Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.
Whether you take care of your own property, or you have someone maintain it for you, here are some common mistakes that we frequently see in the landscape. Learn to avoid these mistakes and you will save yourself time, material, and frustration!
Mistake #1: Trees planted too deeply
Like other living things, woody plants are comprised of different types of tissue which perform different functions. Bark tissue protects the plant and transports nutrients between the roots and the leaves while root tissue absorbs water and nutrients from the soil. Standard horticultural practice dictates that the point where bark tissue meets root tissue (the root flare) be identified and planted at or slightly above ground level. Frequently when plants are purchased, this root flare has been covered by soil, either in the pot, or in the digging process. During planting, if the step of identifying the root flare has been missed and the plant is planted too low, many shrubs and virtually all trees will weaken and die within several years. We call this telephone poling in the industry, because the tree looks like a telephone pole stuck into the ground. If you look at trees that grow naturally, like in the woods, you will always see the root flare, or a widening at the base. For more information on proper planting height and technique, visit Purdue University’s ‘Tree’s Need A Proper Start- Plant Them Right!’.
Mistake #2: Mulch volcanoes
Mulch is used to suppress weeds, retain moisture in the soil, and reduce erosion. Initial plant installations require up to 3 inches of mulch in order to cover the soil. Additional applications of mulch should be approximately 1 inch, or just enough to break down in a one year cycle. Too much mulch is not only an unnecessary expense, it affects woody plants in much the same manner as planting them too deeply. Mulch should never be applied up against a plant’s bark because it causes the bark to rot and invites disease.
When mulch is applied in large piles against the trunk of trees, it is sometimes referred to as mulch volcanoes. I have no idea how this trend started, but it is not a sound horticultural practice, so make sure your mulch is not too thick, and spend that money elsewhere. Or better yet, use leaves for mulch, and skip that expense altogether.
Mistake #3: Tree abuse
Trees are living things, and if cared for properly, they will live for a long time. That is why it is important to care for them. Damage to the bark of a tree can shorten the tree’s life and poor pruning can turn a beautiful tree into an eyesore for years to come.
Power equipment is often the cause of tree damage, so to reduce the probability of this mistake keep mowers and line trimmers away from the trunks of trees. The mechanical damage to the base of trees by this equipment will do permanent damage, so we recommend mulching under trees instead of trying to grow grass. Under-planted with shade perennials, trees will remain beautiful and damage free for years to come.
If pruning needs to be done due to low branches or a tree growing too close to a building, make sure the pruning is done properly. If you are not sure of proper pruning techniques, hire a certified arborist. The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) has a listing of all certified arborists in your area.
Mistake #4: Poor plant selection
I often see large shrubs planted directly under windows or next to sidewalks, and five or more shrubs planted in 10’x10’ beds in front of houses. These proportions may look nice when the plants go in the ground, but many of these shrubs can ultimately grow 10’ tall and as wide in just a few years. The mature size of plants must be considered if you do not want to become a slave to pruning. Often with shrubs, “Less is more” is indeed the case. So consider reducing the number of plants, choosing dwarf varieties near buildings, and placing plants where they have plenty of room to grow.
Culture is also critical when selecting plants. I take my clues from where plants grow in nature. Rhododendrons always grow in well drained soil, mostly as an understory plant in the shade, so they will never be happy in clay soil in full sun. On the other hand, many hollies and magnolias grow naturally in wetter soils along streams, so if you have clay soil, they may do well in your spot.
Let’s face it, landscaping can be both expensive and labor intensive. So to minimize both the expense and effort, and to maximize the successes and the enjoyment of your landscape, do your homework, and learn from the mistakes of others.