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Mistakes Gardeners Make

Having moved just last month, I’m thinking a lot about my new garden and I’m determined NOT to repeat these mistakes that I made in my last garden.

1.  Neglecting to take “before” photos is something I’ve regretted a gazillion times over the years.  It’s simply impossible for visitors to imagine the jungle-like state of my back yard when I moved in – I barely remember it myself.  This sole photo from 1985, while documenting the ugliness of the rear facade of my house in Takoma Park, faces away from the jungle.  It didn’t occur to me then to photograph the chaos.  (Also, I wish I’d taken some shots without me in them.)

But for my next garden – in Old Greenbelt – I quickly grabbed these photos from the realtor’s slide show about my new rowhouse, and I took a bunch more as soon as my offer was accepted – before all the leaves dropped.

Above, the perfect-size-for-me-back yard is, except for a few azaleas which will soon be offered to anyone who’ll dig them up, a blank slate.  Goody!  On the right is the view from the back door, where my new screened-in porch will go.  I’ve coveted these bug-free oases for years now and soon I’ll have my own!

Below, the front yard is all lawn with a few more azaleas (the default shrub for the Mid-Atlantic, no matter the exposure).  Like the azaleas, the lawn is doomed, to be replaced by some seating for sure, but what else?  That brings me to the next mistake I won’t be repeating.

2.  Not getting design help.  Now to be fair to my 1985 self, I did enlist the free services of a nursery’s designer for my back yard, and have thanked her a bazillion times for creating the bones of a great design and steering me toward great shrubs I’d never heard of (because they aren’t azaleas) like Viburnums, Pieris japonica and cherry laurels.  But I had a small budget and the garden was a DIY job, design-wise and plant choice-wise, and my mistakes still show.

Especially challenging was my small front garden – small spaces being much harder to design than larger ones – and I hated the result until finally (after nine years there) I paid all of $250 for a fabulous design that transformed not only the front garden but this gardener into the avid one I’ve been ever since.  (Here’s my 2006 story about the transformation and the landscape architect who made it happen.)

This time around, every square inch of my manageably sized garden will be professionally designed before the first daffodil shows its face in March.  Terraces and paths will be created and the larger plants installed before I start playing with the small stuff.  Can you see the determination in those italics?

Of course I’m still a cheapskate, but a lot of help can be had for not a lot of money – by asking for help with the overall concept and hardscape details, but choosing the plants myself.  And I’ll be supplementing a paid designer’s suggestions with free ones from blog readers.  Garden blogs don’t pay  much, but readers are very generous with their thoughts.

Reader mistakes

On the national blog GardenRant I asked readers to tell us about their worst garden mistakes, and got this interesting collection – very instructive!

  • Several said they didn’t pay enough attention at first to hardscape – good walls, lighting, terraces, etc.  One reader said that next time, she’ll spend more money on all those outdoor elements (including a swimming pool) and less on the house itself.
  • Another very popular response was not fixing the bad soil first.  Creating good drainage is so important, it’s worth bringing in truckloads of soil if the existing soil is really bad.  And almost any site could be improved with organic matter added to the soil.
  • Making the beds too small is another common mistake, as is making the paths too narrow.
  • Not planting enough “boring” evergreens was mentioned more than once, too.
  • One reader said she’d hold off on buying any perennials the first year, concentrating instead on trees and shrubs.  And several said they wish they’d just watched their new garden during their first year there, before doing anything.
  • And several wish they’d been more ruthless – about removing existing plants they hated for years before finally removing, and about removing invasive plants that plagued them for years and were harder to get rid off once their gardens had matured.
  • Oh, and I like this one – the mistake of giving in to the “Noah impulse”, which is buying two of everything, rather than drifts and masses and just a few accent plants.

What’s YOUR worst gardening mistake?  Tell us in a comment!

By Susan Harris

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. I live in Greenbelt too. Every year is a constant battle with one neighbor’s vinca and the other neighbor’s English Ivy, creeping through the chainlink fence. I have fears of the english ivy destroying my shady wildflower garden one day. Its a constant battle… I wish it were illegal to sell those two plants. Most of the woods around here have it now.

    I agree though, the first thing to do is get all the hardscaping done. Then trees and shrubs…then perennials and annuals.

  2. I suggest talking first to your neighbors about your concerns. After that, regardless of the results of the negotiations, since the chain-link fence is yours, I suggest you purchase the small “blinds” that you can insert in the chain-link that will more effectively block plants coming through. These are like venetian blind panels that you slip at an angle in the webbing of the chain-link. They won’t completely stop the vines from coming through, but will really slow them down. And remember, any plant that grows from a neighbor’s yard into your yard, can be legally removed as long as it does not injure the main plant.

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