Avoid These Costly Landscape Mistakes

Whether you take care of your own property, or you have someone maintain it for you, landscape mistakes are costly. Learn to avoid these common landscape mistakes and save yourself time, money, and frustration!

Skipping the Plan

Before you start a big landscape project or sink money into expensive plants, start with a plan. If you are knowledgeable about design, plants, and construction, you may want to do it yourself. Or you may want to hire a professional designer. A study from Virginia Tech shows that there is a significant increase in home values with a well designed landscape. Whether you do it yourself, or hire a professional, a landscape plan can save you money, time, and frustration in the long run.

Sample landscape plan with plant list
Sample landscape plan with plant list

A well thought-out plan allows you to prioritize projects, set budgets, schedule phase work, and ensure the plant selections are appropriate for the site. It also ensures that your contractors understand your vision. Without a plan, you may end up with something you don’t want or plants that don’t thrive where they are planted.

Selecting the Wrong Plant

Another common mistake is choosing the wrong plant for a site. Always check the mature size of a plant before you purchase. And select plants that will be happy where you plant them. Choosing the wrong plant results in expensive replacements, unnecessary chores such as pruning, and unappealing landscapes.

Many shrubs planted directly under windows and next to sidewalks often outgrow the space in a few years. So choose dwarf varieties for small spaces. In larger areas place plants where they have plenty of room to grow.

Overgrown shrubs at foundation of house show poor plant selection
Overgrown shrubs at foundation of house
Dwarf shrubs under windows do not require pruning
Appropriate shrubs under windows do not require pruning

Culture is also critical when selecting plants. Take clues from where plants grow in nature. For example, Rhododendrons grow in well-drained soil, mostly as an understory plant in the shade. They will never be happy in clay or wet soil. 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.

Know your plants and their culture, and your site conditions, or ask an expert to ensure you are not throwing your money away by purchasing the wrong plants for your project.

Empty rain garden shows total failure due to poor plant selection
Total failure of rain garden plants
Rain garden full of flowering plants shows appropriate plant selection
Successful rain garden plant selection

Planting Too Deeply

One of the most common landscape mistakes is planting trees too deeply. Like other living things, woody plants are comprised of different types of tissue which perform different functions. Bark and underlying tissue protects the plant and transports nutrients between the roots and the leaves. Root tissue absorbs water and nutrients from the soil. The point where bark tissue meets root tissue is called the root flare. Identify this part of the tree and plant this at or slightly above ground level.

Root flare is apparent in mature tree
Root flare of tree

Frequently when plants are purchased, this root flare has been covered by soil, either in the pot, or in the digging process. If the step of identifying the root flare is missed and the plant is planted too low, trees weaken and may even die within several years. We call planting too deeply telephone poling in the industry, because the tree looks like a telephone pole stuck into the ground. Look at trees that grow naturally in the woods and 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!’.

Tree truck going straight into the ground shows tree was planted too low
Tree planted too low does not show root flare

Creating Mulch Volcanoes

Another common landscape mistake is creating mulch volcanoes, or an excess of mulch piled around the base of trees. Mulch suppresses weeds, retains moisture in the soil, and helps to reduce erosion, but too much is a waste of money.

Mulch piled around tree is poor landscape practice and damaging to the health of the tree
Mulch volcano at base of tree

Not only are mulch volcanoes an unnecessary expense, but when mulch is applied against the trunk of a plant it causes the bark to rot and invites disease. Make sure your mulch is not too thick and does not touch the trunk, and spend that money elsewhere. Or better yet, plant shade tolerant plants under your trees and use leaves for mulch, and skip that expense altogether.

Using Mulch as a Groundcover

One of the biggest mistakes in many landscape is not enough plants. There is a mistaken notion that plants require a lot of maintenance, but the opposite is actually true. Plants will try to fill any void in your landscape, so fill your property with plants that you like. Otherwise weeds will move in and you will need to continually weed and apply mulch. This is expensive and labor intensive.

Plant beds along sidewalk are almost empty except for a few hosta and a lot of mulch
Not enough plants in the landscape results in beds of mulch
Sidewalk with groundcover plants on both sides
Plants are used to cover the ground instead of mulch

Instead, choose low maintenance plants, such as dwarf shrubs and native groundcovers to fill spaces. The initial costs will soon be offset by savings on annual applications of mulch. Your property will also be much more visually appealing to both humans and wildlife. If you need help figuring out what to plant, bring in a professional landscape designer.

Abusing Trees

Trees are living things, and if cared for properly, they will live for a long time. But damage to the bark of a tree can shorten the tree’s life. Likewise, poor pruning can turn a beautiful tree into an eyesore for years to come. Both of these landscape mistakes result in an unnecessary expense for property owners who end up replacing trees that would otherwise be healthy and beautiful.

Damage to bark at base of tree due to line trimmers
Line trimmer damage at base of tree

Power equipment is often the cause of tree damage, so keep mowers and line trimmers away from the trunks of trees. The mechanical damage to the base of trees by this equipment is permanent which is another reason that we recommend planting shade tolerant plants under trees instead of grass.

Severe pruning of tree under power line is unsightly and unhealthy for the tree
Poor plant selection and pruning result in permanent damage to trees

If tree pruning needs to be done, it is critical to prune properly! Once a branch is cut, it will not grow back. These decisions will affect the shape and health of the tree for years to come. 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.

Using Material Incorrectly

It is difficult to estimate how much money is wasted when people try to solve complex landscape problems without enough information or expertise. An expensive, yet common landscape mistake occurs when river rock is used to solve erosion issues. Simply put, rocks don’t absorb stormwater. Plants do. And even plants can’t solve all erosion issues.

Often the solution involves grading, working from the top of the property towards the problem. Spreading water out and getting it to infiltrate into the ground are also part of the solution to erosion issues.

Pile of river rock used to control erosion is not effective
Before: Unsightly rock pile does not adequately manage erosion
Designed stormwater project of the same area is filled with plants
After: Designed Rain Garden and Stormwater Management Project

Rocks are heavy and expensive to move, so before you put them down, make sure they are the right solution to your problem. When used incorrectly, they are also difficult to keep looking good because weeds readily grow between stones. And beware; weed barriers do not work!

Another misconception is that weed barriers stop weed growth. This may be true for a year or two, but eventually weed seeds will germinate on top of the weed barrier. Weed barrier also keeps desirable plants from filling in the open spaces in plant beds. A far better idea is to choose vigorous, beautiful plants that spread and will outcompete weeds.

Weed barrier is exposed in bed and must be removed
Weed barrier that needs to be removed

In addition to the cost of installing ineffective weed barrier, many people find they end up paying again to have it removed. It is nearly impossible to add plants, redesign an area, or transplant in a bed with weed barrier present, so it is often removed. This of course, comes at an additional cost. Talk about adding insult to injury!

Too Much or Too Little Maintenance

Just like a car, house, or computer, every landscape needs regular care. Even in well designed landscapes, weeds grow, some plants die, and light pruning may need to be done. But too much control is expensive and wasteful. Instead, work with nature, use a light hand, and let the garden evolve. Make gardening decisions based on what you find beautiful and what is healthy for your property. This approach of management instead of maintenance minimizes costs because you allow for the inevitable change that will occur in a garden.

A more common mistake though is too little maintenance, especially right after a planting project. A beautiful installation can be overgrown with weeds in less than one season, or be ruined due to lack of water. The resulting plant losses can be devastating. It is far better to reduce the size of a project and set money aside for management, than to spend your entire budget on planting and not maintain your project.

If you need help striking the right balance, or don’t have the time or interest, consider hiring a gardener. Their knowledge can be invaluable, and regular visits may even replace the need for and expense of spring and fall cleanups. An additional benefit is that your garden will look good throughout the year. Consider regular management, a way to protect your investment and get much more enjoyment out of your landscape.

Overgrown landscape due to lack of management
Lack of skilled maintenance resulting in overgrown landscape

Let’s face it, landscaping can be both expensive and labor intensive. To minimize 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. And as always, if you need help, contact GreenWeaver.