The Mistakes I Made This Year

The “year of renovation and renewal” for my garden was an ambitious project. I had two gardens that were useless, one because of weeds and the other because of its construction – filled with gravel, rocks and buried stepping stones with a scant inch of soil over them. I wanted both of those fixed. One, the island bed, I could do myself with just some heavy work that was done by my son. The other needed professional work.

I also needed more than the usual spring tree work done, another professional job. I had two gardens in need of intensive weeding. My dock was in ruins. And I wanted my house painted. This was done by my daughter, who was formerly a professional painter.

  1. The wrong landscaper

I relied on a friend’s recommendation for a landscaper to renovate the slope garden in my back yard, the one that was so poorly built as to be unusable. This turned out to be a bad decision. I was overcharged for a job that did not turn out particularly well. While I did get a usable bed out of it, the topsoil delivered was utterly filled with weed seeds, the finished project was not the rock garden I wanted but simply two large, tiered beds, and the stepping stone staircase was simply bungled. It cost another $200 to have the staircase fixed. Moral: Get more than one estimate, and use Angie’s List!

  1. Having the bluestone pathways power washed

The paths were ruined by being power washed. To be fair, I don’t think the contractor had been asked to do this before, so neither of us anticipated the results. The stones weren’t particularly well set to start with (as I inherited them), and the result was that all the soil holding them was washed away, leaving me with nothing but pieces of bluestone sitting on top of soil.

Two landscapers I consulted both said repairing the pathways would be a difficult and expensive job and suggested replacing them instead. Neither of these alternatives was within my budget. I’m left with a bunch of unstable pieces of bluestone on walkways (in my shady garden) that are hazardous for someone whose balance is imperfect. I might be better off removing the bluestone altogether for now.

  1. Worst mistake #1: Buying plants when I knew I shouldn’t

I should have resisted this, painful though it would have been. First, I bought plants without any idea where I’d put them. And some of the purchased plants still aren’t in the ground, and the hottest time of the year isn’t great for planting, either for me or for the plants. And then, I bought a few things for fall planting. I never do this and don’t know what possessed me to do it this year. Those plants – irises and puschkinia – are going to die in their boxes.

  1. Not doing my homework

This really goes back to last year, when I bought the weeping pussy willow tree (salix caprea ‘Pendula’). The catalog picture was so lovely that I’d had my eye on it for years. What I didn’t do was look up what it would look like after the catkins were gone and it leafed out. I’d have seen the large and boring leaves that turn it into a green Cousin Itt-shaped super-solid mass. The downward-growing branchlets grow very fast – I’ve already had to trim them back two or three times this summer to keep them from shading out nearby perennials.

Now maybe with creative pruning I can turn this small tree into something with a more interesting, less dense shape over the course of a few years, but in the meantime it just does NOT suit the position it’s in. And if I’d done my homework, I wouldn’t have purchased it in the first place (and it was quite expensive).

  1. Overestimating Roundup©

First off, I tried a garden weed and grass killer on the island bed (the one that was useless because of all the weeds. That was a mistake: it wasn’t powerful enough. I switched to Roundup after waiting a week for the original weed killer to do the job. Roundup is relatively slow-acting, or so it seemed to me in my impatience, and it took three applications to zap everything. Even then, there were places I couldn’t use it because the weeds were too close to existing perennials and shrubs.

This threw my timetable seriously out of whack.

  1. Not planning where to put new plants

…and not labeling a few that were important when they were taken out. Which were the ‘Mighty Chestnut’ daylilies (I could have labeled these)? I was only sure of one. Since then, when they bloomed, I identified the two other of the ‘Mighty Chestnuts,’ but do you think I labeled them then? Noooo. And now I’ve forgotten which ones they were again.

I did manage to make a design for the island bed that used a number of the new plants, and I did know where the dwarf hostas would go. But beyond that, I mostly had no idea – and in many cases, I still don’t. All I know is that the astilbes and other hostas have to go in the shade and the irises in the sun. WHERE in the shade and sun, though. I don’t have many openings because of …

  1. Worst mistake #2: Not weeding intensively enough

Since I had bought plants, I needed places for them. Since I hadn’t pre-planned where to put them, I didn’t know where weeding was going to be most important. And since Preen utterly failed to control weeds in the sloping bed’s new topsoil, I had a monster to contend with for plants I did know I wanted to add there. Roundup wasn’t going to be the answer in any of the beds besides the island, except in a few specific places; hand-weeding was the only possibility.

I did a LOT of weeding, don’t get me wrong. But I didn’t do enough before the weather got too hot to work. Which brings us to…

  1. Worst mistake #3: Underestimating the time required to do all this

Combine all the mistakes above and it all boils down to this. Because I’m heat-intolerant, I really needed to get all the planting and re-planting done before hot weather set in… and I couldn’t. The island bed is almost done – just needs two more ‘Mighty Chestnut’ daylilies and for the mulching to be finished, but this isn’t going to get done. The biggest problem is that I have so many plants left in pots, either ones that were removed from the two gardens that were made over, or things I ordered. Worse yet, I still don’t know where to put some things. The two dwarf chamaecyparises are supposed to be hardy here, but when I had them before, neither survived the winter. They’re in planters now, and look lovely, but can’t be overwintered that way (unless maybe in the garage? They’d get no light there.)

I can’t decide where to put the two mock orange shrubs. I have at least five hostas still to plant, an iris, 9 astilbes I don’t know where to put, a few sedums and a couple of lilies (ditto), and a few other odds and ends. Most of these I could have just stuck in the ground somewhere as long as the light was appropriate (after I made room by weeding), but a few had to be placed carefully, like the mock orange and at least one of the sedums. But this idea all went to naught.

This was the case during the hottest time of the year – the time when I am least able to work outdoors – and has continued into the end of October because my back wouldn’t allow me to do any heavy work. Now everything that wasn’t planted is going to have to be overwintered in the garage.

Looking Back

Of all the mistakes I made, it’s apparent #3 – buying new plants – has caused the most problems. 80% of the plants still in pots are things I purchased new this year. Mistake #6 is a direct result. And those plants are what made weeding (#7) so critical and what led to #8, the other two worst mistakes.

What to do?

It’s too late to fix some things, like the ruined bluestone pathways or underestimating how much time I’d need. I expected to be able to weed a little as the weather cooled, and do some planting, but serious back problems ruined that plan.

The other thing I can do, though, is reflect on my successes. I have a new, beautiful dock. My house is painted. The island bed IS planted in a design, weaving the colors of blue, white and orange in a pleasing pattern that will become much more apparent next year. It has room to add more as well, and I plan to edge the whole thing with white sweet alyssum each year.

The electrical work I had done indoors benefits me every day, especially the new LED lights in the kitchen ceiling. And there was the unplanned bonus of getting a new car that I absolutely LOVE.

Last but not least, I’ve made myself stronger and healthier with all the outdoor work. So in spite of the many serious mistakes I made, the Year of Renewal and Renovation has been a winner so far.

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