How Not to Landscape Your Yard: 10 Errors to Avoid

Applying Hippocrates to Landscaping: First, Do No Harm

Falling liquidamber (Liquidambar styraciflua) leaves on grass, The Autumn Garden, Dorothy Clive Garden, Stafordshire, UK
Ron Evans / Getty Images

Learning how not to landscape your yard is a good first step for beginners. Oh sure, you'll eventually want to find out all the details behind the right way to design your yard. But in the spirit of Hippocrates, there is a lot to be said for starting out by at least doing no harm.

Below I warn you about ten errors to avoid. Most of these errors are not catastrophic. Nonetheless, it's often the little things that add up to make or break a landscape design, so it behooves you to avoid these mistakes.

Elsewhere I list some other common mistakes in home landscape design.

Let me also note that, while these lessons are intended for homeowners who do not in any way consider themselves experts in landscape design, I do assume that you've at least dabbled in gardening a bit. If you're not even at that level yet, a better place to begin would be my resource on how to start a garden from scratch, which will help you avoid basic mistakes such as placing sun-loving plants in shaded areas and trying to grow plants in soil that is too poor to support them.

Error #1: Installing Plants Along Your House Foundation That Will Quickly Outgrow the Space

Many foundation plantings look great at the outset but then disappoint at a later time. A common reason for this denouement is the failure to research the mature dimensions of the plants involved. You may have fallen in love with that shrub or tree at the garden center, but your love will one day turn sour when you find that the plant has become a nuisance -- something that you have to keep trimming back because it wants to outgrow its allotted space.

Dwarf trees can be a great choice in such circumstances. But do not think only of the eventual height of a plant when you make your calculations. Width matters, too. That's why columnar shrubs such as Sky Pencil holly are potentially useful as foundation plants.

Error #2: Employing Ground Covers That Do Their Jobs Too Well

Their very name bespeaks their function: "ground covers" stay relatively low and are supposed to cover ground in your landscape that would otherwise be full of weeds.

As opportunistic as weeds are, it would obviously be advantageous to select a ground cover that's dynamic, something that will spread out and fill in an area (with a little help from you) before weeds can gain a toehold.

Well, maybe "obviously" is too strong a word there. The fact is, selecting the optimal ground cover is more complex than simply choosing one that grows robustly and looks pretty. Some do their jobs so well that they become weeds of a sort, in their own right.

Many homeowners have come to regret planting English ivy, for example, discovering too late its tendency to get out of hand. Some of the worst offenders are ground covers that thrive in shade: they have to be vigorous growers to make it in such conditions. And that very vigor can backfire on you.

Error #3: Making Snap Judgments Regarding the Selection and Use of Mulch

Also more complex than they might at first appear are decisions regarding mulch selection and the use of mulch in your landscape. There's a lot that can go wrong here, and the ramifications range from causing plant damage to causing yourself extra work.

A type of mulch that's perfectly good for use around many plants can be a lousy choice around certain others. For example, one year I got the bright idea of applying some pine needles as a mulch in a bed where I was growing creeping thyme. Big mistake. Winds kept blowing the pine needles into the creeping thyme, where they would become hopelessly entangled, spoiling the looks of my thyme ground cover. I was constantly extricating the needles. That was a chore I didn't need!

A mulch comprised of tiny stones can be even worse in this regard. Avoid using such a mulch anywhere where you do not plan on keeping it -- for a long time. The stones eventually work their way down through the soil and become a nightmare to extricate.

So far I've spoken only of inconvenience. But some poor mulch choices can be downright harmful to your plants. Have you ever heard of "mulch volcanoes?" Then there's the question of timing. As beneficial as mulch can be in helping you get your perennials through the winter, you'd better know when to remove mulch in spring. My FAQ on garden mulch will answer some of the questions novices have on the subject.

Error #4: Failure to Position Plants So As to Achieve an Optimal Display

Admittedly, this category is far-ranging, but it's too important to ignore. Nothing less than your full enjoyment of your landscape is at stake here. And isn't that what it's all about?

If nothing else, this is a good place to include the oft-repeated dictum of the landscape designer to plant in masses rather than in a hodge-podge. For example, let's say you've just bought a few flats of red salvia from the nursery. You'll achieve a bigger impact by grouping them together than by planting one here, one there.

But don't stop there when it comes to considering how to position plants to create an optimal display with them. I'll relate a couple of insights I've arrived at in my own landscape in this regard, both involving a Kwanzan cherry tree.

First of all, I made the mistake of planting candytuft under this tree. Why was this a mistake? Well -- wouldn't you know it? -- it turns out that the Kwanzan sheds the petals of its multitudinous flowers just at the time that the candytuft is beginning to put on its illustrious floral display. Illustrious, that is when tons of Kwanzan flower petals are not blanketing the poor little perennial. Talk about bad timing -- and placement.

But that's a minor error compared to the other one I made regarding my Kwanzan cherry. I can easily enough transplant the candytuft to another location. But I realized too late that I had mislocated the Kwanzan, itself. Years after it had already become a good-sized tree, it dawned on me that I had installed it in a spot where I would never be able to see the sun highlighting its flowers to optimal effect from my kitchen window in the afternoon.

I learned a lesson: when locating a plant, always factor in the role sunshine plays in enhancing a view. Some plants may look great when they are back-lit, but others (like my Kwanzan) may come into their own only when the sun is at the viewer's back. Also consider such factors as:

  • Where will you be standing most often when viewing the plant? Would a view from a kitchen window (as in my example) be most pleasurable to you? Locate the plant accordingly.
  • Likewise, what time of day will you be most available to view the plant? If you tend to be around the house only during the morning on the weekend, don't install the plant where something else is blocking the morning sun from reaching it.

Another good example is in locating red twig dogwood and yellow twig dogwood, both of which look wonderful during a New England winter nestled up against an outbuilding in such a way that the rays of the late-afternoon sun can cast a spotlight on their colorful bark.

Error #5: Pruning a Shrub Before You've Researched the Best Time to Prune It

Some novices in landscape maintenance pride themselves on being fastidious in running outside with their pruning shears and "staying ahead" of their shrubs, pruning them more according to whim than to research. Then they wonder, for example, "Why didn't my flowering quince bloom this year?" The answer could lie in when you pruned it. For a quick introduction to the topic, see my article on when to prune shrubs.

Error #6: Mismanaging the Lawn

The lawn is often a poster child for how not to landscape a yard. Common mistakes revolving around lawns include:

  1. Simply having too big a lawn, to begin with.
  2. Failing to install a mowing strip to make mowing easier
  3. Dotting the lawn with planting circles that you then have to mow around

Remember, having a lot of lawn means having a lot of work (if you want it to look nice). That's OK if you worship green grass and don't mind the time-sink. But it's not for everyone. Unhappily, some homeowners fritter away their free time caring for excess grass for years without realizing that there are alternatives. If you're more of a gardener than a lawn worshiper, your best bet may be to get rid of the grass (portions of it, at least) and use the freed-up space for shrub beds. There's still work involved (you'll have to mulch them), but if the greater visual interest created by the shrubs pleases you, you may find the work more justifiable.

Mowing strips, meanwhile, make what mowing that you do have to do less of a hassle. They can also eliminate the need to go back in with a string trimmer after mowing to take care of grass the mower blade couldn't reach -- which is extra work for you. Likewise, I find planting circles a hassle to mow around. Instead of dotting your lawn with five or six small islands, consider consolidating, going with a couple of larger beds.

Error #7: Forgetting About Winter Maintenance When You Plan Your Driveway Landscaping

Shrubs can add a nice touch to your driveway, especially when they're in bloom. I'm not discouraging you from landscaping your driveway with plants, just reminding you that, if you landscape in the North, seasonal change must always be kept in mind. What might be a perfectly acceptable planting for May could turn into a mistake next February.

Why a mistake? In a word, "snow." Do you have someone plow you out after a snowstorm? The plow could easily damage a shrub planted too close to the driveway. Or do you shovel the snow to clear your driveway? If so, then you know that those shovels-full of snow have to be tossed somewhere. If a bunch of evergreen shrubs is in your way, that's going to become pretty annoying after a while. And if you bury them with the snow that you're tossing (or snow blowing), they lose their value in the winter landscape (which is often their chief value). Conclusion: there are simply better places to locate such shrubs.

Error #8: Planting Messy Trees

This one is subjective. What's a "nuisance" to one person is "just nature" to another. Indeed, it's a wonder that some people bother with trees at all. They must realize, certainly, that there will be some "litter" in the landscape as a result of having trees. The only kind of tree that is totally mess-free is an artificial one.

Having said that, one can, nonetheless, speak of different levels of messiness. Some trees are relatively mess-free. A good example is Sunburst honey locust. Because its leaves are tiny, they aren't terribly noticeable when they drop. That's why you'll often find this "clean" tree used along city streets or in parks.

Some of the messiest trees, potentially, are:

  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Sweetgum
  • Pine

I say "potentially" because, armed with knowledge about your full range of choices, you can still have one of these trees while avoiding extreme messes. It is the female of Ginkgo biloba that is messy, because of its fruits. The males are no messier than any other tree with similar leaves. Likewise, there are non-fruiting sweetgums you can plant in lieu of the kinds that drop messy gumballs.

There are so many types of pine trees that it's hard to generalize about how messy they are. Eastern white pine is one of the messiest trees, because of its:

  • Large pine cones
  • The sticky pine pitch it drips, which gets all over vehicles, etc.
  • Its susceptibility to winter damage (think giant boughs crashing on your house)

But dwarf pine trees, for example, will cause you few headaches. So-called "Japanese umbrella pines" are not even really pines; they're quite clean.

Error #9: Overestimating Your DIY Capabilities

As much as I encourage you to try your hand at DIY landscape projects, you must realistically assess your abilities before undertaking hardscape projects. Discretion is the better part of valor, and sometimes it just makes more sense to hire a pro.

For example, rather than building a conventional deck yourself, some of you might want to call in a pro for the job. If you want the satisfaction of building a deck yourself (or can't afford a professional), an alternative type that's easier to build is the floating deck. Patio construction can also be daunting for someone who's not very handy, even if only because of the drainage issues involved. Nor will the average DIYer want to tackle the job of limbing trees of any great size (particularly if they're overhanging a home).

If your whole landscape needs a makeover and you don't have the skills and/or desire to do the job yourself, maybe you'd like to bring in the big guns? If so, consult my resource on how to find professional help.

Error #10: Buying a Property Without First Assessing How Its Location, Zoning Laws, Neighbors, etc. Will Impact Your Landscaping

As I stated above, most of my advice on how not to landscape warns you of errors that are less than catastrophic in nature, although having a big branch fall on your head while trying to limb a tree on your own (Error #9) surely could be your death knell. But Error #10, while it probably won't kill you, is, nevertheless, a serious one in the following sense: it could dash your hopes of fulfilling your landscaping dreams.

In my article on what the gardener should look for when buying a property, I furnish some food for thought to chew on before signing the papers for that piece of land you're considering purchasing. For example, is the property located on the side of a hill? You may not have experience landscaping under such conditions. I do. And I can warn you about some of the challenges you would face.

Related Resources:

Or if you'd like to make use of your own learning experiences to share additional warnings with fellow readers, you can submit your own landscaping mistakes.