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Home Landscaping: How to Avoid the 5 Biggest Mistakes

Catherine is a proponent for responsible stewardship of our natural resources and covers topics of plant life and sustainable living.

Giant typewriter eraser sculpture—Claes Oldenburg, 1976

Giant typewriter eraser sculpture—Claes Oldenburg, 1976

If you are a homeowner, you have most likely encountered a landscaping mistake. It might be a mature tree or shrub that sits too close to the foundation, or plants that overlap walkways and have to be cut in ways that ruin their natural shape. It's an all too common problem that most of us have been guilty of creating, yet one that can be averted with the right approach.

Start With a Basic Plan

An architect wouldn't think to design a house one room at a time, and the same approach applies to landscape design. A plan usually includes the hardscape features like patios and walkways, irrigation, and foundation plant selections in relation to structures and entryways.

All planting doesn't have to be completed at the same time. In fact, working in stages is far easier on the budget and not as overwhelming. However, additions to the garden are best installed when surrounding trees and shrubs have not reached full maturity. The important thing is to follow a basic blueprint in order to ensure the continuity of your vision.

Use Efficient Irrigation

Watering methods work best when adapted to the individual needs of your plants, and grouping similar plants together makes sense. Traditional sprinkler systems are designed for large lawn irrigation and are often ineffective and wasteful.

  • Soaker hoses and risers work best for flower beds and ground covers.
  • Drip irrigation with emitters to individual shrubs and trees saves water.
  • Low revolving sprinkler heads are good options for turf areas with less aerosol waste and run-off.
  • Sprinklers should be on separate circuits from drip lines since each requires a different running time for optimum efficiency.

Know your soil. Sandy soils drain quickly. Clay soils retain water. An easy way to check is by doing a penetration test.

Once you know how your soil holds water, steps can be taken to amend it and irrigation can be adjusted accordingly. Some soil can be water-repellant on the surface if excessively dry. These hydrophobic soils may need a surfactant treatment to break the surface tension. Yucca extract is an example of one that can be used in a hose-end sprayer.

Roots will grow where the water is. Minimal penetration encourages surface rooting of trees and shrubs, a common problem in lawn areas. This can result in poor tree stability, cracked foundations, and buckled driveways and sidewalks. Deeper, less frequent, watering is best.

Examine areas where water may collect near foundations and cause seepage and structural damage. Also, think about run-off from slopes. French drains or swales may need to be installed. Evaluate these situations before planting. A simple moisture meter will help measure irrigation efficiency.

Avoid Unsuitable Plants for Your Zone

As garden lovers, we can't help but admire the unusual variety of plants we see when traveling. We want to bring them home to cultivate in our own gardens.

Aside from the fact that some species are invasive to non-native areas, they may actually introduce problem pests and diseases that could potentially threaten the economy. This is why we have Department of Agriculture Inspectors at points of entry.

If a nursery in your area can't get a plant for you, it's usually a pretty good sign that it's a poor choice for your garden. Unsuitable plants for a region will always struggle. Sickly plants threaten the overall health of your garden.

Avoid plants that are invasive. These choices go way beyond your own garden and threaten the environment at large. Each state has a published list of these plants that can easily be found online.

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Consider Mature Plant Growth and Characteristics

  • Mature Size

Complaints following an expensive landscaping job usually come when the plants begin to reach mature size. The beautiful lavenders that framed the rose garden after the completion are now obstructing it. Perhaps a dwarf variety or a smaller edging plant would have been a better choice. It is important to know both the growth habit and the dimensions of a mature plant before making selections.

While walking the grounds of a nursery, you might be drawn to a 2' blooming shrub in a 5 gallon container and think it perfect for that bare spot under the bedroom window. That same plant, however, might eventually grow to a height of 15' and obstruct the view completely.

  • Year-round Appeal

The lovely scented jasmine in its spring glory would be a lovely and fragrant welcome in the entryway, but it is an ugly tangled mess when the short-lived blooms are gone. Planting it in a container with an attractive obelisk support would allow it to be moved seasonally.

  • Irritating Elements

Take special care when choosing plants with thorns, burrs, and irritating fibers. Many specimens can grow quite large and overrun planters and sidewalks. It is difficult to trim these without ruining the shape and integrity of the plant. There is the added problem of a passerby being injured. Agaves, ornamental grasses, cycads, and palms fall into this category.

  • Wildlife and Pollinator Attraction

Attracting pollinators is wonderful, but choosing a shrub full of bees in the entryway, by the pool, or near a child's play area would be poor planning. Deer and rabbits are also known to do extensive damage to landscapes. Lists of resistant plants are easily found online and in garden centers.

  • Litter Issues

Messy trees are poor choices for patios, outdoor rooms, driveways, and carports. Steer clear of those which drop pods, fruits, and sticky flowers. Others are known to rain sap or pollen which can damage cars and furnishings.

  • Allergens and Toxicity

Offensive odors, seasonal allergies, and toxicity to people and pets are all serious considerations. Do some easy research and ask questions before making a purchase.

A suitable spot for a New Zealand flax will allow plenty of room for its long blades and full feathery shape.

A suitable spot for a New Zealand flax will allow plenty of room for its long blades and full feathery shape.

Improper pruning of a New Zealand flax in a tight space.

Improper pruning of a New Zealand flax in a tight space.

Use Proper Placement

It is understandable to want a thick green privacy screen right away, but don't expect instant gratification on a shoestring budget. If you want a tall, tight hedge to keep out a nosy neighbor, be willing to pay more for mature shrubs and a more difficult installation. Choose fast growers that are well suited for your landscape, and be patient. Avoid making rash decisions during a plant sale then jamming several small shrubs too closely together.

Allow ample growing room around patios and sidewalks, so plants won't impede movement or passage. Furniture layout should never be overtaken by shrubbery, and grills should always be clear of fire hazards. Having to radically shear plants to correct these issues usually ruins their natural form and beauty.

Proper spacing between plants and structures is critical for specimens of all sizes. All plants need good air circulation for healthy growth. Fungal infections, insect infestation, and burned foliage from radiated heat are common plant problems associated with poor spatial planning. Walls, roofs, and foundations also need air movement to properly dry out after rain and snow. No one wants mold, rot, and termites to undermine their structures.

Large trees near buildings are noisy during winds, dangerous during fires, and damaging to foundations, shingles, eaves, and fascia. Overhanging branches become pathways for roof rats and squirrels while tall ones interfere with power lines and cables.

Know where water mains run and keep new plantings at a good distance. Many trees such as willows are notorious for damaging plumbing and septic systems. It is also important to properly prune for shape on a yearly basis to save headaches down the line.

Overly large shrubs can hide a home's attributes, harbor vermin, and increase fire risk.

Overly large shrubs can hide a home's attributes, harbor vermin, and increase fire risk.

This homeowner has not considered the 25' canopy spread of each tree nor the competition for nutrients. This is an example of poor spacing  between both the individual trees and the sidewalk and wall.

This homeowner has not considered the 25' canopy spread of each tree nor the competition for nutrients. This is an example of poor spacing between both the individual trees and the sidewalk and wall.

This shows an overly planted residential median.   At left, many different palm varieties have been planted in a narrow strip creating a visual nightmare. Loquat trees at right are simply too crowded!

This shows an overly planted residential median. At left, many different palm varieties have been planted in a narrow strip creating a visual nightmare. Loquat trees at right are simply too crowded!

Maintain Accessibility and Safety

There are many reasons to avoid overly large things next to one's home. Whether it's the inconvenience of hanging Christmas lights, workmen trampling favorite plants, or the risks of burglary; accessibility is a very important consideration. Here are a few examples:

  • Home repairs and maintenance
  • Defensible space in fire zones
  • Structural damage
  • Visibility and security
  • Nuisance wildlife
  • Insurance mandates

There are many attractive ways to extend beds away from walls using rocks, gravel, stepping stones and pavers. The recommendation for defensible space in fire zones is 5 feet from any structure. Container gardens are another practical option near entryways. At least, keep plants at a reasonable height and consider flammability in this time of extreme wildfire risk.

Defensible space diagram for fire awareness and safety

Defensible space diagram for fire awareness and safety

Consider the Bigger Picture

Often houses come with well established trees and shrubs, so not everyone will have the luxury of starting from a blank slate. Removal of mature plants and their roots is difficult, expensive, and shocking to the creatures that depend on them for food and shelter. Gardens are constantly evolving, and it is rewarding to be part of that process; yet, look at the bigger picture.

Work with the design elements of your home as well as healthy mature trees and shrubs when possible. Your landscape is a continuation of your indoor living space. Combine varying shapes and textures for more interest. Consider layering for seasonal color, bird habitat, and bloom.

Have a vision but be patient since it will take a few years for your garden to really reach its full potential. It is understandable to want instant gratification, especially when spending thousands on a professional job. However, a good designer will be able to see your vision to completion without making these common mistakes.

If you remember these guidelines on how to avoid planning errors, you can feel confident that your landscape design will be an enjoyable success.

© 2011 Catherine Tally


Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on July 04, 2020:

Hello Yvonne,

Your comments were such a welcoming message to me today. Thank you so much! Here we are tightening restrictions again as case numbers rise, and many have been taking advantage of home quarantines by improving their living spaces and gardens. I agree that it is nice to see. With the summer heat, most will retreat inside now. I got quite a bit done in my own garden during spring and loved every minute. The birds, pollinators, squirrels, and lizards are quite happy here. All the best to you. Stay well! I hope neither of us witness more horrific fires this season.

Yvonne Schultz on July 04, 2020:

Hello Catherine,

You are a gardener after my own heart. I live in Australia and been in the Horticultural industry for over 50 years. It is lovely to find someone online who has the knowledge that you have and is able to explain it to the home gardener in your simple terms. I commend you on your article and agree with every word you have written. I also love your comments about Australian and New Zealand plants.

Keep up the good work.

How is the Corona Virus affecting you in L.A.

Here in South Australia home gardeners are going crazy in their gardens and taking the opportunity to beautify and rejuvenate. It is lovely to see.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on June 26, 2020:

Thank you, Karen! I appreciate your kind comment:)

Karen Russell on June 26, 2020:

A very instructive and accurate account of common landscaping mistakes which are only learned after many years of gardening. Thankyou Catherine. Every new gardener should heed your article.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on June 21, 2019:

Thank you, Louise. Glad to hear! What did you find most helpful?

Louise89 on June 21, 2019:

Great info, thanks!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on October 16, 2017:

Thank you, Nancy! :)

Nancy Owens from USA on October 16, 2017:

Good advice for all of us who love to garden. I like the way you explain your topics. Very easy to understand. You really know your stuff!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on August 24, 2014:

Hello Fay,

I think we all have made mistakes with our landscapes. My main one was putting large things in bad places like walkways! I'm glad that you found this helpful. I like to share the lessons I've learned. Thank you for the thoughtful comments!


Fay Favored from USA on August 24, 2014:

Your examples are right on when it comes to planning the landscape. I have made the mistake of wrong plants for your region and planting plants that need a lot of water with those that don't need watering that much. Another issue I learned about was planting shade with full sun plants. Really good things to consider in landscaping.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on July 09, 2012:

Hi Janis.

I'm so glad you stopped by to read and comment. Thank you!

Here in So. Cal. we often use many plants from New Zealand, Australia , So. Africa, and the Mediterannean because they suit our drought tolerant landscape. Sometimes I forget how foreign they must seem to those in different climate zones! Where late Spring is probably your optimum time to plant, our best is Fall when the air cools but the soil is still warm. Plants can root well and grow strong before the stresssors of intense summer heat. The important thing is having a garden that brings you pleasure and one that supports your native wildlife. I'm sure your lovely perennial garden does that well!

All of the best:)

Janis Goad on July 09, 2012:

I enjoyed reading your hub. I garden in Canada, where we have hot, short summers with 20 hours of light, and long cold (-20 C) winters with 20 hours of night. It is so interesting to learn about the plants that grow in gardens in other parts of the world!! Queen Palms? New Zealand Flax? I am sour they don't grow here--I have to look them up to see what they are!

So happy to meet another hubber who loves to garden.

voted up.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on November 30, 2011:

Hi twodawgs, I couldn't resist the giant eraser for this hub! Claes Oldenburg pop sculptures did appear everywhere. You must have been on a large campus. Thanks for the thumbs up!

twodawgs on November 29, 2011:

70's pop sculpture - gotta love it! My college campus was full of those, they were so trippy.

As for the mistakes, been there done that. All your points are right on.

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 19, 2011:


I'm glad you've found the advice helpful. I am not a landscaper in the true sense. I work part-time in a garden center and have gathered my info over the years from observation, research, and practice. I guess you could say I am a problem-solver with a great love of nature!

elizabeth from Buncombe County, NC on March 19, 2011:

This is great advice. You must be a landscaper?

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 17, 2011:


Claes Oldenburg is my favorite Pop artist with his whimsical sculptures- couldn't resist the eraser for this hub! I'm glad you found the advice helpful.

RTalloni: I appreciate your nice comment. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoy your Spring garden :>)

RTalloni on March 17, 2011:

This is great info to keep in mind this spring. Thanks.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on March 17, 2011:

That is quite a lawn sculpture. Wow! Loved the info and intelligent words of advice in this great hub. Thank you!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 15, 2011:

I wouldn't worry about your citrus trees, Will. Since they are grown for a Mediterranean climate, it's unlikely the roots will be invasive near your pool. Have a nice swim and enjoy your lemonade!

Catherine Tally (author) from Los Angeles on March 15, 2011:

Thank you, Wendy. I'm glad my hub was helpful.

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on March 15, 2011:

I'm a major offender! I'm preparing to take three citrus trees out of the backyard before their roots can damage our pool!

Great Hub!

Wendy S. Wilmoth from Kansas on March 15, 2011:

Great article- very helpful to those of us with a brown thumb !

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