‘Renegade Gardener’ offers his list of common blunders

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Too much lawn. Failure to test the soil. Planting the wrong plants in the wrong places.

Those are a few of the common gardening and landscape blunders identified by Don Engebretson, also known as the Renegade Gardener.

Don Engebretson signed copies of his books after he spoke at the Garden Education Expo.
Don Engebretson signed copies of his books after he spoke at the Garden Education Expo.

He was the keynote speaker Saturday, April 13, at the Garden Education Expo in Big Lake sponsored by the Sherburne County Master Gardeners.

Engebretson is author, master gardener and columnist.

He talked about the top 10 gardening and landscape blunders, and how to avoid them. Here’s his list.

10. We think too small and we think too straight. He recommends avoiding small, circular, isolated gardens floating in the yard. Other no-nos are circling trees with bricks, retaining wall block or landscape edging and planting one-species hedges in “a soldier-straight row.”

“Make your gardens curve,” he advised. A rope or a garden hose (rubber, not plastic) works well to lay out sweeping, curved lines in gardens.

9. We’re afraid to cut down a tree or yank out old shrubs. “Just because the thing came with the joint doesn’t mean it deserves a spot in your landscape,” Engebretson said.

8. We cut off healthy green branches from our evergreen trees. Never cut a healthy, green, needled limb from an evergreen tree, he said. Evergreens should grow close to the ground and “just kiss the earth,” he said. An evergreen can accumulate more than 1,000 pounds of snow and ice in the winter and is designed so the branches collapse, layer upon layer, to support the weight to the ground. There is nothing to support the lower branches if the bottom branches have been cut off. Plus, years of improper pruning will eventually result in an evergreen that Engebretson has dubbed The Minnesota Palm.

7. We forget about winter. Plant trees with attractive bark or shrubs that inject some texture and color into the winter landscape, like river-clump birch, red-twigged or yellow-twigged dogwood, sumac, crab apple trees and evergreens. Benches, stone walls, trellises and archways also add interest to a snowy garden.

6. We devote too much space to lawn and not enough to small trees and shrubs. It wasn’t always so, Engebretson said, noting that in the early 1900s many homes were on small, urban lots with no more than 40 percent dedicated to turf grass. That changed in the 1950s when people fled the cities for the suburbs, and were sold on the idea that their large lots should consist largely of turf grass. “They look like doll houses sitting on a pool table,” he said.

5. We plant the wrong plant in the wrong place. When dealing with trees and shrubs, make sure to find out how tall and how wide the plant is at maturity. The other solution to blunder No. 5 is learning plant culture, Engebretson said. For every tree, shrub or perennial planted, the gardener should know its preference regarding sunlight, soil and moisture.

4. We get suckered into taking the easy way out. “We are witnessing the great dumming down of American gardening,” he said. That leads to insipid products like the garden in a box, with a plant-by-number chart, he said. Resist the urge to buy them. Instead learn to garden by learning about everything from soil preparation to pruning, watering to winter care.

3. We use too few containers, structures, art, accessories and other non-plant materials. “I call containers the throw pillows of exterior design,” he said. A myriad of elements help add interest to gardens including window boxes, antique items, driftwood, boulders, benches, arbors, gazebos, sculpture, fountains and bird baths.

2. We don’t test, correct and amend our soil. Eighty-five percent of the success or failure of a gardener depends on the soil, he said. He highly recommends getting a soil test. The University of Minnesota Extension Service is a good resource at www.extension.umn.edu; click on Lawn and Garden for more information. A soil test costs about $22, he said. To access resources in Sherburne County, go to www.extension.umn.edu/county/sherburne.

1. We design and plant garden beds based on flower color combinations. Rather, Engebretson advises purchasing and placing plants based on size, shape and color of the leaves, creating contrast and tapestries. “Bloom is good, but bloom is secondary,” he said.

For more tips from Engebretson, go to www.renegadegardener.com.