As the rain-dumped, leaf-disease-laden, armyworm- and lanternfly-infested 2021 growing season winds down, it’s apparent again that a lot of outside factors can threaten a smooth voyage through the ol’ landscape.

But odds are a few “operator errors” also are involved when things aren’t looking so great come October.

The good news is that trial and error is an effective way to learn gardening – or most anything, for that matter.

You can learn from your mistakes and make better decisions later.

Fortunately, gardening offers a nearly unlimited array of potential blunders.

Even the most skilled gardeners admit to making mistakes along the way to their botanical proficiency.

Here are 10 of the most common misfires… in case you’d rather learn from others instead of fouling up on your own.

Underestimating how big a plant will get

Just about everyone who plants a plant is guilty of this one.

Unlike furniture, plants don’t stay the same size after you place them. They will continue to grow until they die, some faster than others.

The lesson is: Pay attention to plant labels and space. Even those are estimates at fixed times, often 10 to 20 year out.

Once the plants reach their maximum size, be ready to trim, prune, and/or divide them. Don’t wait for them to get way overgrown and then try to whack them back.

Prune spring-flowering shrubs immediately after they have finished flowering.

Pruning off the flower buds

This is usually the answer to the question, “Why didn’t my hydrangeas/azaleas/forsythias/etc. bloom?”

Trees and shrubs that bloom in spring (generally before June) flower on branches that form their flower buds the fall before. If you whack those branches in the fall, winter, or very early spring, you’ll cut off the buds that would’ve opened into the flowers.

To trim them, wait until spring bloomers have finished blooming. It is best to do it by mid-summer.


It is easy to kill plants by not watering them.

Killing plants by not watering enough

Even drought-tough plants need consistently damp soil until their roots grow enough to mine sufficient moisture from the soil.

Until then, it’s up to you to make sure the soil around the roots stays damp. Rain seldom does the deed for you – at least not consistently.

New plants are particularly at risk. Perennial flowers can be established fairly quickly within two years. However, it takes three to four years before evergreens, trees, shrubs, or shrubs can do it all on their own.

The lesson: Your index finger – stuck a few inches into the soil – makes an excellent moisture meter.

New relatively shallow-rooted plants such as annuals, vegetables, and perennials benefit from soakings every two to four days in lieu of rain, while bigger trees, shrubs, and evergreens can go every five to seven days – but with deeper soakings to account for their larger root systems.

Too much water

Too much water can cause plants to die.

Killing plants with too much water

Ironically, you can also kill plants by overwatering, although this is much more common with houseplants and with plants growing in pots without sufficient drainage holes in the bottom.

For in-ground plants the main excess water threats are: 1. plants in poorly drained areas, 2. When it rains incessantly and 3. if you’re watering way too much and way too often.

The lesson: Improve the soil and/or build raised beds before planting in low-lying areas or lousy clay soil (or stick with plants that tolerate wet soil). Those solutions solve the No. 1 and No. 2 threats. These solve threats No. 2 since you can’t regulate rainfall amounts.

Before watering, use that finger. If the soil at the roots is already damp, remove the hose.

For houseplants wait until the soil has dried and the pot is lighter before watering.

Spray drift

Unintentional plants and plant parts can be killed by drift from herbicide sprays.

Accidentally killing plants with sprays

Many a homeowner has burned leaves or killed whole plants by using the wrong spray, mixing too strong, or applying the spray in the heat of a bright summer afternoon.

One common example is using a kill all herbicide (i.e. Roundup, thinking it was only supposed to kill weeds.

It is also common to damage plants by failing clean the sprayer after using herbicide.

The lesson: Read those labels so you know what you’re using and how to safely use it.

Consider dedicating different sprayers to insecticides, broadleaf weed-killers, and kill-everything herbicides – or limit spraying altogether as much as you can.

Fertilizer burn

The lawn patch was destroyed by granular fertilizer spilled during the gardener’s filling of a lawn spreader.

Burning the lawn with fertilizer

Some chemical fertilizers are strong enough that if they’re applied to excess, the nitrogen in them can brown grass. Uneven applications can cause streakiness.

Another common mistake is when DIYers accidentally spill granular fertilizer onto their lawn spreader. These dumpings often result in brown patches on the lawn.

The lesson is to apply fertilizer according the listed amounts. Or switch to organic fertilizers or fertilizers that are high in slow-release nitrogen – both of which are far less likely to burn a lawn.

You can use your spreaders to cover the driveway or other hard surfaces so that you can clean up any spillages.

Mulch volcano

Mulch can be packed up volcano-style to kill trees and rot bark.

“Volcano mulching”

This is when mulch is placed in a mound-like shape that runs up against tree trunks.

Yeah, you’ll see even professional landscapers do this, but it’s harmful to the trees by causing bark rot and by giving cover to rodents (mice, chipmunks, and voles) that chew on tree bark.

Mulch of more than three to four inches – even if not right up against the trunk – is also detrimental by “stealing” rain in dry conditions and by reducing the amount of oxygen reaching tree roots.

Keep mulch at a few inches away from tree trunks. Limit mulch layers to four inches.

Let bulb foliage alone

Post-bloom is when spring bulbs do most of their “recharging” for next year by taking in sunlight through the leaves. You shouldn’t interfere with this process by removing or braiding leaves too soon.

Messing with bulb foliage while it’s still green

The weeks after tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other spring bulbs finish blooming are very important because that’s when the foliage takes in sunlight that provides energy to recharge the bulbs for next year’s bloom.

You’ll interfere with that recharge by cutting off foliage that’s still green or by reducing the surface area by braiding or tying the leaves, as many people do to “neaten” the post-bloom look.

The lesson: Don’t cut, braid, or otherwise mess with spring-bulb foliage until it’s at least started to yellow – signaling that most of the season’s photosynthesis work has been completed.

Not dead

This hydrangea is not dead, it’s just dormant from winter.

Digging up plants that aren’t dead

You might think those crape myrtles, hardy hibiscus, butterfly bushes, figs, and other late-to-leaf-out plants are dead when just about everything else is already green and growing.

Know that some plants – especially those native to warmer climates – wait until the weather is consistently warm before springing back to life in late spring. Until then, these might look leafless and dead when they’re actually just still dormant.

The lesson: If you don’t know what’s normal for your plants, at least wait until end of May or even mid-June before digging them out for dead.

You can also test this by removing a bit of bark from the stems of dead woody-plant leaves. If there’s green underneath, there’s a good chance the plant is still snoozing, not dead.

Those late-spring frosts...

This is what happens with impatiens and other annual flower plants if they are planted before the frosty spring nights end.

Planting too early

Gardeners are eager to get those petunias, tomatoes, and other summer annuals and veggies in the ground at the first sight of frost-free weather in spring.

Although you may be able to get some early season plantings, many gardeners have had to watch their plants die after a frost has occurred following a warm up.

The lesson: Our official all-time latest killing frost for Harrisburg is May 11, so wait until then to know that it’ll take a record-setting frost to get you. People living in areas that are colder, more remote, or where there is more snow could experience frost as late at Memorial Day.

To ensure your plants are not frozen, wait until the frost-free zone is reached.

Just because garden centers and home centers are selling tender plants doesn’t mean they should go in the ground then.

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