Landscape Gone Wrong

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The universally despised landscape phenomenon known as ‘mulch volcanoes’ can be seen in many areas. Tree trunks are not just surrounded by a couple of inches of mulch, as is suggested. Leftover or intentional, organic matter is piled up a foot or more above ground  in a cone around the trunk. Not only is this practice wasteful, it can be damaging. Smothering plant material that is supposed to be above ground soon restricts its ability to grow. Wet mulch can harbor fungus diseases; when dry, the volcano attracts fire ants and other pests. Except in rare circumstances, keep mulch layers to 2” around most plants to enable it to suppress weeds and moderate water conditions as well as look good. Reserve deeper applications to areas you want to keep wet or at least moderately damp. These might include new shrub plantings in summer drought, a bed of LA irises or a fig tree. Another mulch complaint involves new pinestraw laid down on top of old. This material packs down after a season or two, but does not decompose into the soil as ground mulches do. The result can be beds that stay dry and an ‘overly fluffy’ look that takes away from the plants in the bed.



One common landscape malady is downright dangerous – planting trees too close to streets and sidewalks. Not much is sadder than a large tree with a huge U in its canopy, Just because they are narrowly upright does not mean columnar trees should be planted in tight spaces near streets and sidewalks. Their hazard to drivers and pedestrians may only be understood when the trees approach adult heights. Blocked access visually is often matched by sidewalks raised by roots. Storm damage potential increases when standard size trees of any sort are planted too near any right of way. Municipalities and neighborhood associations realize the expense of cleaning up when one topples into the public space and may ban them. Choosing the right size tree for any site can be challenging, but do so carefully to avoid mistakes decades later. Remember, plant labels and descriptions are approximate and usually conservative when it comes to ultimate size and spread.

Try as you might, it’s hard to maintain discipline in some gardens. A woody stick comes up and maybe you planted something there long ago so you leave it. Turns out it’s not what you expected, but you wait to see what it might be. When the mystery plant is a tree or shrub, and grows rapidly, it becomes a problem. Even if it does not block a view or threaten to topple, it will need very regular pruning to keep it in the space below eaves or close to structures. Sometimes a storm creates a hazard tree. When a multi-trunked crepe myrtle or river birch loses one or 2 of its main trunks to high winds, the remaining trunk(s) do not change their orientation. The trunk is weakened by the loss of its parts and by the likely loosening of roots that occurred in the process of being lifted up by the storm. Even though the tree was a favorite, once it is damaged, it must be considered carefully and removed if its fall might injure someone or cause demolish property.

Huge shrubs in crowded spaces, overplanting of new landscapes and plantings slammed up against buildings and fences – each of these gets a bad review. Reactions are not good to commercial or residential spaces edged with chemicals that produce a brown ‘stripe of shame’ where lawngrass has been killed by drifting spray. Overgrown and unmaintained beds dismay some, as do lawns and vegetable patches gone to seed. These last are the province of pests from fleas to rats and beyond and are downright un-neighborly, not to mention illegal in most municipalities.

Take a look around this week, and if you’re guilty of these landscape sins, do some penance this week.

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