10 Landscaping Myths Busted

Have You Fallen Prey to Any of These Misguided Beliefs?

Image: proof that 2 plants can be the same type, growing next to each other, yet be different.
These two trees are the same type (Bradford pear) and growing right next to each other, yet one has fall foliage and the other doesn't. David Beaulieu

Are landscaping myths harmless? Well, that really depends on what category they fall into. That is, we can speak broadly of two different classes of misguided notions:

  1. Those of a practical nature
  2. Those of an aesthetic nature

Category #2 deals in the subjective realm, so it would not be right to term any landscaping myths of this sort "harmful." But when it comes to Category #1 (and it is mainly with this class that the present article deals), you can, in fact, do quite a bit of harm in some cases if you allow yourself to be guided by these misguided notions. So lest you fall prey to any of these mistaken beliefs, let's do some myth busting, shall we?

The More Sunlight a Plant Receives in Cold Climates, the Better

Why this is a landscaping myth:

Firstly, the "all" in the above statement is highly problematic. Some plants, such as peonies, actually have what is called a "chilling requirement," so you do not want them to get overly warm in winter.

Then there is the phenomenon of what is termed "winter burn," a type of foliar damage suffered by evergreen shrubs, such as arborvitae. It is not the cold that causes this type of damage, rather, it is excessive sun and wind during the winter.

My Tree Looks Like It's Dying, So I'll Fertilize It to Try to Put It Back on the Right Track

What is wrong with this line of reasoning:

If a tree is all of a sudden looking poorly (for example, it has brown leaves when it should have green foliage), the following are examples of possible causes that you should be exploring:

  • It has not been irrigated properly.
  • It has suffered mechanical damage.
  • It has been attacked by a pest or by a disease.

You will not solve any such problems by fertilizing the specimen in question.

Landscaping With Native Plants a Trend, So I'll let Wild Plants Grow

Guess again!

"Native plant" and "wild plant" are not synonymous. In the Western Hemisphere, the former is usually defined as a plant that was here in pre-Columbian times. Many plants that grow in the wild in the Western Hemisphere, such as dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis), do not meet this criterion. They may have naturalized, but that does not make them native plants. Indeed, some are among the worst invasive plants; as such, they are on the "enemies list" of most native-plant enthusiasts.

Cutting the Grass as Short as Possible When Mowing Means I Won't Have to Do It Again for a While 

Why this reasoning involves a landscaping myth:

There is more that's "short" in this statement than just a shortcut and short grass: it is also short-sighted. In the long run, mowing in this manner will not decrease, but increase the amount of care you have to put into your lawn. Why? Because it will harm your lawn, then you will have to put extra time, energy and money into repairing it. Learning how high to cut your grass is a critically important step in your lawn-care education.

You Have to Get All Your Planting Done in Spring or Wait Another Year

Here is what is incorrect about this:

At least subscribing to this landscaping myth will not cause any harm, but thinking this way does impose an unnecessary restriction on you, thereby diminishing the pleasure you can take in your landscaping. It is also an understandable misconception, in the sense that, indeed, planting in the summer's heat has been the death knell of many a plant.

But that still leaves fall. Late autumn is, in fact, a good time to plant trees.

Mulching Will Protect a Tree in the Middle of the Lawn While I Mow

Where the fallacy is in this thinking:

When analyzing the myths of ancient cultures, scholars sometimes argue that these stories can contain kernels of truth. And so it is with some of the landscaping myths being busted in this article. Take this one, for example. The thinking here is not all wrong, but it goes wrong at the end.

That is, you should, indeed, be concerned about inflicting mechanical damage on trees while mowing and weed whacking. And using mulch around trees is a good solution. But the devil is in the details. Do not just "dump a pile of mulch" around your specimen. Two inches of mulch, properly placed, can be beneficial. The infamous "mulch volcano," on the other hand, can be quite harmful.

Two Trees of the Same Type, Age and in the Same Area are Dying—What's Going On?

What this statement overlooks:

In horticulture -- and often much to our dismay -- what seems like total sameness between two plants and their growing conditions may, in reality, be only partial sameness. Consider, for example, that you have no idea what the dying tree's history was at the nursery where it began its life. Some plants are more vigorous than others right at the get-go. Then there is the possibility that the dying tree was harmed in some way at the nursery -- just slightly, perhaps, but nonetheless harmed enough to cause a diminution in vigor.

Not that you can automatically assume that the nursery was at fault. In your mind, everything has been the same for the two trees since you brought them home and planted them. But has it really been exactly the same? Did you know, for example, that the soil (and therefore drainage, nutrients, etc.) in location X can be different from that in location Y even though the two are just a few feet away from each other? Nor have you been observing the two specimens 24-7 since their installation. Who knows what pest or disease problems may, at some point, have attacked the one, but not the other?

Disabuse yourself of the notion that, for example, two trees of the same type, growing in the same conditions -- and planted right next to each other -- must behave the same way. Cases occur where two Bradford pear trees growing side by side behave quite differently from each other. For instance, the leaves of one can turn totally red in fall before those on the other have even begun to turn yet. The difference is not disastrous in this case, but it certainly is mystifying.

I Water My Lawn Every Day, So There Shouldn't Be Any Problems

Where do we even start in busting this landscaping myth?

First of all, disabuse yourself of the notion that "more is better" when it comes to watering grass or most any other plant. There can definitely be too much of a good thing here. Grass and other plants can be damaged if they receive too much water.

Secondly, if you water frequently but in small amounts, you are encouraging the grass to form a shallow root system. What you want is just the opposite. Watering less often but in greater amounts (within reason) leads to the formation of a deeper root system and that healthy, green lawn you crave.

I Don't Mind the Look of Leaves on My Lawn, So I Can Rake Them Up Whenever I Feel Like It

Why this is a misconception:

It is understandable that some people grow up thinking that the purpose of raking leaves is cosmetic in nature. Perhaps orders from their parents to go out and rake in autumn were accompanied by commentary such as, "It's time you got off your butt and did something, because this yard is a mess!"

While some people may, indeed, find unraked lawns unattractive to look at, the primary reason to rake leaves in a timely fashion is not a cosmetic one.

There Are No Straight Lines in Nature, So I Always Use Curved Lines in a Landscape Design

Why this is subjective:

Here it is not so much an issue of being right or wrong as it is of having the courage to admit that you are simply expressing an opinion, and that reasonable people can, therefore, disagree about this. Currently there is a cultural bias in favor of curved lines, so it is understandable that some landscape designers would tout them as the greatest thing since sliced bread. There is a strong incentive for them both to please their clients and to gain respect within their profession, and one does not win many friends by bucking trends. Furthermore, working in curved lines often calls for less precision, and such a design is usually easier for the average homeowner to maintain.

All of that notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is that there is a respected place in formal landscape design for straight lines, and some of the most iconic gardens in the world serve as shrines to the formal style. Versailles comes to mind. Moreover, it is only relatively recently in landscaping history that Western designers have taken their cue from nature. And making nature the arbiter in such affairs is a questionable practice, since there would be no landscaping at all if it were left up to nature: Landscaping is, by definition, a human endeavor.