12 Landscaping Mistakes You Should Avoid

Twenty years ago, a long-time interior design client asked me to design his landscape.  I’d already done the interiors of two of his homes, and he felt no one knew his style better than me and completely trusted me.  The reality was that I had created his style, so I felt confident I could do the same for his landscape.  Design principles are design principles….right?

I dove into researching and visiting nurseries, learning as much as possible about plants, sun, water, soil, and zone requirements.  Within three months, I completed my first landscape design.  This landscape was featured on the annual Woodstock Garden Tour three years later, so I felt super accomplished.

For the next seven years, this garden became my landscape design lab.  I used what I learned to correct my mistakes, enhance specific details, and reduce maintenance.   The biggest thing I learned is that landscape design is constantly evolving; it’s a living, changing design impacted by a barrage of outside forces.

About 40% of my current design projects are gardens and landscapes, although I’ve only taken one formal landscaping course.  I learned by making mistakes, which is my favorite way of learning.  Every mistake is a lesson!  Painful, yes, but don’t be afraid of mistakes; they are necessary for growth and progress.

I’m sharing with you 10 of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen homeowners, and ME, make so you can avoid them in getting the landscape or garden of your dreams.  Let’s get started!

#1 - Not Making a Design Plan

Many people decide to update their landscaping and head out early on Saturday morning to pick put plantings from the nursery.  Once they arrive home, they start to determine where these plants will go.  They focus on the plants and not a plan.  They don’t consider how these individual plants will interact with each other or their surroundings.  The result is many plants scattered around without any sense of cohesiveness.

How to Make a Design Plan

  • Take measurements of your yard and draw out a rough layout on paper.
  • Determine the sun and shade portions of your landscape throughout the day, where is the morning sun, where is the afternoon sun, and where is there complete shade?  Indicate these “zones” on your layout.
  • determine the hidden gems you already have in your garden to work with – these could be buildings or structures, natural outcroppings of stone, or
  • evaluate the drainage in your landscape, where are the dry spots, where are the damp spots

Now consult your plan BEFORE you go shopping; determine what plants will work in the plan based on light and soil requirements.

#2 - Focusing on Individual Plants

Certain plants may not have much appeal or beauty; however, many are critical to adding texture, contrast, or variation that allows other plants to be showcased.  An incredible landscape design is a well-balanced mix of plant varieties to make a statement.

Clients often say, “I don’t like that plant,” or “that’s very plain.”  Remember, a landscape design is an overall picture or impression.  It is not a showcase for only the most beautiful plantings.  Start to understand how plants interact with each other.  It would be best to have quieter plants (read bland) to let the showcase plants shine.  You need spots for your eye to rest before moving on to more exciting plantings.  Sometimes the most critical plants in your landscape are your filler plantings.  Without these, your garden can be dotted with flowering plants with uncomfortable voids or a chaotic explosion of colors where nothing stands out.

My design style is to create some color variation within an overall landscape using foliage colors as the base that remains throughout the growing season.  That way, the landscape has color interest built in all season long if, for some reason, your flowering plants don’t bloom, like too much or not enough rain.  Then I use flowering perennials or annuals to pop their color in early spring, mid-summer, late summer, and early fall.  This allows your landscape to express itself differently all season long.  But find your style, one that resonates with your tastes.

#3 - Not Considering the View Beyound your Garden

This landscape plan was designed to highlight the magnificent view of the property.  A row of black-headed grasses and wide evergreen yews don’t compete with the view beyond, but they fill a void at the hill’s edge, allowing the landscape to meld seamlessly into the vista.  Placing dramatic plantings here would have diminished the view beyond.

It’s easy to look at your yard or design plan and focus on everything within that constraint.  But your landscape is not a room; it doesn’t have defined walls unless you have a solid fence.  Even if you have a solid barrier, you still see what’s over the fence beyond your landscape, up into the horizon.

Take into account this background.  It will always be out of your control to some extent, but it will also be part of your visual landscape.  Focus on the negatives and the positives of this backdrop.  Be mindful not to overshadow some features that your landscape could benefit from.  And always work to minimize the background that creates an eyesore or isn’t cohesive with your design plan.

This inclusion will allow your landscape to meld seamlessly into the background, giving your landscaping much more impact.  This aspect of landscape design is often highly overlooked but can distinguish between “that’s so pretty” and “wow, that’s breathtaking.”

#4 - Placing Plants in the Wrong Conditions

Plants that require part shade often get leaf scorch, sunburn, or heat stress when planted in full sun.

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of landscaping to me.  I always find the perfect plant for a location in my plan, only to realize it won’t do well there, usually due to too much or too little sun.  Sometimes a plant will survive in an inhospitable location but never thrive.  I’ve found it’s just not worth the risk, plants are expensive, and in the long run, they won’t fulfill their true potential of why you were drawn to that plant.  Read the plant instructions carefully, and locate your plants accordingly.

In my first landscape design, there was a walkway by the house that led to the entry.  The section got much sun, and I wanted to plant a flowering annual for significant impact.  I selected a mass of white impatiens and planted about 80 plants about 6” apart.  A dear friend of mine saw this and said, “they won’t last there; they can’t take the direct sun.”

Being the landscape novice I was, I took offense and vowed to keep these alive.  I watered them weekly with MiracleGro (to an abundance I do not recommend).  But it worked…kind of.  They grew and grew.  Since I had planted them 6” apart (the tag said to plant them 8”-12” apart), they had nowhere to grow but up. They grew very leggy, with stalks reaching 28” high, and had tons of flowers.  It was a spectacular display until a big rainstorm arrived halfway through the season.

The stalks weren’t strong enough to hold the flower heads up, and they all fell flat on the ground and never recovered.  I staked and staked them, but the mutations had done all they could.  I was much more mindful of plant requirements after that.  This leads me to my next mistake:

#5 - Overplanting

Seven years after being planted, these plants still have room to breathe and play off each other.  Contrasting shapes, colors, and textures provide interest and impact without overcrowding.

Landscapes vary greatly from interior design in one way; You design a landscape for the distant future.  Plan your landscape for how it will look in 5 years.  Your freshly planted landscape will look much different in 3 years and vastly different in 5 years.  Again, read the plant instructions on how far to plant, paying particular attention to the size of a full-grown plant.

It’s heartbreaking to see a lovely 3-year-old landscape turn into an overgrown mess in 5-8 years.  The plantings begin fighting for survival, some overtaking others, becoming very leggy, and developing a shape that is not attractive.  It’s too late to correct with pruning since there is no undergrowth.

Yes, seeing a landscape full of tiny plants is frustrating after a couple of weeks of your work.  Three-gallon plants look pint-sized when the 3 gallon part is underground, but patience pays off in the end. 

It’s devastating to see five years of your care and efforts vanish when plants become overgrown.  Usually, the only correction is to remove the overgrown plant, which probably entails removing other plants that were compromised due to the larger plant.

#6 - Waiting Too Long to Prune

While this landscape looked beautiful for the three weeks it was in full bloom; the overgrown rhododendrons gave the impression of a damp rain forest walking to the front of this home.  To make it less oppressive, everything had to be torn out to bring air and light into the space because the shrubs were too large to prune back.

Just understand now that if you put shrubs and trees into your landscape, they will require pruning. They will grow and flourish as they can, usually in a way you didn’t expect or don’t desire.  Take the time to shape them along the way.  Some plants grow faster than others, so make sure you are pruning these to allow the slow growers to catch up based on your ultimate plan. 

Never prune more than 1/3 of any shrub or tree at one time.  And always prune from the inside out, thinning the shrub out and keeping a natural appearance; always research the best times to prune a particular plant; some are best pruned in fall, some in early spring, and some after first bloom. 

Read before you cut, and learn what type of cut to make appropriate to the plant.  Pruning is NOT hedge trimming.  Do not just chop off all the limbs at the same level.  If you wait until your shrubs are overgrown, it’s too late to prune.  All the foliage is on the outer perimeter of the shrub, and the inside is leafless branches, so you could end up with a bunch of leafless sticks when you’re finished.

Disclaimer: Some certain shrubs and trees will come back from severe pruning, but if you’re a beginner, I don’t recommend doing this until you’ve done your research.

#7 - Over Mulching

Mulching too high against the tree roots can cause rot, decay, insects, and disease.  Pull mulch away to expose the root flare to promote good health.

Mulching is very beneficial in your landscape.  It holds moisture, promotes nutrient enrichment, inhibits weeds, and has many other benefits.  It also provides the finishing touch to the overall aesthetic of your landscape.  Depending on your local conditions, spread the mulch 2” to 3” thick.

Mulch can be a health risk to your plants; however, when mounded tightly against the stems or trunks of your plant.  Sometimes this is called volcano mulching because of the shape.  It holds moisture against the trunk, promoting rot and decay, and inviting insects and various diseases to move in.  This can also create a situation where the roots circle the mulch, as they can do inside the plastic plant container.

#8 - Planting Too Deeply in the Ground

This tree that was planted too deeply has had dirt pulled away to expose the root flare, but care much be taken not to create a hole that can hold water.

Planting a shrub or tree too deeply in a hole is one of the most common reasons plants die over time.  The plant should be planted, so the trunk sits about the same level as it was in the pot.  The root flare of a tree, where the base widens slightly, should be above the ground, exposing a portion of the root.  Don’t push the mulch against the tree trunk, as the root flare should remain moisture free.  Your tree trunk should not resemble a telephone pole sticking out of the ground.

Don’t water the tree at the trunk; water it at the perimeter of the tree canopy.  Imagine how rain waters the tree – the rain falls on the leaves and is mainly diverted to the outer edge, then falls to the ground, where it is absorbed into the soil.  This location is where the lateral and fine roots absorb water and nutrients.

#9 - Buying Balled and Burlapped Trees

Balled and burlapped trees have had the ends of roots cut off, which causes stress in a tree that can cause years to regrow.

Balled and burlapped trees are dug from the field, and their rootballs are wrapped in burlap to hold them together. The problem is that this often cuts off most of the roots. These trees are usually shipped and kept long-term at nurseries.  Once replanted, these trees sit there for a couple of years as they regrow their roots. Container-grown trees come with all their roots and grow much faster after planting as their roots are undisturbed.

If you can’t find container-grown trees in your area, ask what kind of guarantee you can get on the plant.  It’s very frustrating to pay upwards of $300 for a tree that dies a few years later due to the stress it had being dug up a replanted.  My experience has been that balled and burlapped trees are more prone to disease and fungus.

#10 - Getting in Over Your Head

Remember, a landscape requires quite a bit of maintenance after it’s planted.  Resist the urge to grow too large of a garden before you understand how much care is needed.  Gardens can quickly go back to nature if neglected.

Creating a thriving landscape or garden is a long-term commitment.  If you’re starting or have a little experience, pace yourself.  Allow a few seasons for you to understand your environment and needs.  Resist the urge to set too lofty of a goal on plans.  Landscaping is expensive; not only do you need plant materials, but you also need various tools, different types of fertilizers, hoses, wheelbarrows, etc. 

Take it slow and manage your expenses; learn as you gain experience and knowledge.  Make your landscape an interactive experience, start a compost pile, and test plants and colors in containers before committing larger plants.  Understand that creating a landscape takes 3 to 5 years. No matter how many plants you buy now, they need time to grow.  Be patient.

And remember, at the end of the season, you will need to prep for winter, remove leaves, prune where necessary and pack up all your tools.  Landscapes take work even when they’re done!

Take it slowly until you understand everything involved.  It’s heartbreaking to see people throw up their hands in overwhelm and give up after they’ve spent so much money on plants without maintaining their work.

#11 - Over or Under Watering

This plant is wilting due to root rot caused by overwatering.

When newly planted, your plants will require watering until they are well established.  This means watering consistently with the appropriate amount of water.  Do not overwater or allow plants to dry out too much.  Once leaves get dry spots, there is no reversal.

And NEVER water your landscape during the hottest times of the day; water before 10 am or after 6 pm.  Do not be tempted to give them water if the leaves are wilting in the sun.  While this looks desperate, it is the plant conserving as much water as it can in this critical time.  If you water now, you will scorch the plants and cause the leaves to burn. 

Once leaves are burnt, the plant will continue to struggle due to losing its ability for photosynthesis, which is how it produces food.  If a plant loses 40% of its leaf surface to burn, consider covering it with a shade canopy to allow only filtered light through during the sunniest parts of the day.

#12 - Buying a Plant without Knowing Where It's Going

The most irritating question I get as a designer is “Where can this go?”  Whether it’s a design accessory, a chair, picture, plant, or whatever, the answer I usually give under my breath is “I don’t know, how about the garbage (or garage sale if it’s nice).”  My design philosophy is “if you don’t know where it’s going, don’t buy it (or take it, which is often the case.) 

I always have a design plan, and these unexpected items usually start a chain reaction that isn’t part of that plan.  Sometimes I can make it work, but I don’t destroy the plan based on a whim.  You shouldn’t either.

If it works in your plan, buy it.   If it doesn’t leave it.  Remember you’re creating a landscape design, not collecting cool plants.

I hope you take the plunge and create a landscape you love, whether it’s an apartment patio or a 2 acre lot.  Go for it, follow your heart, and make a special place for you, your friends and family.  I hope these mistakes avoid you and save you money, time and headache.

Let me know what works for you and what doesn’t.

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