10 Common Landscaping Myths and their Truths

There are a plethora of landscaping and plant myths that circulate between homeowners. Some may carry value while the vast majority do not. The first thing you should do is question any advice that comes your way because landscaping is not a ‘one size fits all’ concept. Generally speaking, most of these myths will originate with homeowners who may (or may not) have tried something and it ‘showed’ potential. There are some myths however that are spread by landscape companies who are trying to do the right thing but may not have been professionally educated. What we as homeowners, or professionals in the industry, have to understand is that every yard is completely different than the one next to it. Some of these differences come from its location but others can surprisingly come from the construction company who built the home. Depending on how compact they left the soil around a home as well as how many building materials were buried under the soil can all play a part in how well plants perform. We see this a lot with Sod and random spots of dead grass. More often than not, the construction company buried gravel or other stone which creates hotspots and burns the roots. With that said, I will try to debunk some of the common landscaping myths that seem to have pervaded into everyday gardening.

A Native garden featuring Echinacea Lakota™ Fire, also known as Coneflower

Myth #1: Native plant species are the same as Wild plant species.
This unfortunately is a common misconception due to the confusion between the terms ‘native’ and ‘wild’. Native plants for us in the states refer to those plants that were here prior to Columbus’ arrival (prior to 1492). The term wild can be synonymous with anything that is growing naturally around your home. These ‘wild’ plants are often times adventitious plants that have made a journey from other places. It is important to note that just because they have naturalized themselves, they aren’t necessarily native. You should be careful when cultivating native gardens so as to not further spread invasive species which have a potential to disrupt the local ecology.

Myth: “I purchased the same plants, from the same place and have planted them in the same location, why is it that one is dying and the others are not?”

Myth #2: “I purchased the same plants, from the same place and have planted them in the same location, why is it that one is dying and the others are not?” (Or why does one outperform the others)
This can be a difficult thing for homeowners and even landscapers to fathom. Part of this is because we would like to point a finger somewhere. It is true that sometimes it is the landscaper’s fault, maybe due to improper planting techniques – or really complacency when planting repetitively. Other times it could be the nurseries fault, when caring for so many plants maybe one didn’t receive the right quantity of fertilizers or pest control. While external stimuli such as those can cause unforeseen issues down the road, it also is in part due to the plant’s individual biology. Much like how no two children of the same family are alike (Even twins can have their differences!) no two plants of the same species and cultivar are identical to another. We have to understand their behavior will differ as they grow and mature. This can account for why some trees (of the same species) loose leaves before their neighbors or why one shrub grew faster than the other next to it.

Myth #3: Covering a newly pruned tree with sealant to prevent infections.
While we hope we are doing the right thing for trees, this practice is much like staking a new tree and holds no merit which can actually cause more harm than good. (staking actually weakens the tree over time since it can become dependent on the stake and not strengthen itself through cellulose and lignins, AKA Heartwood.) If an infection should enter a newly pruned tree it can enter regardless of sealant. Trees will undergo a process called CODIT (Compartmentalization Of Decay In Trees). This process evolved over the course of 475 million years and allows the tree to heal over itself on every side (think of a cube). By sealing the cut, you are trapping in moisture which can cause molds, mildews, and other fungal infections. The best practice instead is to read up and understand when the best time to prune your tree is. You also, under normal circumstances, only need to prune out the (3) D’s; Dead, Diseased and Dying. Anything more than that can be excessive and stressful for the tree.

Myth #4: Amending the soil with Sand or Gravel
This process can actually retain more water around your roots rather than drain away excess. When sand is amended into clay soils it tends to strengthen the colloids making it more difficult to drain, almost like creating a mortar. The amount of sand needed to ‘fix’ clay soil would change the soil composition completely and be a huge investment of both time and money. It is best to find a nice compost mix to blend into it in order to break up the colloids. Similarly, gravel and other types of stone can actually retain water by creating a spot (or bubble) that ends up holding water. If this is done underneath a root system it is likely that this is the future cause of root rot. Materials like brick, concrete or clay end up holding water within their pores. (Concrete also has other chemicals that can leach out of it that can kill off roots.) If you are planting within a pot, you only really need to have weep holes at the bottom of the planter – I promise you will not loose your soil! If you are planting within the yard, try to amend the soil with a good compost.

Myth #5: Tree Roots only extend only to the drip line

Myth #5: Tree Roots only extend only to the drip line
In my time with landscaping I have heard this more often than not and it simply isn’t the case. Tree roots can spread 2-3 times the length of the drip line. They will spread outward rather than downward as well. Visualize the mechanics of this. Your tree is essentially a large sail when the wind blows. If the roots only went to the drip line there would be no counterbalance to hold the tree into the ground. Also, the most important soil layer is the top organic layer which holds over 90% of the nutrients that plants need. Not only do the tree roots extend to retain the tree but it also aids in soil retention and filtration.

Myth: “This shrub is deer resistant so why do I have damage from deer?”

Myth #6: Deer repellants work, or “this shrub is deer resistant so why do I have damage from deer?”

Simply put, a hungry deer will eat and nibble just about anything. When it comes to winter survival, eating is essential to maintain a metabolism to stay warm. The unfortunate side of human expansion is often the overlooked aspect of habitat encroachments. Deer do not follow our road signs nor do they uphold the neighborhood HOA rules. When we move into their territories and remove their sources of food, we only give them one other option outside of laying down and dying off: our manicured gardens which now become high end buffets. On top of lack of food in the local area, younger plants that typically are resistant have not developed a thickened cuticle (waxy outer covering) or natural bitterants that would normally detract deer. I have seen many young Camellias and Azaleas damaged by deer due to the reasons above. The best bet is to get a strong deer netting and place this around the plants you covet. We could also help them out and plant deer favorites that we don’t mind being eaten (preferably in a spot away from your gardens) as a way to keep their bellies fed and eyes off your prizes.

Myth: “This pesticide spray is organic, so it must be safe.”

Myth #7: This pesticide spray is organic, so it must be safe.
Don’t be misled by labels. Just because something is organic, doesn’t mean it is safe. Most notable of all is Pyrethrin. These chemicals, while organic, are extremely toxic to you, your family and pets. Keep in mind that the spray is intended to kill off a living creature. Many times these sprays are a one size fits most and they do not discriminate between species. It is ideal to: 1) Understand the pest you are trying to remove and 2) Understand the pesticides impact in the environment. Only by fully reading the products ingredients and directions will you understand how to effectively and safely use these products. I should also make a note that you can get into serious trouble with the law by not following these directions carefully!

Myth: “I can do the work of my gardener; I have the same tools.”

Myth #8: “I can do the work of my gardener; I have the same tools.”
While you may have the same tools, you may not have the same intimate plant knowledge that your gardener or landscape company has. They are professionals because they have taken the time (in most cases) to study the science of plants and understand their impact with in nature. Plus, they are immersing themselves in this environment and should have years of experience. The same equivalent would be me picking up a stethoscope and trying to be your doctor. While I certainly can do the labor of hearing your heart beat, I am not trained to understand exactly what I am hearing. i.e. You most certainly cannot sheer every shrub just because you have the equipment, in a lot of cases this can cause premature death. At the same time, it is advisable to take into consideration the advice from your local landscape company. Not only are you paying them for their time and knowledge, they are also in many yards across the county and can see concerning trends which they can then provide preventative maintenance. This one is not so much about performing the labor as it is taking the time to learn the plant science.

Myth: “Mosquito repellant and sprays actually work.”

Myth #9: Mosquito repellant and sprays actually work.
This one may seem like something that is beneficial, but in my experience, it not only is a waste of money but harmful for the ecology. These products kill more than mosquitos, they also have the potential to kill off beneficial insects and creatures that eat mosquitos, like fish and bats or beetles and butterflies. Unless everyone in the community is receiving this spray, it will not stop a wandering mosquito(s) from going into your yard and having you as an afternoon snack. I have also seen so many people along waterways get this treatment which not only pollutes the waterways but does nothing to control the habitat mosquitoes breed in. It is best to be proactive and make sure you dump out standing pools of water around your home to help mitigate the amount of breeding grounds in your yard.

Myth #10: I do not have a green thumb.

Myth #10: I do not have a green thumb.
Not everyone is good at something that they first start, it’s how you master a skill set. The same goes for gardening. You may not be successful when you start, but if you keep a watchful eye and practice trial and error you will get the hang of it. The other thing to understand is that just because a website or a tag tells you where to plant whatever you purchased it doesn’t actually know what is the best location for it in your yard. As mentioned above, every yard is different and depending on tree cover, time and soil conditions this can all be highly subjective. As a designer, I have learned more about horticulture by what didn’t work as opposed to what did work. Miss Frizzle states on the Magic School Bus, “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, and Get Messy!” This is the best way to learn from gardening.

Thank you for sticking it out and reading until the end. There are a lot of common practices and myths around landscaping and yard care that I have learned along the way (mostly through trial and error). It is important to note these due to the number of times I have actually had these exact conversations with customers in my landscaping past, however this list does not cover nearly all of the known myths. Not all solutions will be what we want and the hardest part is accepting things which we cannot change. Trust me, I share this headache with you. Luckily, in all things landscaping I refer to Miss Frizzle time and time again for her inspiring quote.

“Take Chances, Make Mistakes, and Get Messy!”

Guest Blogger

Joshua Clawson,

Account Executive at Johnson Nursery

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