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Even veteran gardeners make big mistakes

We all make mistakes, and veteran gardeners invariably admit to big ones. Why not learn from them and try to avoid these classics? Then you’ll be free to make your own.

1. Bringing home a troublemaker. It’s bad enough when a weed seed flies in on the wind and suddenly you have weedy patches to pull and dig forever more. It’s also annoying when a persistent weed came with the house. But it’s worse when you purposefully brought home the problem because you just didn’t know a troublemaker when you chose it.

Here are some gardener confessions:

• Marg Rust of the Buzz Around Hamburg garden walk: “Stopping at a roadside stand after picking blueberries, I spied a colorful plant that I still refer to as the watermelon plant with tiny white flowers. I planted it in several spots in my fairly new beds and wished it well. No need. Its aggressive manner has kept me on high alert for the past 30 years. Every time I see it in a nursery I tell all within hearing distance to only plant it in a pot.”

Marg’s plant is Houttuynia cordata, also called chameleon plant. (You can see Marg’s plant in person on the Hamburg Garden Walk July 8 and 9.)

• Jim Charlier (Lancaster Avenue): “I planted bamboo! It was supposedly a clumping type, but then it crossed over into the neighbor’s yard and I couldn’t stop it.”

He pointed to the entirely new fence and bed, where the bamboo used to be. Removing it required deep excavation. Jim’s other regrets: Japanese lanterns, goose-neck loosestrife and the Houttenia.

• Gordon Ballard (Bird Avenue): He has also battled with Houttenia and bamboos, and brought up a larger issue. “Many labels don’t tell you enough, especially about aggressive plants like Bishop’s weed, aka Goutweed (Aegopodium).”

Gordon and I agree that it should not be sold at all, but it is still on the market in some places. He also pointed out a spectacular Arundo donax, a giant reed that can reach 15 feet tall and spreads aggressively. (It’s not the infamous invasive species, Phragmites.) “We have it containerized and under control, but it’s easy for people to make big mistakes,” he said.

• Margaret Raupp, master gardener: “Drumstick Allium: a tale of love and hate. For three days I have been digging out the tiny bulbs ... They should come with a warning: They spread and become messy and are nearly impossible to eradicate.” While Margaret admits she enjoys their looks and pollinators love them, they quickly become way too much of a good thing.

• Marge Vogel, my sister, has not yet entirely forgiven me for providing tansy and goose-neck loosestrife for her sunny perennial border many years ago. My excuse: The bed had assertive plants already – tall grasses and Joe-Pye weed – and I thought the combination would work. Tansy hosts many beneficial insects including pollinators, and the goose-neck loosestrife is just adorable. (A goose-neck loosestrife cultivar, ‘Miss Manners’, spreads less rampantly – but, sorry Margie, it’s not this one.)

My own gardening lessons are similar: Once I thought there was such a thing as “a little mint.” Ha! And I have often underestimated the zeal of certain perennials. The learning continues.

2. The manure, compost or topsoil mistake. Lyn Chimera, master gardener and consultant,, ruefully told this story. “Some years back I was so excited to acquire some ‘well-composted’ manure, and brought home bags and bags, at least two full trips in the car. I tilled it into the soil. But it was not aged, and what a beautiful hay field it made!” She calls the price she paid “tuition.”

Many gardeners’ mistakes concern their choices of topsoil or compost. Know your source, and get products you know have been aged and tested for consistency. When in doubt, test a small amount of the product before buying a truckload. Otherwise you too could have a “beautiful hayfield” or worse: You could introduce impossibly difficult weeds such as horsetail or cinquefoil.

3. Wrong plant, wrong place. Back in Hamburg, Marg Rust confessed to other familiar mistakes. First, wishful thinking: “I’ve tried to have beautiful roses,” she said, even though she knew that her shady yard didn’t offer enough sunlight. “Trimming tree branches and other useless attempts to gain needed sunlight were not enough to make roses happy.” Like here, many of us tell ourselves that our site has at least “part sun” – meaning at least four hours of real sunlight per day.

But does that spot really get that much?

Marg’s other confession also reflects a lesson learned by many seasoned gardeners: “My lack of patience has made me overcrowd many a bed. Plants wanting to spread often become cramped and compete for necessities. Yearly thinning, moving them and expanding the beds is the result.”

If only we could all learn, before we purchase our first perennial, to believe the “mature size” (both height and width) shown on the label, and the clues about whether the plant spreads vigorously. Spreading is fine – in the right place.

Professional landscapers see, and are often hired to correct, mistakes like these all the time. Sean Kennedy (The Greatest Scape on Facebook) observed that so many homeowners choose plants that look good in the nursery and then place them with no knowledge of their soil, sunlight or watering needs. “A rhododendron stuck on the south side of the house (full sun) in clay soil ... that’s guaranteed failure! But the same plant could grow beautifully in well-drained, acidic soil and partial shade.”

Sean also mentioned other site conditions a plant buyer should know, including weather exposure and animals: “We’ve seen young Japanese willows consumed by deer and rabbits, and others planted where they can’t possibly get the moisture they need or where they will quickly outgrow the location.” Know your site and know your plant’s needs and vulnerabilities.

In the words of another Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional (CNLP) friend, native plant expert and landscape designer Ken Parker, the big mistake continues to be: We shop with our eyes. Let’s use our heads a bit more.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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