Fair warning: This week, you’re in for a bit of a rant. I’m sharing with you my top 10 gardening pet peeves. No, I don’t mean those things like finding some pest has taken a bite out of an almost perfectly ripe fruit (although, that drives us all crazy too). I mean the human behavior I see far too often that is harmful to the garden, the environment or the gardener.
I often mention that there are so many things in our landscape that we just can’t control, but let’s dive into a few items that we can and should control. These are the ten common garden behaviors that, to be honest, just drive me nuts.
You might recognize yourself in one or two of these. If you do, I feel a little bit responsible. It’s probably because you just don’t know any better. Chalk it up to lack of experience or you didn’t know what you didn’t know. Maybe I didn’t stress something sufficiently in an earlier podcast. In any case, I hope to change that here and now.
Pet Peeve #1: How Do I Kill It?
If I had a nickel for every time someone has reached out to me on social media or by email to send a photo of their pest problem – well, let’s just say I’d have a really big pile of nickels here at the GardenFarm™. Don’t get me wrong. I love questions! Questions are opportunities to learn and share. The problem I often see with pest questions specifically is threefold:
- First: More often than not, the damage to the plant is so minimal that it’s difficult to see in the picture at all. I have to zoom in to the image to be able to see what the questioner is talking about.
- Second: The inevitable question is “How do I kill it?” Or “What should I treat/spray/apply to or on this to get rid of the problem?”
- Third: The question is usually framed around the mystery of what’s causing the problem – what “it” even is. The gardener hasn’t identified the creature causing the damage. They just want to know how to make it stop – and now.
Look – I get it. We all love our plants and hate to see them flawed by pest damage. We usually put quite a bit of effort – and not a little bit of hard-earned cash – toward healthy plants. So, it’s no fun to stumble across a leaf that’s being munched on or a tomato that’s been nibbled. That said, I urge you to resist the impulse to destroy and, first, consider a few important points.
In last week’s podcast discussion, we mentioned that a little bit of pest damage does not constitute a pest problem. Our gardens aren’t perfect, and we need to all do a better job at embracing imperfection – myself included, if I’m honest.
Consider that, in the natural world, pest damage happens, and otherwise healthy plants are resilient enough to withstand it. In fact, about half of the plant’s foliage would have to be decimated before production or the ability to recover would be impacted.
Again, I get that you may not be willing to sacrifice half your plant to damage. My point is simply that you come to accept and be okay with some level of damage. Work on raising your level of tolerance – the point at which you just can’t stand it any longer.
Before it even reaches that threshold for you, implement your greatest tools as a gardener – observation and critical thinking.
You need to identify what’s causing the problem. If you can’t see it, keep looking. Check under the leaves. Check during the morning and in an evening. If you’re persistent, you will discover the culprit, and you can do a little research to learn its species and habits. That single step will make you a better gardener.
Once you find the it, consider how you can get rid of it without something from the store shelf. Can you squish it or knock it off into a cup of soapy water? Can you hose it off with a stiff blast of water? More often than not, one of these tactics will do the trick.
Why does any of this matter? It’s important because there’s nothing that will just kill the it in your garden. Any product you use – anything – will also kill other things. Even organic treatments are non-selective. If they kill the pest, they will also kill similar insects, including beneficials.
Take Bt – Bacillus thuringiensis – for example. Bt is pretty much the only product I use in my garden, because it’s one of the most selective products available. It only impacts caterpillar larvae. Caterpillars – that means tomato hornworms and squash vine borers, but it also means butterfly larvae. I apply Bt only where I see damage and in a very targeted, minimal amount; because I want to prevent the opportunity of beneficial insect larvae from making contact.
Other products – whether it’s a chemical pesticide, insecticidal soap, vinegar, oils, etc. – are much more broad spectrum than Bt. They will all – all – kill a wider array of creatures. They don’t know the good bug from a bad bug (or beneficial reptile, in some cases – looking at you, vinegar!)
Speaking of bad bugs, there just aren’t that many out there. It might feel like there are sometimes, but the truth is that 97% of all insects are either beneficial or neutral (meaning they do no harm). Only 3% of insects are doing harm in the garden, and many of the beneficial insects are hunters. They will take out the bad guy bugs for you.
When you apply that indiscriminate product, the bad bugs (which have evolved to recover more quickly) will ultimately come back, and there will be fewer good bugs to take them out.
When you’re ready to dive deeper in how to better manage insect pests, check out my online course – Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds. It’s just $47 for lifetime access. This course will equip you to manage pests, diseases or weeds like the horticulture pros.
If you learn nothing else from me, learn this:
If you want to make your “pest problem” worse, apply a pesticide. I learned that from my friend and expert entomologist, Suzanne Wainright-Evans, and I’ve never forgotten it. I hope you won’t either.
So, try to force yourself to wait, and if you must take action, always start with the least environmentally-impactful option before you escalate.
Pet Peeve #2: Blindly Adding Fertilizer
If you’re guilty of blindly adding fertilizer, let’s talk. I’ve said it before, but let me say it again – more is not better when it comes to fertilizer. There’s a good reason for the dosage instructions on the packaging.
Synthetic fertilizer, in particular, can be very potent. When applied without restraint, they can do more harm to plants than good.
Here’s another key point: Don’t apply anything until you’ve taken a soil test.
As a demonstration for my show, Growing a Greener World®, I purchased four different soil test kit products. Until recently, quality tests were typically only available through your local County Extension Office. That’s a great option, but there are some quality it’s available at garden centers these days too.
I collected one soil sample from my garden, and I sent some of the same sample to each of the four test labs (according to the included instructions and prepaid mailer). Bear in mind, most of my soil nutrition comes from compost. I occasionally apply fish emulsion or a slow-release, non-burning, organically-based fertilizer like Milorganite®. Those are primarily nitrogen sources.
Of the three primary fertilizer nutrients, nitrogen is used up most quickly. Phosphorus and potassium are most likely to build up in the soil.
When I received the four results back, there were some variabilities, but there was one surprising commonality. The phosphorus and potassium levels in the soil of my garden is extremely high – way past where it should be.
So while a soil test is good for learning what your soil needs, it’s even more important for understanding what your soil does not need.
An excess of nutrients can negatively impact plant health. You might think your plants look unhealthy and default to a belief that they’ll benefit from more nutrients. Yet, what you might actually be doing is exacerbating the problem.
If I were to apply a balanced fertilizer to my soil, I’d be elevating the phosphorus and potassium to potential toxic levels.
The best way to know what you should avoid – or add – is to always start with a soil test.
You’ve heard it before, but maybe you’ve just never gotten around to it. Well, get around to it, my friend, because it’s important. Plus, it’s easy, and it’s only around $30. I retest just about every year. It’s that easy, and it’s that important.
Here’s another reason avoiding inappropriate fertilization matters: Water-soluble nutrients which aren’t taken up by plant roots move through the soil and into aquifers. Ultimately, they collect in our large bodies of water, causing eutrophication. An overabundance of aquatic plants multiply as a result of the nutrients.. As the plants degrade, they use up the oxygen in the water. Fish and other aquatic creatures which rely on oxygen must move on to deeper water (if they are able) or die.
Backyard gardeners use more fertilizer than commercial farming operations. Farms must follow application regulations. Homeowners aren’t held to any standard, so our inappropriate fertilizing – collectively – is a big part of the problem. The good news is that means we gardeners are also to create big positive change. We just need to all start making smarter choices when it comes to fertilizer.
Pet Peeve #3: Poor Lawn Management
While I’m not anti-lawn, I am definitely anti-poor lawn management. Lawn is a monoculture; but in moderation, it can bring some aesthetic value to a landscape dominated by a broad diversity of other plantings.
Lawns become a horticultural villain when they aren’t managed properly – when they become chemical and water hogs. I recognize that there’s a lot of pressure to keep lawns green and health – both from the neighbors and from our HOA’s. Yet, what most homeowners don’t realize is that turf will actually be (and look) healthier when it’s cared for using a light touch.
Treating the lawn with chemical fertilizers or herbicides (usually a combination of the two) is ingrained in our urban culture as an annual rite of passage, but it shouldn’t be.
The best weed management in lawn grass comes from proper watering and mowing at the correct height. Hopefully, you’re aware that there are different varieties of lawn grass. If you don’t know which you have, it’s worth spending a little time to research and find out. When you mow at the top of the recommended height for your variety, the grass will be healthier, and it will shade out most weeds.
If you have a weedy lawn, it might take a little time and patience to see mowing height impact the weed population, but change will happen. You’ll still have a few weeds, but – just like with those insect pests – I encourage you to exercise a little more tolerance. It will be better for the overall health of your landscape. You’ll see even better results when you focus on proper watering too.
Lawns only need about an inch of water each week – in the absence of rain.
Overwatered turf is so common, and it’s often misdiagnosed as a nutrient deficiency. That leads to more fertilizer application, which doesn’t solve the actual problem and leads to nutrient runoff (see Pet Peeve #2).
Always water early in the day to reduce evaporation in wind and heat. Always water infrequently – just once or twice each week when it hasn’t rained – and always water deeply.
Roots are opportunistic. Frequent, brief water application actually trains roots to remain close to the surface. That’s the area where it dries out and heats up most quickly. Long water periods cause the water to soak deeper into the surface. Since the roots are forced to wait several days between surface water availability, they stretch down deeper into the soil to find that water.
Deeper roots mean healthier grass that will be more drought-resistant, less chemical dependent, and better able to compete against weeds.
I’ve been following these lawn care practices for years. I never need to provide supplemental water, because my lawn stays green and healthy all through the heat of my Atlanta-area summer. That might not be the case in your area, but proper frequency and timing are universal – regardless of your climate.
Pet Peeve #4: “Eco-Friendly” Mosquito Services
Mosquito spraying services are becoming more common, and I cringe just thinking about it. What’s worse is that many of them are now touting their applications as “eco-friendly” or “all-natural”. Wow! Isn’t that terrific? Nope – it’s not terrific. It’s usually greenwashing and misleading, and our beneficial insects are paying a very heavy toll.
Be an educated gardener and look beyond the marketing word salad. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. Just like I mentioned in Pet Peeve #1, natural products don’t know the difference between a mosquito and a lady beetle and a honeybee. They just don’t.
A common ingredient in mosquito sprays is pyrethrin. It’s derived from chrysanthemum. What possible danger could come from the delicate bloom of a chrysanthemum? Plenty!
Pyrethrin is broad spectrum. It will definitely kill the mosquitos. It will, also, definitely kill the honeybee and the beneficial syrphid fly and the monarch and the lady beetle. Definitely.
Pay close attention to the details. For example, I checked out the website of one of the larger mosquito spraying services touting their “all natural” and “safe” product. In their own statement, they mention that the rosemary, peppermint and wintergreen oils on which their product is based target the neurotransmitters of invertebrates. Note that they don’t target just mosquitos. All invertebrates – including all the good guys – will be targeted.
They go on to state that the targeted neurotransmitter is the octopamine. The end result is a total breakdown of the insect nervous system.
What the site doesn’t tell you is that same neurotransmitter has been found to play a major role in learning and memory in the honeybee. In other words – even if the affected honeybee doesn’t die shortly after contact – its ability to learn and remember where to find pollen will be detrimentally impacted. That means this important beneficial will struggle to find important food sources. Need I mention the rippling effect of a lack of pollination for our food-producing plants?
I completely understand that mosquitoes can make spending time outdoors a misery, and they can transmit dangerous diseases to humans. I just strongly encourage you to pay close attention before you ever hire one of these services. There are some services which use Bti – Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis.
BtI will only impact the larvae of mosquitoes, fungus gnats and blackflies. It’s the bacteria used in mosquito dunks. It doesn’t affect other species, pollute water or harm bird populations. If any product can truly be labeled eco-friendly and safe, it’s Bti. I urge you to reconsider hiring a company that uses anything else
Pet Peeve #5: Garden Soil Filled With Garbage
Have you ever purchased garden soil or compost only to discover it’s rife with garbage? It’s happening more frequently these days. You could invest a lot of money for what should be a quality material – only to find glass, bits of plastic, or other inappropriate materials.
If you’re purchasing bagged product, check it before you add it to the garden and do not hesitate to return inferior quality. More often than not, the quality problem arises with bulk soil & compost. There’s only one good way to prevent this frustration and that’s an in-person inspection of what you’re buying.
Visit the supplier and ask to see what they would deliver. Run your fingers through it to check consistency and look at it closely. Smell it to confirm it has the nice earthy scent you would expect. A sour smell is an indication of a problem.
Look for compost marked as STA Certified by the U.S. Composting Council. As a brand partner with this organization, I learned that a supplier providing product that includes garbage would not meet the certification standard. If what you’re buying is STA Certified Compost, you can feel good about what you’ll be adding to your garden.
Pet Peeve #6: Poor Planting Practices
New plants can be expensive – particularly trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, many gardeners underestimate the importance of proper planting for this new investment. Poor practices will cause a plant – especially trees and shrubs – to be less vigorous. It will be more susceptible to pests & disease and could strangle or otherwise lead to the death of the plant. That’s not alarmist – that’s cold, hard fact.
Some key points for proper planting:
- Liberate plant roots before placing it into the ground
- Don’t plant too deeply.
- Don’t amend the planting hole with good soil, compost, etc. (numerous university studies have proven it’s better for root health to backfill with native soil)
Here’s what really drives me nuts about this particular issue. When a home gardener doesn’t follow these practices, it’s often simply due to a lack of awareness. I have no complaint with a gardener striving to learn and do his or her best.
It’s the professional landscape crews who are irresponsibly planting poorly that lights my fuse. There are some good ones out there to be sure, but sadly, there are many who take a haphazard approach.
If you hire a crew for a project on your property, be sure to talk to them before they begin work to put each member on notice that you expect them to follow proper planting. Don’t hesitate to keep an eye on things to make sure they do exactly that.
Once, I hired a crew to help with a large planting project and discovered that some had pulled the 3-gallon shrubs from the container and plunked them straight into the ground. That’s not ignorance. That’s laziness. Do you know how I discovered this happened? It was when I noticed some of those shrubs dying.
Trust me – taking the extra care to plant properly will pay off in the long-term health of the plant. So, you won’t lose your investment, and – just as importantly – you will spend less time and resources in treating it for problems that arise from starting off on the wrong foot.
Pet Peeve #7: Mulch Volcanoes
Once you get your plants into the ground, I strongly recommend a layer of mulch. If you’ve caught even a few of my podcasts, you’ve already heard that advice a few times.
Here’s what you don’t do: Do not create a mulch volcano.
You’ve seen those mulch volcanoes, right? An enormous heap of mulch piled up several inches high against a trunk that tapers down to the ground. Sometimes, that pile of mulch covers over a foot of tree trunk!
It looks ridiculous, and it is ridiculous. It’s a huge waste of mulch, and it’s not healthy for the tree. The heap creates the ideal environment for pests and diseases to attack the tree, and it traps moisture around the trunk – which needs air flow.
So, what’s the benefit of the mulch volcano? None. Zero. Zilch. There is no benefit. Well, unless you’re a landscaping company looking to disguise the fact that you didn’t plant the tree deeply enough. That’s why it’s usually landscaping crews who enact this crime against horticulture.
Never use mulch volcanoes. Don’t let your family use mulch volcanoes. Don’t let your friends use mulch volcanoes. Just say no to mulch volcanoes. Get the picture? Enough said.
Pet Peeve #8: Dyed Mulch
Speaking of mulch, I mentioned last week that I recommend against dyed mulches. The dyes aren’t the problem. The concern lies in what the dye might be disguising. What was the mulch material source? You don’t know!
Commercial mulch products might be ground up treated wood from a deck or playground. Care to know the most volatile part of treated wood? The chemicals leach most quickly from cut ends – like all those tiny, ground up bits of mulch.
Dyed mulch is commonly ground up shipping pallets, and those are sometimes treated with methyl bromide. That’s a deadly pesticide you don’t want near the creatures in your garden or around your family or pets.
I’m not saying all dyed mulch contains chemicals. It doesn’t, but the risk is there. So, I will always recommend that you stick with a natural mulch – to see what you’re spreading around your plants.
Pet Peeve #9: Instant Gratification
As we come down the home stretch on the week’s rant, let’s talk about instant gratification. We all want it, right? It just feels good to have a newly-planted landscape look immediately lush and full. I urge you to resist that urge.
Before you purchase those plants – and especially before you ever put them into the ground – pay attention to their cultural requirements. Their light and water requirements are critical of course, but what I’m specifically addressing for this pet peeve is size.
How tall and wide will each plant be after 5 years or 10 years? Too often, I’ve seen lots of young plants crowded together to create that sense of fullness or an instant impact – like a hedge screen. Within a couple of years, those plants get taller and wider – and crowded.
As light and air flow are restricted by crowded foliage, the pests and diseases making the rounds in your area become very happy. They love dark and damp spaces. Plus, the plants will begin to look unhealthy, because they are unhealthy.
You’ll wind up spending more time and money managing problems, and you’ll have to cut the plants back significantly or remove some altogether.
Try to avoid going for a finished look now. Exercise the patience of wise gardeners and allow each plant time and space to fill out, as it’s predisposed to do.
Pet Peeve #10: Tree Topping
Ok – I’ve saved the worst for last. Buckle up, because this one really gets me mad. It’s the practice of tree topping.
I will never understand why anyone would ever attack a big, beautiful hardwood tree and lop off the canopy – tabletop style. It’s like a beheading. Suddenly, the living thing that was harboring and feeding wildlife, sequestering carbon, providing shade, and expelling oxygen (not to mention adding beauty and grace to our visual experience!) is cut back to a bare, husk of its former self.
Oftentimes, this tragedy occurs in the name of safety or to protect branches from falling on a house. That unfounded fear is usually placed on homeowners by who I like to refer to as Johnny Chainsaw. He’s the guy with a pickup truck and a chainsaw. He shows up in the neighborhood with dark warnings of a potential tree problem from damage or disease. He talks homeowners into hiring him to “take care of the problem.”
Tree topping doesn’t take care of a problem. It creates a problem.
I’ve seen more beautiful, healthy trees topped than I care to think about. What’s worse, a tree that’s been topped once usually becomes the victim of an annual topping ritual. I’ve witnessed so many large, majestic, vibrant trees that died within a few years of repeated topping.
Trees aren’t able to recover from this type of event. The root system of a tree is taking up water and nutrients, but it’s the foliage of the tree that is photosynthesizing to produce food energy the tree must have for survival also.
When foliage is sheared from a mature tree, it jumps into action in an attempt to survive. Trying to generate new foliage as quickly as possible, it sends up vertical shoots called water sprouts. The shoots emerge straight up from the trunk (or what’s left of branch stubs) in a silent scream for photosynthesis.
Water sprouts are long, thin and spindly (often growing up to 20 feet in a single year). They don’t emerge from a strong connection to the main tree. So, the very reason for removal of the tree canopy – the fear that it would break away and fall – is now a genuine likelihood. Water sprouts are much more likely to break off than a branch would ever be.
So, please, send Johnny Chainsaw packing and spread the word that others should do the same. That’s not just me talking. Tree topping is not endorsed by the International Society of Arboriculture or any professional arborist.
If you have a concern that an area of a tree needs removal, reach out to a certified arborist for an hour’s consultation. Check their credentials. He or she should have an actual certification number. After walking your property, they will advise you on a proper course of action.
You may need to hire someone to do some removal of a damaged area or thinning. However, there is a proper way to make those cuts, and a certified arborist will never recommend a tree be topped.
Proper pruning or removal of tree branches might not be cheap, but tree removal is more expensive. I’m here to tell you that once you top a tree, you can bank on the fact that you will be hiring someone to remove that tree a few years later.
Ok, so, repeat after me: I (insert your name here) do solemnly swear that I will never again participate in any of these crimes against horticulture. I will encourage others to avoid them in their landscape too.
Honestly, I hope that this garden rant has provided you with either a new approach to consider or good information that you can share with others who you’ve seen practicing these particular pet peeves. You can listen in while I voice my feelings on these subjects by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
How about you? Do you have a particular pet peeve that I haven’t covered here? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy Three popular online courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access!