In honor of Halloween being this week, I thought I’d scare you with some photos of horticultural horrors—gardening mistakes that make the staunchest plant person cringe. Please, spare a plant, and don’t make these ghastly blunders.
These poor crabapples are attempting to survive in the parking lot of our local YMCA. Every time I walk past, I shudder. They’re doomed to a short life, as their roots have no place to go. Did the landscapers think that air and water permeate concrete and asphalt?
By the time October arrives, I’m tempted to “throw in the trowel,” especially after a summer as hot, dry, and smoky as this one has been. I’m tired of hauling the hose to water the containers on my deck. I’m tired of pulling weeds that manage to stab my hands even inside of gloves. I’m even tired of eating chard, chard, and more chard. (Note to self: five or six plants is plenty!) I’m ready for fall, with its orange leaves, warm days, and brisk nights, but I’m not at all ready for winter’s drab colors and bare branches.
Last week I talked about The Collector—the passionate gardener who has to have one of everything, to the detriment of their landscape design. Today I want to address two more kinds of crazy plant people and the mistakes they make: The Worrywart and The Rearranger. Do either of these sound familiar?
You’d expect an avid gardener to have a lovely garden, full of healthy, well-cared for plants, arranged in pleasing combinations. And yes, most are a delight to the senses. However, even the most dedicated gardener can make mistakes. Here are three foibles common to many a crazy plant person. Can you relate to any of these?
When we think of adding warm shades to our garden—yellow and orange, gold, lime and chartreuse—we immediately start listing flowers. But it’s time to think beyond the blooms and consider the leaves. Foliage comes in a variety of warm tones, and the color lasts all season—or longer. We don’t need to wait for fall; many of these plants make spectacular focal points in the landscape all summer long.
We’re nearing the end of August, and both the garden and the gardener are… tired. This has been a long, hot, summer, and the entire state of Colorado is in a drought. The unending parade of 90+ degree days, unusual for our elevation, has left the plants bedraggled, the flowers faded, the leaves with crispy brown edges.
The large pots of color on our deck are the worst. The violas that looked so pretty in June are now covered with powdery mildew. In spite of what the seed packets promised, the cosmos and zinnias grew too tall, towering over the petunias, and the snapdragons stayed too short. My chard leaves are tunneled with leaf miners, and it’s nearly impossible to keep them sufficiently watered. (Memo to self—do not plant chard ‘Bright Lights’ in a container with more xeric annuals, no matter how colorful the stems or how many seedlings are left over after planting the veggie beds!)
I frequently take walks through our newly-built neighborhood. While my primary motivation is exercise, I also enjoy checking out the landscaping choices made by the new homeowners. The plants are still small, but it’s easy to imagine what the yards will eventually look like. Some clearly have potential, with trees framing a select palette of shrubs, grasses, and perennials. Others are mostly rocks, with the minimum number of widely-spaced shrubs—mostly junipers and shrubby cinquefoil—added to appease the HOA. Social distancing is great for staying healthy, but please don’t make your plants stand on their own. Even a gorgeous star needs a supporting cast.
If we lay perfectly still for weeks and months, we know that our joints will stiffen and become less flexible. Movement will become difficult. Bending will hurt. Holding perfect still is bad for our health. And it’s bad for trees as well. Yet, every year hundreds of trees are splinted into immobility by well-intentioned gardeners. It’s no better for them than it is for us.
We have a tendency to regard a newly planted sapling as fragile, and we want to protect it as best we can. That trunk looks so flimsy, as if the first breeze will snap it in two. So what do we do? We stake it so it can’t wiggle. And that’s a very bad idea. Movement causes trunks to enlarge and strengthen. Trees that are firmly staked will never become strong.
There is certainly no shortage of advice when it comes to gardening. Everyone has an opinion, and when that fails, there’s the Internet. When you garden in Colorado, however, you quickly learn that much of the advice available doesn’t apply. It’s aimed at gardeners on the coasts, or the Midwest, or even the south—but not a place with harsh winters, false springs, sudden freezes, minimal rainfall, hail, gale-force winds… the list goes on and on. No wonder so many people give up and plant rocks!
Once we have the new tree in the ground, we want to do our best to help it not only survive but thrive. Knowing how dry our climate is, it’s natural to focus on providing enough water for the tree to become established.
A newly planted tree needs to be watered where its roots are. Those roots will be close to the trunk, which is why the landscapers set up their drip emitters to irrigate that area.