Weeding Out Common Gardening Mistakes

by Nancy Crowe

Misinformation and bad habits can be as persistent as weeds for both new and seasoned gardeners. We're all learning, right?

Hear some of the best landscapers and gardeners in the business weigh in on the most common myths and mistakes they see — and what could be done instead for better results.

MYTH:
You have to dig a hole three times as wide and twice as deep as the root ball.

DO IT BETTER: Joe Galbraith, Galbraith’s Landscaping & Lawn Care wants to debunk this widely held belief. That works just fine in sandy soils, he said; with heavy clay soil, not so much. He recommends digging a slightly shallow hole about 6 to 8 inches wider than the container and allowing a little of the root system to stay above ground for better drainage. 

MYTH:
New plants have to be watered every day.

Doing so is a sure road to waterlogged soil and plants with “wet feet.”

DO IT BETTER: A better strategy is to apply 2 to 3 inches of mulch when planting. Then, when you think it’s time to water, “feel under the mulch. If it’s cool and moist, let it go." 

MYTH:
Dirt is dirt.

DO IT BETTER: Rick Hackbarth, Broadview Landscaping & Nursery encourages gardeners to ask questions about where the plants, trees and shrubs they are buying were grown, and in what type of soil. For example, trees and shrubs grown in Southern states are often grown in improper soil for Northern states. 

MYTH:
It's easier to order online.

DO IT BETTER: When ordering, ask for instructions for the plants/ trees you’ve chosen. “The material usually has an undersized root ball to save on freight and make it easier to handle for retail sales,” he said. Additionally, some nurseries use nylon twine to keep the root ball together, which can girdle the trunk. All of this adds up to root damage. “In turn, root damage will cause your plants to slowly decline and possibly die over a period of years,” he said.

MYTH:
Products that boast big results are the way to go.

DO IT BETTER: The worst mistake Ford sees gardeners make is not amending soil. "The soil gets depleted and every spring needs a boost of compost, aged manure or something to get it ready for the garden,” says Jane Ford, Advanced Master Gardener and garden columnist. Plants struggle in soil that has nothing to offer, and pests and disease take most of them out.

Ford also sees a lot of belief in so-called miracle cures and natural solutions that really don’t have a lot of science behind them. “If I pass along something that isn’t scientifically worked out, say at Purdue, I experiment to see if it works before I tell someone to try it or sometimes tell them not to bother,” she said.

MYTH:
It's safe to plant outside after the weather warms up.

DO IT BETTER: There is the old regional “don’t plant before Mother’s Day” caution. Julie Stuckey of Stuckey’s Greenhouses suggests you watch the forecast. “Some areas have had frost as late as Memorial Day (and even after). In addition, severe storms with wind or hail can ruin containers and hanging baskets. It is best to move anything you can into the garage or other protected area with storm warnings as well.”

Stuckey, too, has seen many a young plant overwatered. “If the soil still feels moist down inside, don’t water until it’s dry. If the pot or basket feels heavy, it most likely doesn’t need to be watered yet. Wait until the weight of the basket is light and the soil feels dry, then water,” she said. (I am thinking about moving this under the myth, New plants need to be watered every day?)

MYTH:
Planting zone charts are the holy grail.

DO IT BETTER: Mother Nature trumps everything, and she seems to favor those who take risks,” says Holly Chaille, Advanced Master Gardener, writer and therapeutic garden designer. Gardeners should not be so smitten with hardiness zones and planting schedules. “I’ve got stuff growing earlier and later than it ‘should,’” she said. “I’ve also got annuals overwintering as a perennial would, like my black and blue salvia.

MYTH:
There is a right way and a wrong way.

DO IT BETTER: The biggest gardening mistake Chaille sees? “Thinking there’s only one way to do things. That is to say, much has been discovered when gardeners ‘make mistakes.’ We’ve learned a lot about hardiness and reseeding by not doing things the ‘right way.’”

When she worked with Burmese gardeners, Chaille said she was thinning radish seedlings and just dropping them off to the side. “My friend Har Sein came along behind me and picked up the discarded sprouts. He replanted them in a vacant part of my garden and I had twice as many radishes,” she recalled. “He was being resourceful while I was following some seed packet’s advice.”

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Best Practices

Enjoy a variety of gardens — while vacationing, on local summer garden tours and in your own neighborhood. See what other people are doing to solve problems.

Ask questions — at the garden center, at the library, on garden tours, at your local extension service and on social media. “Silly” questions often yield the smartest answers.

• Most of all, “swap plants with other gardeners,” Chaille said. “It’s the unspoken pact we make to share the love and spread the beauty.”

Remember that gardening is a process, and you’ll only truly get it wrong if you don’t try it.

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