Garden pros share dirt on common mistakes that drive them crazy

October 5, 2015

You would be wrong, so wrong, if you imagined a gaggle of garden gurus shuffling off to the potting shed, whispering, trading reports of the trowel-and-error so often committed by the unwitting, the innocent, the ill-informed home gardener.

Why, these gardening wizards ó the ones whose lifework is making things grow, and grow beautifully ó they are gentle folk (deep down, anyway), and theyíre hard-pressed (OK, so maybe some are champing at the bit) to cough up a litany of dumb stuff they see and hear from the front lines of AmateurGrower Land, the stumbling ground where plain folk like you and me toil with our trimmers.

Hereís where your trusty garden scribe leaps in to do the dirty work: Weíve cajoled a phalanx of in-the-know garden intelligentsia and begged them to please divulge the most egregious botanical blunders theyíve witnessed out in the plots where the amateurs roam. The dirt-stained sins committed over and over. The horticultural high jinks that really should be outlawed.

Hereís a litany of homegrown screw-ups, and ways you might right your wrongs:

Stop looking for easy solutions. If there was one dumb idea that made the pros crazy-mad, it was our infatuation with the notion that you can shortcut your way to a glorious grab-íní-go garden.

"There is no secret! No answer in a bottle!" Margaret Roach, a longtime garden writer, A Way to Garden blogger and podcaster, practically shouts from her 2.3-acre Hudson Valley plot. Her mailbox, every year, is clogged with hundreds of emails asking: "ĎWhatís your secret for getting rid of weeds?í I write back and say, ĎI knelt down, and I weeded.í

"Itís just like wrinkle cream," she froths on. "Thereís this allure, this illusion of the instant, no-work solution. Well, hereís the secret: You have to go out and do it, and then you have to do it again. One of the big ahas of gardening is there is no secret."

Natural? Are you sure? Along the same lines, donít believe everything that says "all-natural."

Donít assume that "au naturel" equals safe ó for you or the planet. This corollary, preached most vociferously by Roach and echoed by a handful of others, begs gardeners to read the fine print. If the instructions insist you don safety goggles and hazmat suit ó even if butterflies flutter across the label ó chances are thereís "greenwashing" going on, says Roach, explaining that itís a ploy to make you think itís earth-friendly. This plays into our "lust for the instant fix," says Roach. "Itís not just a dumb mistake; itís a dangerous mistake."

Mulching madness: "There is no plant on earth, herbaceous or otherwise, that has any genetic knowledge of how to live amid an accumulation of wood," says plant grower, garden designer and author Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wis. "We are the only nation on Earth that gardens with wood."

So begins Diblikís diatribe against the overscattering of wood chips, wherever weeds trespass. Diblik wants gardeners to use mulch from their own plants ó shredded leaves or compost from your garden, for example. "Your goal, remember, is to let the plants live in and with their own decaying leaves and stems, never again removing them from the garden," he writes in his book, "The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden" (Timber Press).

And, adds Eric Larson, manager of the Marsh Botanical Garden at Yale University: "Thereís a particular circle of hell" for folks who "mulch a big old volcano of wood chips up around their tree trunks."

In fact, 2-3 inches of mulch should be spread evenly around the tree instead. When itís piled against the bark, it traps moisture and creates favorable conditions for decay. A treeís bark needs to be exposed to the air.

Give trees enough growing space. The gardening experts we talked to went berserk at the mention of young trees being squished into pots, or planted hard up against the house ó blatantly ignoring a treeís raison díetre: growing.

"Itís the single thing I am forever contemplating having printed onto little notes to keep on my dashboard, so I can stick them in peopleís mailboxes whenever I drive by," says Kristin Schleiter, associate vice president for outdoor gardens at the New York Botanical Garden.

"Find out how big your tree will someday be," she instructs. "And donít plant it one foot from the foundation. Sure, they look cute in those little pots at your front door. But they will grow into mammoth, mammoth trees."

Donít plant in dribs and drabs. If thereís anything that rankles the garden elite, itís the beginnerís tendency to buy one of everything on the garden racks. And to do so in a single binge.

"Donít buy 1,000 different plants. Buy a larger number of just a few. Think of swoops and drifts and ribbons and rivers," says landscape architect and author Julie Moir Messervy. And donít succumb to one-stop shopping, she warns. Resist the urge to march into the garden store in, say, April, and buy enough blooms to fill every square inch in your beds. Instead, go back once a month for your whole first season, and buy whatís blooming month-by-month. That way, youíll have sweeps of bloom all season long, instead of a one-hit pointillist wonder.