Learning From Our Mistakes

On a winter’s day, many gardeners are making plans for the spring season. I’ve been searching my memory and looking out the window at garden mistakes from seasons past that I don’t want to repeat. Perhaps some of you can learn from my errors. Hopefully, I will too!

1. Order/buy seeds for the year, not just the season. When I pull my early vegetables out of the garden in late July, I’m always anxious to start something else in that space. Last year, I trotted down to the garden center in August for some kale and turnip seed for a lovely fall crop, and was shocked to find there was none. That seed was sold out much earlier in the season, well before the appropriate planting date.

I could have ordered some at that moment from a seed company, but by the time it came and I managed to plant it, I would have been well past the mid-August planting cut off.
This year, I’ll buy all of my seed in February or March and have it on hand to use the moment I pull my spent plants out, while I have the time and I’m in the mood.

2. Prune boxwoods at the appropriate time of year. If you want to reduce the size of boxwoods, the ideal time to cut them back hard is in early spring once the danger of freezing is past. If you want to control the size of boxwoods, the ideal time to trim them is in June, so new growth has time to harden off before winter. If you want to tidy up stray tips on boxwoods when the growing season is finished, it’s good to do this in late November or early December, when it’s too cold for boxwoods to make new growth.

Knowing all this, why did I trim one of my boxwoods in September? Trimming during warm weather stimulates tender new growth. A September trim does not give the new growth enough time to harden off before cold weather sets in. As a result, the tips on this boxwood have frozen. My husband, gazing at the plant from a distance, asked if it was a new variegated variety. The plant is green, the tips are white. “Yes, it is,” was my reply. “Until early spring.”

3. Plant aggressive, not invasive plants, as groundcover. What’s the difference between aggressive and invasive? A lot of hours of digging, spraying and heartache, as you watch choice garden plants being strangled by the invasive that you can’t eradicate.
Have you ever planted dwarf bamboo or goose-necked loosestrife in a mixed border? I have. Try digging either of those out, after you’ve let them have their way for a few years.

They start out innocently enough, making a pretty show, spreading a bit, but not too much. After a year or two, they make impressive stands, but are still gorgeous and pretty close to where you want them. By the next year, they begin to run and there’s no stopping them. Underground rhizomes are everywhere and are tough as iron. An herbicide has to be applied repeatedly to kill the invasive plants

The little-leaved forget-me-not is an aggressive groundcover, filling empty spaces quickly with its prolific seed. It is however, easy to pull out with your hands and a trowel, where you don’t wish to have it. It may come back from seed, but the seedlings are easy to pull or spray. Aggressive plants have their place in gardens; invasives do not.

4. Remember that plants grow towards the sun. If you have a large shrub planted between a building and a sidewalk, like a tardiva hydrangea, and the plant will have a diameter eight feet wide at maturity, don’t position the plant four feet from a sidewalk, even though that is half of eight.

On paper it makes perfect sense to do so. In reality, the plant will not grow towards the shade of the building wall. It will reach towards the sun, which happens to be shining right on that sidewalk. And soon, the hydrangea will join the sun on the sidewalk and people won’t be able to use the sidewalk anymore.

If you like trees with straight trunks, don’t plant them close to an existing forest that will shade one side of them as they grow. I love my sweet bay magnolia, but it’s a leaner for that very reason.

It’s perfectly sited for viewing from my office window and serves as a perch for the songbirds that visit the seed feeder hanging outside the window and the suet feeder dangling from a magnolia branch.

But as you drive up to my office you see a very crooked tree, reaching for the sun, leaning away from the mature trees along the creek bank. The nearby crabapples, far enough from the mature trees to get sun from all sides, are straight as arrows. I focus my gaze on them as I drive up to the office, and only look at my magnolia from its best angle. That should happen to all of us!

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