What We Do Right (and Wrong) in Our Yards and Gardens

What We Do Right (and Wrong) in Our Yards and Gardens

Recently I was speaking about the top 8 mistakes people commonly make in their yards and gardens. That prompted me to make a list of 8 things that I people commonly do right, even if they say that they aren’t gardeners, or have a black thumb. I’m sure both these lists could be expanded, and in every region we could add other points that are specific to a particular area. But as we head into 2016, here are 8 practices to avoid and 8 others to build on.

8 Common Mistakes People Make in Their Yards and Gardens

1. Cutting their grass too short. Lawns thrive when they are cut no shorter than 3″ tall. Remember that each leaf is a food-factory for the plant, and if you cut those factories in half you’re laying off 50% of the workers, so naturally less is manufactured! Additionally, a longer lawn shades the ground so weed seeds are less likely to germinate. Taller grass means stronger plants and fewer weeds.

2.Watering too shallowly too often, usually by hand watering or automatic sprinklers. Hand watering is fine if you’re sprinkling newly placed plants or recently germinated seedlings. But once a plant has grown past three or four inches high or has been in the ground for more than three weeks, it’s time to water deeply but less often. If a plant is deeply soaked it will grow longer, stronger roots. Lawns too! So never have your sprinklers set for fifteen or twenty minutes every other day – that’s a prescription for moss, grubs, fungal diseases and plants with shorter, weaker root systems. Water for a longer time but only every five to seven days, depending on the weather. Use a sprinkler, soaker hoses and timers.

3. They prune to keep plants “under control” or because they think that all shrubs need to be sheared annually. Shrubs and trees should be pruned to improve appearance and health, not control size. Some shrubs look nice when sheared into formal shapes, but for others it just makes them ugly. And shearing trees not only makes them look odd, it also contributes to snow and storm damage down the road. When in doubt, first remove deadwood, then look for crossed/rubbing branches and remove one of those, and finally take out any branch that’s headed into the center of the plant. Trim back any extra long branches, or those that are so thin that they would look better if doubled. Then stop.

4. They spray pesticides blindly before knowing what the problem is. They reach for whatever is on their shelf and apply it without knowing if the problem is caused by a fungus or insect, for example. Take the time to have a problem accurately diagnosed. It’s a waste of your time and money to apply a product that isn’t appropriate for the problem at hand. If you can’t figure out what the problem is (fungal, insect, cultural, or critter) by all means come into the garden center, call us, or send us an email. We’re here to help! You can also take samples into the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension in Barnstable.

5. They don’t empty or clean their sprayer out after applying a garden product. Yes, I’ve heard from more than one person who accidentally sprayed their flowers and shrubs with an herbicide because they picked up the wrong sprayer…instead of killing the aphids, they killed all the plants instead! I guess that the aphids probably left after the plants died, but that was not the way these folks wanted to solve that problem. Only mix enough of any product to take care of the job, and then use it up. Never leave a sprayer filled with product, especially if it’s not labeled!

6.  They forget to amend their soil with organic matter on an on-going basis. Most people go to the trouble of adding some manure or compost when planting, or first creating a bed, but they forget that organic matter decomposes over time. Top-dressing with about an inch of compost or composted manure every year works magic for plants! If you also add an inch of much on top of that, you have amended the beds and provided moisture and weed control at the same time.

7.  Fertilizing a thirsty plant with synthetic fertilizer. Always make sure a plant is well hydrated before applying synthetic fertilizer or you run the risk of fertilizer burn. “But what about those fertilizers that tell me to add it every time I water?” you ask. If you follow those directions be sure your plants aren’t bone dry, and be sure to mix the product at the rate recommended. The problem with fertilizing this way is most people use more fertilizer and less water than the product recommends, and that’s when trouble starts. If the rate of fertilizer is per gallon of water, make sure you’re using a gallon container and measuring accurately.  

8. When a plant is stressed they automatically reach for the fertilizer instead of thinking about other possible issues/problems. Fertilizer is good for plants that need nutrients, but it’s not the solution to every problem. Going back to #4, get an accurate diagnosis of any problem you’re seeing before you reach for the fertilizer. Consider the weather for the past year, watering, how other plants in the area compare, and whether the soil has been amended with organic matter recently before assuming that the plant needs feeding. For many plants, organics should be your go-to fertilizers.

Automatic irrigation can be a blessing when it's set up correctly. Here, the sprinklers are on for only fifteen minutes and as you see, on a windy day most of this water blows away.

Automatic irrigation can be a blessing when it’s set up correctly. But here, the sprinklers are on for only fifteen minutes and as you see, on a windy day most of this water blows away.

8 Things People do Right in Their Yards and Gardens

1.   Plant what appeals to them and plants they love.

It’s good to see times when people follow their hearts. In this country we are so blessed that we can put plants in the ground without expectation that they need to provide all our winter food!

2.   They put in annuals for colorful flowers all summer.

Yes, annuals need to be planted every year but they pay off with flowers from May through October on Cape Cod. It’s nice to see people who enjoy choosing different annuals every year for their beds, containers and boxes.

3.   People are willing to take risks – most people put plants in the ground knowing that with living things there are no guarantees, yet they have faith that the plants will grow.

Every home-landscaper and gardener assumes that everything they plant will thrive yet we are also realistic enough to realize that with living things there are no guarantees. It’s therefore very life-affirming to see people taking that leap of faith to see what will grow. We are often rewarded by noticing that most plants succeed, often against all odds.

4.   Many people are willing to give a plant the benefit of the doubt – they stick with it, even when the plant isn’t looking that great.

Those of us who work with plants every day are often much more cold-hearted than the public, and we throw a sickly or ugly plant out without much thought. But the general public is much more forgiving, and willing to give plants a second, third or fourth shot at life. There’s something very sweet about this.

5.   People are willing to search for answers and solutions to problems.

In the garden center we frequently help customers who want to do right by their landscapes and plants. From perennial or weed identification to samples of sick or dying foliage, we’ve seen it all. This parade of plants and situations that I call “Stump the chump!” indicate that gardeners and homeowners want answers and are willing to spend time and effort seeking them out.

6.   They are willing to buy products that might help their yards and gardens do well.

Our customers are willing to do what it takes to help their plants to thrive. Sometimes that means spending time and money on the materials that will assist their plants to grow well.

7.   People are interested in new varieties.

It’s nice to see that folks have their eyes open for new varieties of plants. New hybrids, cultivars and even species are introduced all the time and many of these are wonderful plants. It’s great to see that the public values both the new and the tried-and-true.

8.   They plant a wide selection of plants – shrubs, trees, perennials, vegetables and annuals.

It’s wise to have a diversity in any garden. Not only does it provide the range of colorful foliage, textures and flowers that makes a yard appealing, but having a wide variety also is more supportive for wildlife and smart planning. When you have many different plants in a yard and garden, if an insect or disease comes along that attacks one or two of your plants you won’t lose everything.

It's wonderful that people are willing to plant annuals every spring for summer-long flowers.

It’s wonderful that people are willing to plant annuals every spring for summer-long flowers.


  1. Mary Anne McCormack on December 30, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Hi CL! I was at your wonderful garden in September on the tour that not only featured fabulous flowers but healthy, slender gardeners! The two seem to hand in hand!

    • CLFornari on December 30, 2015 at 10:43 pm

      Mary Anne,
      So glad you enjoyed my gardens last fall! Gardening is indeed great exercise, and the food that is grown is the freshest and best tasting on earth.

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