Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles

How not to smother your beloved plants

July 8, 2017
Karen Gideon

As we work to beautify our gardens, we develop practices for planting and caring for our plants. Some sustainable gardening practices can be overdone or done incorrectly and actually damage the plants. Now that your garden is in full bloom, you may want to check this list to make sure your practices are supporting sustainable health and well-being of your plants.

• Underwatering and overwatering are practices that can damage the roots and leaves of your plant. Unfortunately, the chief symptoms for both of these watering issues are yellowing of the leaves. When first planted, the roots need to be moist and not allowed to dry out, with light frequent watering. As the plant matures and becomes established, water less frequently but deeper to hydrate the mature roots.

• We all become eager to see our plants blooming, turning our barren patches of soil into a planted paradise. When the plants are young, that paradise can be spotty so we tend to plant the small starts closer together. As the plants grow, this can cause overcrowding and competition for nutrients, sunlight and water. Research the space requirements, use a measuring tape to ensure the mature plant has space and keep spreading plants from hogging turf by keeping them cropped to size.

• When planting, dig a hole that is twice as wide as the pot but only as deep as the root ball. If you plant too deep, you bury the flare roots that need to be above soil. Amending the soil and mounding up a bit above soil level can ensure that the plant has good drainage.

• When deciding on plant placement, take the mature height of the plant into consideration when you pick its location in your garden. Avoid having to prune trees growing into power lines and under eaves. Consider the size of the root base of a plant and give it proper space next to your fence, walkway or house.

• While mulching is good for the soil and deters weeds, if you mulch over the root crown of trees and plants, it makes the plant vulnerable to root diseases. Spread the mulch 3 inches from the trunk and be sure you can see the root crown on your woody plants. If you can’t, pull the mulch away from the plant.

• Roots need oxygen and when the soil becomes compacted the plants suffer. By mulching and adding compost to the surface of the soil around the plant, moisture is retained and organic matter breaks down into the soil. Also, it encourages worms and other creatures to live in your soil and they help with aeration.

If your soil is compacted when you plant, dig deeper and add amendments to the soil, waiting a while for the soil to settle before planting.

• While we all like our gardens to be neat and tidy, don’t go overboard. The beneficial insects and pollinators we love need a place to hang out and nest. Leaf litter, downed logs and deadfall are ideal homes for these garden helpers. Leaf blowers that make the garden appear immaculate can also deter and destroy a beneficial habitat.

• If your plants have a disease or a pest, don’t immediately reach for chemicals and pesticides. There are many sustainable techniques and approaches to pest problems and diseases through integrated pest management. IPM information is available through our website at or free help desk.

• One of the easiest practices that gardeners neglect is exercising their power of observation. Walking through your garden on a regular basis and inspecting your plants is key to ensuring their long-term health. Spotting a fungal growth on a tree trunk or larvae on the leaves of a plant can help you identify a potentially bad situation before it becomes a big problem. And there’s no better way to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

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