But even for those blessed with the greenest of thumbs, landscaping offers plenty of potential for disaster: Do too little, and the effect won’t be noticeable. Too much, and everything might die. And introduce the wrong plant? Say goodbye to your entire yard. Scary!
Here are six big DIY landscaping pitfalls to avoid like a case of poison oak—straight from the pros!
1. Planting ‘mulch volcanoes’
Don’t stop there—flatten (loosely!) your mulch to avoid a volcano.
Don’t suffocate your newly planted trees with the dreaded “mulch volcanoes”—piles of the insulating organic matter that rise as high as a foot up the trunk, says central Virginia arborist Michael Rittenhouse Rigby.
Mulch is designed to control the soil temperature and keep it moisturized—but to do so properly, it must be applied loosely. Tight packing strangles the tree and softens the root collar, a nonwaterproof section of the tree’s trunk. The result: rot, invasive insects, and suffocated roots.
“Mulch mounds may look like the norm, but it’s a harmful practice,” Rigby says. Remember kids: Mulch mounds arenotcool.
2. Choosing wrong or ‘dangerous’ plants
Feathery fountain grass can pose a fire hazard.
One of the biggest mistakes an amateur landscaper can make is choosing an invasive plant, which can quickly grow out of control.
The biggest offender? Bamboo—it’s almost impossible to control. Without your own giant panda to do the trimming, you’ll find your yard overrun with tall, tough stalks that take years to fully remove.
Other offenders? The plants often found in “drought-tolerant” sections of big-box nurseries, according to Cassy Aoyagi, the president ofFormLA Landscapingin Tujunga, CA.
In particular, beware of Mexican feather grass, fountain grasses, and pampas grasses, which can be fire hazards due to their dry leaves and flowering stalks.
“Having this sort of foliage on slopes can be especially dangerous inan El Niño year,” Aoyagi says.
3. Poor planning
Just like your class photos, tall ones go to the back.
Before you even put your hands in the dirt, carefully work out a design on graph paper to understand your space requirements, advises landscaper John Crider ofCrider Landscaping in Soddy Daisy, TN.
“Measurements are key,” Crider says. “Like a good carpenter, measure two times and cut once.”
For small areas, stick with flowering perennials and skip large shrubs. As a general rule, taller plants should go toward the back and smaller plants in front.
Once you know what size foliage can fit without overcrowding, research specific plants (Crider suggests using Pollinator Partnership) and sketch them into your design.
And even if it canfit, don’t plant too big—that’s a rookie mistake.
Large foliage might look impressive, but it has a hard time taking root. Small foliage grows nicely and has a better chance of survival.
4. Using too much gravel
This gravel’s too hot to handle.
With drought-tolerant landscaping, youcanhave too much of a good thing. Enter gravel, landscaping’s double-edged sword.
Graveldoessave water. But it also reflects heat toward any plants nearby, damaging all but the hardiest plants. Any heat that gravel doesn’t reflect, it absorbs, essentiallybaking the rootsof your plants.
And that’s to say nothing of future plantings: Gravel can get mixed into the underlying soil, making it too hard to absorb rainwater, Aoyagi says. And it’s nigh impossible to add more foliage to hard, dry soil—meaning you’ll be stuck with the plants you already have.
5. Installing artificial grass improperly
Fake grass can still give you some real problems.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing fake grass over the real stuff, especially if you live in a drought-ridden region. Today’s artificial turf is almost indistinguishable from a live, lush lawn, minus the upkeep.
They key is to make sure you’re installing it correctly—not just plopping it on top of your dirt. You’ll want to consult an expert, but generally, you should excavate 3 inches below the finished grade and install a sub-base, according to Chad Vander Veen, marketing and communications manager forPurchase Green Artificial Grass.
Because native soil expands and contracts depending on its water content, it can create “wrinkles, dimples, or soft spots, and a very uneven surface,” Vander Veen says. A sub-base “will ensure an artificial grass installation will continue to look good for the duration of its 15- to 20-year life.”
If you’re using multiple pieces of turf, you’ll want to make sure they’re properly seamed. Discuss the best way to lay your turf with your supplier, who can help you create a clean, unnoticeable line.
6. Building out near trees
Damage to tree roots could creep up on you. Get it?
Thinking of adding an in-law suite? Or perhaps you want to make your garage into a man cave. We’re all for it. But if your yard features large trees, you’ll need to protect them before embarking on any construction that might touch the roots.
You might not see the dire effects of damaged roots for quite a while—until a storm causes the rotting trunk to come crashing onto your roof. Or, if you put your home on the market, that giant dying limb hanging over your daughter’s bedroom could knock thousands off any offer, Rigby says.
Hire a tree care specialist if you’re planning any construction projects in your yard. Experts can ensure your work doesn’t touch the delicate root system, which causes irreparable—and expensive—damage.
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