The Worst Garden Mistakes You Can Make as You Age and How to Avoid Them!

This is the first in a series of posts about mistakes we have made in the garden (better us than you, right?) and how to avoid them or reduce them, especially as you age. We call it “worst garden mistakes” because of theiir potential hazards or their high maintenance requirements. As a result, this list might apply to anyone wanting a low-hazard, low-maintenance landscape.  First, let us say that if you want something in your garden and know the risk it entails, then by all means go ahead and put it in, but with your eyes wide open! Other posts on reducing hazards in the garden are here, here, and here. Here goes:

1. Worst Garden Mistakes: Installing Steps

Worst Garden Mistakes: Path with steps at top of slope
Instead of a series of steps, we installed a slope from the patio to a focal point urn (from which the photo was taken). See the steps at the top of slope? Not good, but they are wide enough to negotiate step by step with a rollator, that is, each step is wide enough to accommodate both me and the rollator before I have to step up or down to the next step. If I have to move to a wheelchair, then we’ll have to put a ramp in, but not a big one, thankfully!

Installing steps in the garden is not a good idea in the long run. Steps are usually expensive affairs to install, in terms of both time and money. They may be difficult for visitors to navigate now, and as you age, you might find yourself (or your parents or visitors) using a cane, walker, or rollator to move about, and steps can be very difficult to negotiate with any of these! So see if you can devise a path or change the slope of your grounds to rise or fall 1 foot for every 20 feet, so that should you or someone else in your garden need a rollator or even a wheelchair, you won’t have to lift it up stairs to get where you want to go. People have successfully installed ramps to get around steps from patios and decks and front porches, but ramps advertise that there may be a vulnerable resident in the house.

wheelchair ramp
We know someone in a wheelchair lives here!

So use retaining walls, earth berms, or other sloping landscaping now, rather than steps, and avoid accessibility problems later.

stone wall to retain slope
stone wall to retain slope

For high traffic paths, never install lawn; use stone, gravel, or mulch set flush with the ground. In our Florida home, the plot is level and easy to negotiate. In our Maryland home, we have had to remind ourselves to slope a path or meander it.

stepping stone path
This stepping stone path needs additional mulch to bring all parts of stone to same level as ground.

I love steps and formal gardens with level paths and beds. But I also love getting everywhere in my garden and not having to deal with steps.

2. Worst Garden Mistakes: Installing Plants That Will Become Too Large

Installing plants that will grow too big for their location is a big mistake. This is both a maintenance and safety issue.

Overgrown bushes seem to happen overnight!
Overgrown bushes seem to happen overnight!

As plants grow so large as to impede access to a given area, they can also have sharp “edges” (thorns, needles, hard leaves, branches) that scratch the passer-by or gardener. If the plant is to be kept manageable, it will have to be pruned more often than one sized right for the location in the first place, and possibly severely pruned, made ugly or disease prone.  There is no plant with no maintenance, but its maintenance will be reduced if it is right-sized for its location. In our Florida home, we have discovered that ligustrum and most other plants used as “foundation” plantings grow to tree size (probably because of the climate), so we have someone who prunes monthly or every other month to keep everything manageable. This is a cost that we have decided is justified, but I wouldn’t want to do it myself whether or not we lived down here year round. In our Maryland home, we have had to move bushes that have outgrown their location and have become hazards to those using a nearby walkway, especially roses. We have had to move bushes that were becoming trees, and take down pampas grass (it becomes huge!).

3. Worst Garden Mistakes: Installing the Wrong Plant in the Wrong Location.

Installing the wrong plants for shade, sun, needing water, or not wanting water can make or break your landscape and your back if you have to haul a hose out to some delicate thing, or watch something rot in the shade when it should be in the sun.

Worst Garden Mistakes: This hosta is frying in the sun!
Worst Garden Mistakes: This hosta is frying in the sun!

Study the plant labels in the nursery, or use the internet to find out more about what you want to put where.

Worst Garden Mistakes: ignore nursery plant tag
Worst Garden Mistakes: ignore nursery plant tag

Don’t plant a plant that requires sun in a shady location or vice versa. Don’t plant a plant that requires high moisture in a place that gets no rain or has no access to water. Don’t plant a drought loving plant in a wet location. Do your homework before you set your plants in and preferably before you buy the plants. We have enough different locations (shady, sunny, wet, dry) at our home to allow a certain amount of freedom to buy and try, but we read up on every plant to make sure we place it in the right environment to succeed.

4. Worst Garden Mistakes: Installing a Pond

No matter what you have been told, ponds require spring cleaning and fall winterizing at least, and unanticipated maintenance can be high: liner leaks, algae growth, fish health problems, plant health problems, water source and recirculation problems. There’s an awfully lot in this system that will go wrong over time and unexpectedly.

backyard pond
backyard pond

5. Worst Garden Mistakes: Installing Pots and Other Containers

Installing lots of small containers or pots adds enormously to your daily agenda. Pots and containers require daily watering, so if you want to plant stuff in pots, make sure you have ready access to water.

Worst Garden Mistakes: even sweet potato vine in copper pot
Worst Garden Mistakes: even sweet potato vine in copper pot requires daily water

If you go away, make sure someone comes to water your plants. Use large pots so that they won’t have to be watered more than once a day (quire usual during the height of summer). Use polymer crystals to soak up and give off water in the pots. Buy self-watering pots with a resevoir in the base to retain the water and give it back to the plants when they need it. Again, if you want to plant in pots, be aware of their maintenance and plan accordingly. In our Florida home, since we are gone for 9 months of the year, the only plants we have in pots are cacti and succulents. They aren’t going to be watered and they are the only plants that will survive without water in this climate. In our Maryland garden, we use plastic lined coir baskets and daily watering for our patio wall plants (out of the sun for about 6 hours a day too).

Worst garden mistakes: A shelf of DH's potted garden needs constant watering
Worst garden mistakes: A shelf of DH’s potted garden needs constant watering

We  only plant very hardy plants for the sun (sweet potato vines seem to do well, as do some grasses and succulents). And when we are less able to get around, they will go too. We tried miniabure evergreens for DH in small pots, but even with daily watering, they were toast by the end of one season! The only pots that survive in full sun in our MD garden are herbs and grasses. And we water daily.

We’ll continue the list of mistakes too easy to make in another post, and until then, we’d like to hear from you about mistakes you have made in the garden that you want to pass along to others to avoid. What were your big mistakes?

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5 thoughts on “The Worst Garden Mistakes You Can Make as You Age and How to Avoid Them!”

  1. This was instructive. I’ve done many of these things at one time or another, I have to admit. My worst offense usually is not amending the heavy red North Carolina clay well enough for the plant to thrive. Then I wonder why it looks so pitiful.

  2. Yes, not amending the soil is a big mistake when you are working in clay! Just standing on the clay and stomping it into pottery is a mistake. But there are alternative views from experts who say if you amend it, amend it as widely as you want the roots to grow, or else when their roots travel out from the amendment to the clay, they will behave as if they are pot-bound! I add compost when I can, but believe that if the plant won’t thrive in my soil, it is the wrong plant in the wrong place.
    Thanks so much for your addition to our list of mistakes! Best to you!

  3. Great subject! Looking forward to hearing more tweets. Here’s another mistake not to make. Using larger plant without setting them up on rollers so they can be moved around the deck or patio. Same goes for your indoor plants. Happy planting!

    1. Greg,
      May I add your mistake to our list? You are quite right about large pots becoming permanent pots (and leaving permanent spots on the patio too). Great addition – thanks!

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