Garden Designers Roundtable- My ‘Don’t Do This’ Top Ten List

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a long, long time – my Top 10 things NOT to do in your garden!  Having designed gardens for over a decade, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things; some funny, some not so much.

Please join me today, along with the rest of the Garden Designers Roundtable, as we discuss the topic ‘Reality Check – don’t do this’!


1.  Neglecting to mulch (or…”pssst! Your tubing is showing”)

Many of you already know that adding a top dressing of mulch is a great idea, as it suppreses weeds, helps your soil retain moisture, and keeps the soil at a consistent temperature.  However, it’s not a ‘put it down and forget about it forever’ sort of thing!  You’ll need to add more to your garden every few years (more often if tend to go crazy with the blower, scattering it to kingdom come).  Yes, it can get expensive.  And yes, it can be labor-intensive.  But if you don’t, this is what you end up with.  And after going through all the effort of creating your garden, is this really what you want to end up with?

2.  Don’t strangle your trees

Guy wires like these definitely help support young trees as they grow strong enough to withstand strong winds.

But please remember to take them off after a few years. Otherwise, the tree will continue to grow around the wires and eventually begin strangling itself.

Definitely not a good thing for the health of your tree!

3.  Stairs that stab

After having a falling out of sorts with their ‘contractor’ (and I use that term loosely!) these homeowners called me for help.   This is just one example of this contractor’s handiwork.  Now who in the world would ever want to walk up stairs that are as dangerous as these?  I wonder how many times their poor kids impaled their ankles as they bounded up the stairs?

And the grout?  C’mon!  There was no effort put into matching the color with the stone, and it’s way too wide in sections. Sorta just globbed in there.

Needless to say, we gave the stairs a make-over.

4.  Beware of monster vines

I know those vines look beautiful sitting their 5-gallon containers at the nursery.  But please, please, read those tags!  When the tag uses words like ‘energetic’ and ‘vigorous’ it’s usually an understatement.  Those words are clues that the vine will quickly smother your home if given half a chance.  Wisteria and Trumpet Vine are classic examples of this, as I commonly see these vines scrambling up the tallest trees hoping to reach for the moon.

5.  Beware of monster agaves

I love agaves as much as the next person but, again, remember to read those tags!  There’s so many varieties of agaves out there, available in so many sizes, remember to match the size to the space.  Time and time again I see a giant Agave americana planted next to a pathway.  Remember. these plants are GIANTS with sharp points on the end, just waiting to spear the poor person who loses their balance.

And not only that, they send out tenacious runners like you can’t believe.  You’ll be forever ripping these runners out of your garden, which is fine with agave-lovers, but not fine when planted near hardscaping.  The runners have Herculean-like strength and can push through asphalt with ease.

6.  Speaking of asphalt….know when to stop

There’s no need to use asphalt like a blanket, tucking in each plant for eternity.

A plant’s roots need air to breathe, need water from the rain, need nutrients from decomposing mulch – not asphalt!

Besides, as the plant grows, it’ll expand and break apart the asphalt leaving you with a most unsightly mess.

7.  Butchering phormiums

Poor, poor phormiums, they’re forever being butchered and manhandled into a size they just don’t want to be.  This could also fall under the category of ‘read those plant tags‘ as there’s so many varieties of phormiums out there in so many different sizes.  From the giant p. atropurpureum (towering to 8 feet) to the diminutive p. ‘Jack Spratt’ (topping out at 1-2 feet) choose a phormium that’s right for the space.

Phoriums really don’t need to be pruned at all, except for a few old and tired leaves at the base of the plant.  So when the right variety is in the right space, you’ll never have to look at this.

8.  Redwood mayhem

Redwoods abound here in Northern California, but more often than not they’re planted waaaay too close to a home’s foundation.  Small, suburban properties are no place for this mighty tree.  Remember, the average size of our coastal redwood is 250 feet.  That’s 250 feet PLUS!

So, while you might think it’s a good idea to use a fast-growing redwood as screening from your neighbor, if you plant it near a fence, wall, foundation, driveway, etc. you’ll be sorry.

The Mighty Redwood will always win

9.  Use it or lose it

When looking at your garden, or considering a new design, give some thought to the lawn you want to include.  Are you really going to use it?  Or is its purpose to sit there like a prized patch of labor-intensive, water-chugging green that you’re only including because you don’t know what else to do.

Now I’m not one to rant against all lawns, as I have one myself that my family uses and enjoys just about every day.  But for the most part, a lot of the lawns I see out here are unused, way too big, and can usually be reduced or replaced with something much more enjoyable to the homeowner.

This sign just slays me.  What damage could possibly result from someone using this strip of lawn?  And I particularly like the happy face, to add that ‘I’m still friendly’ vibe.  Hmmmm.  Maybe the sign is actually a warning to people since the bench and chairs do look a little booby-trapped.

10.  And finally…..Know when to cut bait

It can be hard for any of us to know when to quit and start over.  I see this time and time again when called by a frustrated homeowner.  They’ve tried and tried and tried to get something to work, sometimes against all odds, sometimes after spending a fortune.  I’m all for experimenting in your garden and having fun.  But when you find yourself throwing good money after bad it’s time to rethink your strategy.

This tree is a great example.  I’m not sure at what point things went horribly wrong, but it’s okay to say ‘You know?  I think things could probably be a lot better if I just started over’.

Thanks for stopping by everyone!  For more ‘reality checks’ head on over to my fellow Roundtablers to see what they’re writing about.  And today we have a very special guest joining us, David Cristiani who blogs at The Desert Edge .  Enjoy!

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : Easy Bay, CA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

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  • Great list Rebecca! The same atrocities are committed here on the east coast. I would like to say by well meaning individual/companies, but when you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t take the time to learn…

    • You’re so right, Scott. It’s when these things are done by those who are supposed to know better that really gets to me…

  • On this side of the Atlantic the same mistakes happen, I think it is a problem of the globalization of gardening in all parts of the world “gardeners” with little professional.

    Un Saludo

  • Great post, Rebecca. You’d think that in a place that is so conducive to good gardening that folks would know better. Alas, not so much. The (lack of) mulch, butchered phormiums, wrong plant/wrong place… are all to common around here. Seriously though, residential redwoods? That’s pretty high on the dumb things to do list & they are all over the place! “Read the labels”, great advice.

    • You’d think, Matt, you’d think! Reading those darn labels would prevent so much heartache (and unnecessary expense!)

  • Stairs that stab–YES!!! I have been stabbed by those stairs.

    People who can grow Phormiums outside and do that to them should have their planting rights taken away, period. Unacceptable.

    I have to confess, I was hoping for a story about Rhododendrons being planted at dry sites….

    • Very funny, Andy. I was actually afraid she might read my blog and show up on my front doorstep clutching a fist full of dried out rhodies in her hand….

  • I don’t know where you found these places to photograph, but these are classic. Oh my good-NESS! I think the Phormium is my favorite rant. I almost took a photo of a phormium nearby myself, except it’s in the parking lot of a local business I am friendly with and I didn’t want to offend anybody. But that is a godawful mess and it drives me insane when people do that. It’s not a bleepin’ hedge!

    • Oh Gen, I wish I could say I travelled far and wide to get these photos. Alas, except for one, they’re all within a 1-miile radius of my house! There’s another butchered phormium that might actually be worse than the one in the photo, but I’d have to take the photo in the middle of a busy street. I’m still debating…I might just have to wake up super early and shoot away!

  • Rebecca you nailed it! Oh haven’t we Garden Designers seen all of that over and over? Every point is applicable in any climate with a wide variety of plants. I am always thinking when I see these things, proactive is SO much less expensive in LABOR, TIME and MONEY than reactive. My Personal Garden Coaching motto in action!

    • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, right Christina! 😉

    • I thought they were pretty hilarious, too, Kaveh. In a sad, sad sorta way.

  • Rebecca, Sometimes it seems like the don’t’s are easier to find than the do’s. I can’t even imagine that someone would plant a redwood anywhere near their home but of course people do a similair thing here in CT with white pines. They figure if they acn buy a 5′ tree for $20 at the big box store it mut be OK to plant right outside the front door. Fast-growing is a good thing, isn’t it??

    • Yes, Redwoods are a favorite out here. I knew one lady who had to rebuild the foundation of her home because the previous owners planted 3 redwoods so close to the house. The roots had completely damaged the structure of the home. NOT cheap!

  • Ha…great post! I have to admit…I’ve considered Agaves from time to time for my own garden, but always decide against them, simply because I can just imagine getting sued if someone gets poked or scraped. More realistically, however, it would probably be not-so-graceful ME who gets stabbed!

    • Scott, I’m right there with you in the ‘not-so-graceful’ category. Just the other day I stabbed myself with my own little ‘Octopus’ agave. And it’s in a container, too! Now THAT’S clumsy!

  • Thanks for posting more things I could not fit into my schedule. That last tortured tree…we have a conference here that never addresses what to start doing, to specify more appropriate trees, spaces, and companion plantings, but rather, keep those trash trees alive and somehow expect better results. Insanity!

    • David, your list was amazing. But isn’t it sad that we could write a BOOK about this sort of stuff? After reading your post this morning, I thought you’d like my final photo of that poor, mangled tree. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what the heck happened to it!!

  • Oh, these are good! Stairs that stab are my pet peeve, too. And of course the poor, strangled trees. Great photos! Reminds me that I should capture the bad as well as the good… if just to blog it 😉

    • I always feel a little bad photographing someone’s terrible idea, but I justify it if I can use it to show others what NOT to do. Sometimes people are so visual they need to see a horrific example to really drive the point home! I still remember a post you wrote years ago about the person who strung up dead crows in their garden as a warning to others- scarred me, for sure!

  • Ha! Well, I’ve sure done some bloopers with vines. My young son once said to me, “Mom, quit planting vines.” Pearls of wisdom. Now I mostly plant annual vines that live harmoniously with us without strangling everything in sight.

    Love this,


    • Haven’t we all,Sharon? I’ve planted so many inappropriate plants in my life when I first started out gardening (porcelain berry vine being one of them!) I’m hardly one to throw stones! I guess some of us ‘learn by doing’!

  • I think you have successfully captured the most common Bay Area garden mistakes. Of all of them, the one that gets me most is not removing tree staking. How can anyone think the stakes are supposed to be permanent? You don’t see 25 year olds going to work on their Big Wheels – why can’t we let our trees grow up, too?

    • Susan – you’re on a roll today… “You don’t see 25 year olds going to work on their Big Wheels”- too funny!

  • I had no idea an Agave pup could bust through asphalt, that’s just incredible. Makes me think of all the out of control Bamboo stories I’ve heard.

    Fun post! (and those sad Phormiums remind me of how hard we all tried here in Portland to “prune” them to recover after our Phormium killing winter of ’08-09…nobody wanted to let them go).

    • I know, Loree, right? Bamboo is a nightmare, too (one I didn’t want to touch in this post). My neighbor has spent thousands of dollars removing her running bamboo (planted by a previous owner)from her neighbor’s yard (who threatened with a lawsuit, believe it or not).

  • Great examples, every one. I can’t even decide which is my favorite. I’m mystified by the Keep off the Grass sign too because what is the use of grass if not for playing and lounging on? And wow, I did not realize agave pups could push up through asphalt. My biggest pet peeve is probably your first one: people let their mow-and-blow crews blow away all the good soil and mulch, leaving the poor plants exposed and damaged.

    • My poor client has about 10 of these pups pushing through her asphalt as far away as 6′ from the mother. They’ve totally ruined her driveway! But I don’t blame people for planting them as they’re so darn gorgeous.

  • Oh yes, neighbours. I thankfully convinced mine not to plant Japanese knotweed up against our shared fence. In our sandy soil, we would have been a knotweed forest in minutes. I loved (and shuddered at) your post. And you even gave us a bonus shot: how not to use landscape cloth!

    • Knotweed, Helen? Lordy, Lordy, Lordy! Good job preventing THAT nightmare!! And I’m glad you liked my bonus shot, too. I feel so bad for this homeowner – he’s a really old man who has the WORST and most UNQUALIFIED group of guys doing his maintenance. They’re forever planting crappy cuttings that never survive (and charging him a fortune, I’m sure) and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked by them ‘tending his garden’ (ha!) and suggested they take a moment to cover the plastic. They just look at me with blank stares. sigh.

    • As I read everyone’s posts, Susan, I find myself saying “I’ve seen that!” – haven’t we all? Hopefully folks will see these examples and do otherwise in their gardens.

  • Hi Rebecca,
    Wot good warnings from all your years of experience. Of course many of our plants are different here, but there are parallels! Tho just to fess up I love the last tree! Wot character and if it couldn’t stay it’d make a beaut sculpture.

    • You’re not the only one who likes that tree, Robert. My husband sorta likes it, too. Me? Not so much. It makes my back hurt every time I see the poor thing!

  • Rebecca, I sense that you probably have another dozen or so of these “uglies” that you could share! No coastal redwoods here, but we have the same problem with Colorado blue spruce. So many of these problems could be avoided if folks would just take time to think things through! Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks Jocelyn – you’d be correct. I have SO many of these ‘uglies’ that just make me cringe and feel so bad for the poor plant.

  • Good post, thanks! I might extend the ‘don’t butcher Phormiums’ to ‘don’t prune shrubs into gumdrops’ – like all of the Spirea and Abelia with arching, graceful branches that get whacked into ugly, woody blobs, generally in the front of the house! I don’t understand why redwoods are on the lists for the developers, either – a lot of those end up in front yards or hell strips.

    • You’re so right, Sara. I see Abelia massacred all the time, too. ‘Right Plant for the Right Place’ is so often completely ignored.

  • Those are great examples of don’ts! I have to say that I cringe when I see a ivy strangling a tree, it is so easy to control and so ugly to see.

    My neighbors suggested trumpet vine for the fence in between our houses and I had to plea against it. We finally moved the one that was planted before bought the house, it was such a struggle to keep it under control, planted to cover a little wood divider it was way too big for the space.

    Poor trees, I feel their pain!

    • Lucky you to convince your neighbor to use a different vine. My neighbor has this exact problem and has been fighting the trumpet vine for 20 years now. It’s pretty, but people forget what it really wants to do is consume your house!


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