Common, Ordinary Gardening Oops

The first day of the month is GOOPs day at Joene’s Garden, the day when I share a Gardening Oops – that’s what GOOPs stands for.  On GOOPs day I generally recount a gardening miss-step I’ve committed during my thirty-plus years of digging and sowing, but my focus this month is on common, ordinary GOOPs I encounter while caring for for the gardens of others and coaching clients on proper gardening tactics.

I’m asked a lot of questions and end up trying to fix a lot of GOOPs, but the following three stand out as extremely common.

Planting in poor soil.

Food provides nutrients to us. Soil does the same for plants. Remember this before you sink a newly purchased plant into the ground. If the soil is the color of sand, filled with rocks, and impossible to dig into because it is packed down, think of it as a Twinkie. Would you expect yourself or your kids to be able to thrive on the ‘nutrients’ from Twinkies? Don’t expect a plant to do so either.  Soil – and I use this word tongue-in-cheek – back-filled around building foundations is rarely plant-ready. The beautiful, healthy shrubs or perennials you just picked up at the garden center will not thrive planted in Twinkie soil. Before planting, work compost – the fruits and vegetables of soil nutrients  – into the poor soil around most foundation beds. Compost, available in handy bags from the garden center if you don’t make your own, introduces nutrients plants need and the soil-building microbes that will continually work to maintain soil health. Plus, compost will improve the moisture-holding capacity of the soil. After planting, mulch with aged wood chips, shredded wood, chopped dry leaves, or weed-free straw. Each will hold soil in place during watering and rainfall, maintain soil moisture so you can water less, help control weeds, and help feed the soil microbes that work to make your soil and plants healthy.

Mulch mounds, mulch volcanoes.

Mulch is a wonderful thing … too much is not. About two to three inches of shredded wood or other types of mulch is beneficial in planting beds and around trees for all the reasons I just listed above. Deeper mulch, mulch pushed up to the crown of plants, or mulch piled against the trunks of trees is not good.

Please, please, please DON’T CREATE MULCH VOLCANOES … unless you want to slowly kill trees.


Think of how skin looks after being bandaged too long? It gets all white and wrinkly and weak-looking. Tree bark – a tree’s skin – does the same when covered my mounds of mulch. Weakened bark is susceptible to insects and disease.  Mulch volcanoes also prevent moisture from reaching a tree’s feeder roots along the surface of the soil. A tree mulched like the photo above sends feeder roots up into the mulch in search of moisture. None of this is healthy. Trees should be planted so the flair at the base of the trunk is at soil level. Keep mulch about an inch from the trunk and only an inch or two deep encircling the base of the tree.

Too much mulch in planting beds similarly prevents plant roots and soil microbes from getting the air and moisture they need to perform their amazing act of nutrient transfer – microbes create soil nutrients through their digestion process, plant roots take up these nutrients. Too much mulch slows/stops this process and weakens plants.

I asked at [insert name of any big box/big-chain store] and they said …

I’m sure some big-box/big-chain employees know plants and can offer sound advice. However, my experience hasn’t identified any. I was recently shown a photo of a bug on a vegetable plant and asked what to do about it. My advice was to squish it or hand-pick it … it was not a terribly prolific type of bug, one easily controlled by simple vigilance. I was told the ‘advice’ offered by a big-box store employee regarding the same bug on the same plant was to spray the plants with a harsh chemical insecticide.

If you find a bug or a disease on a plant please seek advice from your local garden center, preferably one well-versed in organic practices. They are more likely able to identify diseases, pests, and plant problems common to your local area. If this resource is not available then seek advice from local experts. In Connecticut contact the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station or the Home and Garden Education Center at UConn.

Now that you’ve read my July 2012 GOOPs, please share one of your own in a comment below or on your own blog (just leave a teaser comment below). Don’t be shy … we all make mistakes.  If we share, we can learn from one another.

Garden thoughtfully …

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4 comments for “Common, Ordinary Gardening Oops

  1. July 1, 2012 at 8:59 am

    These are certainly the three most pervasive errors around. And why landscapers can’t learn not to pile mulch up around trees is an enduring mystery — the correct information is out there everywhere, it’s so easy to simply not mound it up, and yet the practice persists and persists. Aaargh.

    My gardening oops is on my blog today, and it is about a stupid container that looks really dumb. Aaargh again.

    • July 1, 2012 at 9:59 am

      Laurrie, when it comes to volcano mulch I think one copies another, and so on. People don’t seem to stop and think about what they’re doing, copying is easier.

  2. July 3, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Joene, you’re certainly hitting a lot of helpful notes, including advice on making soil, one of my favorite activities; it allows me to tailor my mixes to the needs of various plants – fast draining, or water retentive, for example. Practicing gardening chemistry is big fun.

    • July 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm

      Absolutely, Lee … gardening chemistry is especially big fun when the magic works.

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