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The Ten Biggest Mistakes Gardeners Make

  • 1. They cut their grass too short.

    Lawns composed of cool-season grasses need to be three inches tall after being cut to be able to grow the deep healthy roots that can crowd out weeds. Warm-season grasses do best at around two inches after cutting. We know that you THINK a short cut will mean more time between mowing, but it actually means the opposite. Scalped lawns grow at the maximum speed to try and compensate for your vicious attack. Grass allowed to achieve a decent height will always look much greener, have fewer weeds, and grow at the slowest possible rate. For lots more lawn care info, see this PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK.

  • 2. They water incorrectly.
    Plants MUST be allowed to dry out between watering. Plants that are watered every day will die from root rot. In a normal season in the upper half of the country, a long, deep soaking once every week you don't get an inch of rain is exactly what your lawn and garden needs and wants. In a severe heat wave and/or further South, you can water deeply twice a week. Always water in the early morning; never in the evening, never in the heat of the day, never for short periods of time, and at the base of the plants if possible. For lots more wise watering info, see this PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK.

  • 3. They prune for the heck of it.
    NEVER prune a plant because {quote} "you feel like it" or {quote} "it's a nice day for it"; both are guaranteed to result in horticultural disaster and an Aero-Bed being dragged out to the garage by the {quote} "helpful" spouse. Simple rules: Prune nothing in the Fall! Take up woodworking if you have to, but keep your hands off those pruners. Prune big, non-flowering trees in the dead of winter. Prune Spring blooming trees and shrubs immediately after they flower in the Spring. For other plants, visit several University websites, and if you still can't figure it out, leave it alone. For more pruning info, see this PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK.

  • 4. They spray pesticides 'blindly'.
    One listener recently asked for help with an insect problem, explaining that he had dusted the plants with the insecticide Sevin every couple of days for the past several months without any effect—at least on the insects. Another listener reported that Sevin had not helped her diseased roses. "Perhaps that's because it's an insecticide and not a fungicide", I replied. Why had she used it?: "It was the only thing in the house". But my favorite was the listener who sprayed Atrazaine on her Japanese beetles, and the plants now looked dead. What could she do to avoid this next year? "Try not spraying your plants with an herbicide," was my best guess. When in doubt, don't spray.

  • 5. They use wood mulch.
    Never use wood or bark to mulch your plants; it can suck food right out of their soil, prevent water from reaching their roots and rot the bark if the mulch actually touches the plant. You can safely use wood mulches to keep weeds down in your garden paths; that's it. And what about {quote} "landscape mulch"? Every time we warn that wood and bark mulches breed a fungus that irrevocably stains homes and cars, we get a flood of emails saying, "we always hear you say not to use wood mulches, and now the side of our house is covered with little black dots; that's not because of our wood mulch, is it?" For lots more mulching info, see this PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK.

  • 6. They pay no attention to soil pH.
    pH is a measure of your soil's acidity or alkalinity. A pH of 7 is neutral. Most plants thrive at a slightly acidic pH of 6 to 6.5. Some of our most popular plants—azaleas, rhododendrons and blueberries—require a VERY low pH to thrive. Very few plants like an alkaline pH. That's why you should never lime your lawn 'because you heard you should'; have the pH tested and then apply lime if it's needed. Give plants the soil pH they prefer and many garden problems will simply vanish.

  • 7. They feed their plants instead of their soil.
    It's easy to spray Miracle-Gro or spread Osmocote. And weeds, pests and disease just love it when you weaken your poor plants with those concentrated chemical salts. It's the same as with us: Good food = good health. Trashy fast food = a litany of problems. Two inches of compost a year is all the food plants in the Northern half of the country require. Another two inches later in the season down South, where plants grow for a much longer period of time. As Groucho famously said, "The only thing you'll notice is the improvement."

  • 8. They confuse compost with manure.
    Manure is not compost. "Compost" is made from yard waste that has been shredded and piled up until it has turned into a rich, black material that feeds your plants, prevents disease and improves the very structure of your soil. Composted manure can be an effective fertilizer—but only FOR SOME PLANTS, and it will not prevent disease. Don't use horse or poultry manure on flowering plants and never use any kind of raw manure.

  • 9. They needlessly fear insects and spiders.
    Native bees are harmless to you and essential pollinators in your garden. Virtually all spiders are harmless to you and fabulous predators of pest insects. That insect you aimlessly sprayed could be a baby ladybug or other garden friend. Destroy all the life in your garden and…well—you'll destroy all the life in your garden. For lots more info on beneficial insects, see this PREVIOUS QUESTION OF THE WEEK; THIS ONE for bees; and THIS ONE for spiders.

  • 10. They use pesticides INSIDE their home; eek!
    It is dangerous to spray chemical pesticides in your garden; those nerve toxins and hormonal disruptors are much more deadly to you than they are to garden pests. But spraying poisons INSIDE your home, where you're inhaling those life-shortening fumes every minute, is beyond nuts! Every indoor pest can be safely controlled without poisons.

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