiens in too bright a spot. Occasionally there are big mistakes: fertilizing evergreens with muriatic acid instead of Miracid is a documented occurrence. (They stink AND die.) Once in a while, one can even orchestrate loud mistakes, as loud as the sound boulders make when filling a swimming pool after an ill-engineered retaining wall suffers an eight-inch rain (it's happened).

Making mistakes in the garden is how one learns the craft. They are never anything to be ashamed of. Ridiculed for, sure, such as the time my neighbor witnessed me discover I hadn't made the gate in my brand-new picket fence wide enough to accommodate my wheelbarrow. He still laughs about it, and the thumb I jammed stilled throbs before a thunderstorm.

To while away time in winter, a few years back I began developing a list of the most common gardening and landscaping blunders. I review and update it every so often; it is by nature a work in progress. To qualify for the list the mistake has to fulfill three important criteria: it has to be as common as crabgrass, it needs to impart gruesome effect on a homeowner's yard, and it must be a blunder I myself have committed, preferably more than once. Here are just a few standard goofs from the current edition of my list:

Good landscapes always include the use of shrubs and small trees.

We think too small.
Too often we attack our yards in piecemeal fashion. We want to grow flowers so we cut a little circle in the middle of the lawn and fill it with zinnias. Then we notice the backyard has a sunny spot, so we square it off with timbers and plant tomatoes and some vegetables. Next we see a few trees for sale at the nursery, take them home, and plunk them down along the driveway.

Before long our efforts amount to what I call a "creeping landscape," a hodgepodge, random assault, where at no time does the landscape ever emerge as a unified whole. The key to good landscape design is to design the big picture first. Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, the digging shouldn't start before the whole property is designed on paper. The little areas – the best spot for an herb garden, perennial beds, a child's play area – come from the big areas, not the other way around.

You don't need to install the entire landscape all at once. You, or a landscaper, can whittle away at the plan over two, five, even ten years. No matter; every time you complete a portion, it fits and looks good with the work done before, and the work to follow.

We devote too much space to lawn.
Surrounding our homes with vast seas of green is a peculiarly American tradition, and the origins are far too engaging to illuminate here. Suffice it to say that there are few yards in the Twin Cities that couldn't be made more attractive (not just to the homeowner, but to bees, birds, and butterflies) by getting rid of some grass and growing plants of a higher order.

People say they prefer grass because they don't have time to garden, but I don't buy it. Add up the number of hours spent mowing, raking, fertilizing, and moving the sprinkler, and you'll discover a lawn is not as low-maintenance as you think. Grass also merits more fertilizer, toxic chemicals, and water usage per square foot than even the most fastidious flowers. Landscapes using less demanding groundcovers, as well as small trees and shrubs, can require less of a homeowner's time than does the beast that has become the American lawn.

The small spaces come to you only after designing the big spaces.

We don't use enough small trees and shrubs.
Already we see that some of the blunders have a tendency to link. I completely ignored shrubs when I was beginning to garden – after all, the point of gardening is flowers, isn't it? Close-up photos of perennials are the stock in trade of gardening magazine covers. When was the last time you saw one touting shrubs?

Yet without ample use of shrubs throughout the yard, a property lacks character, and remains a mundane clone of the yards to the left and right. Small trees in a clever spot can achieve this in a single planting; check out a mature Pagoda Dogwood, a dwarf Serbian Spruce, or an Eastern Redbud in bloom.

We cut healthy branches off our evergreen trees.
Spruce usually receive this most torrid abuse, and are the evergreens that handle it worst. A spruce is designed so that the branches interlock from the top down, meaning down to the lowest branches brushing the ground. Cut off these basement branches and the branches above them crack under a heavy snow load. Then they die.

Cutting the bottom branches off spruce trees is a guy thing. Seems the man of the house wants to grow grass under there. Even though he knows nothing of trees, and has never asked for expert opinion, something about the situation just doesn't seem right. When the next set of branches lose their needles and die, they cut them off. ("Come on, honey, they were dead.") By the time the kids are in college, we have a stand of gray poles in our yards sporting wisps of green near the top.

We usually wait and hack branches off a white or red pine only after the tree has had the audacity to grow so wide the branches extend into a sidewalk or driveway. Doing so reduces the tree's vitality and makes it more susceptible to fungal diseases and pests, in addition to cheapening its looks. The underlying mistake was that the tree was planted in the wrong spot, a standard blunder I refer to in the current "Don't DO That."

We plant annuals too far apart and perennials too close together.
I made this mistake often in the early going. New gardeners tend to treat each annual flower as some sort of solitary jewel, and space them so far apart that often it's late October, the day before a killing frost, before the leaves of adjoining annuals finally touch. For the preceding six months our plantings are nothing more than a flower here and a flower there, each viola, snapdragon, begonia or pansy an unassuming island unto itself.

Realize that we are in Zones 2 through 4. Annuals have time for only a very brief dance before they're struck dead by frost, so ram them together, six- to eight-inch spacing for all except the largest and widest-spreading varieties. Don't trust the spacing instructions on the plastic plant tags, either. Those are for Texas.

Meanwhile, when it comes to perennial flowers, we want our cottage garden, and we want it now. But perennials are an entirely different engine from annuals, and need much more room to ensure proper root development and composure. Space perennials at least eighteen inches apart – two feet (or more) with some varieties. A new perennial bed is going to look a little thin the first few years. Good. Young perennials need ample room for air circulation to grow into healthy, attractive adults.

Anyone out there who's gardened for more than ten minutes can no doubt suggest additional, solid candidates for my list. Take it as a good sign. It shows we're learning.