(Photo: Craig Jenkins-Sutton, Topiarius Urban Garden and Floral Design)
A manicured lawn or lush foliage with brilliant hues might seem like a dream, but the maintenance can be a nightmare if you don’t choose carefully.
“The biggest mistake I see people make is they don’t get good-quality professional advice,” says Craig Jenkins-Sutton, co-founder of Topiarius Urban Garden and Floral Design in Chicago. “That doesn’t mean you have to hire a designer. Don’t go to a big-box store and expect them to give you good advice. A good garden center will be able to tell you, ‘This is a commitment plant.’” He suggests bringing in photos of your yard or a rough sketch on a piece of paper.
Ian Sopko, a landscaper in northeastern Pennsylvania, cautions against thinking that taking care of a yard is a piece of cake. While there are small things you can do to make the job easier, it will never be easy. “If you want a really nice garden, somebody’s going to have to spend some time on it,” says Sopko.
Two seasoned landscapers revealed their thoughts about the worst landscaping mistakes – based on years of experience in guiding homeowners to beautiful, low-maintenance yards – and how to overcome them.
1. Examine your yard first
Just because you see peonies shooting out of the ground in your neighbor’s yard, or tomato plants creeping up the fence line with juicy results, it doesn’t mean you’ll see the same in your yard. “Your house can be completely different from your neighbor’s,” says Jenkins-Sutton. That’s because of differing sun and shade patterns, as well as elevation within your yards. “You really need to pay attention to your site.”
2. Ditch a conventional grass lawn
Are you tired of fighting against Mother Nature to keep your lawn green? “To keep lawn healthy and looking its best is a lot of work,” says Jenkins-Sutton, especially in tight, urban areas where you have to find space to store a mower and stay committed to fertilizing and watering.
“In recent years there has been a movement towards using native plants. They’re used to the weather conditions,” says Jenkins-Sutton. He cautions that for those gardeners in search of a manicured look, this may not be the best choice. On first glance, a native landscape may look “messy,” but on closer inspection it’s similar to a prairie, with native grasses, plants and flowers each pulling their own weight.
3. Opt for smaller hybrids
Evergreen hedges are popular in almost every climate, but what most homeowners don’t realize is the excessive amount of pruning. “That thing will grow 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide,” says Jenkins-Sutton. “It’s a monster.” Opt for a hybrid that looks precisely the same but won’t grow taller than you want it to. “It will get up to the tops of your windows and that’s as big as it will get.” The same applies to rose bushes and many other popular plants. Take a few minutes to either research your options online, or query the store where you buy the plants, and you’ll save hours of time maintaining them.
4. Use enough topsoil
A common mistake seen by Sopko is a lawn that’s newly installed but without adequate topsoil. “People are frustrated to pay so much for topsoil but it has good payoff,” he says. Per USDA recommendations, topsoil ought to have 40 percent organic content, which helps trap moisture in the soil. Otherwise, the water will run right through and you will be caught in a vicious cycle of constant watering and irrigating to keep the lawn alive.
5. Know your turf
Shocking as it may be, some stores aren’t thorough in removing seed packages that are past their prime. These are inferior turf seeds, says Sopko. “Then you’ve got the hapless homeowner trying to get them to come up and you’re lucky to get one blade.” Look for seeds that were harvested the prior autumn – and not earlier than that.
This leads to another common mistake Sopko has seen homeowners make over and over again. As an alternative to turf there is a tendency to buy mulch and strategically place plants every 10 feet or so. You should never use more than an inch of mulch, he says. “It doesn’t look like a garden or a landscaped area, just a collection of plants.”
What often follows is a need to re-mulch often, and seeds from neighbors’ properties get trapped in the mulch, creating a garden you never intended on having.