Life Times Newsletter

Spring 2009
Vol. 11, No. 2



Yard trick: 3 tips for a successful landscape

Nathan Brandt, MS
Horticulture Specialist

Several gardening blunders have taken on “perennial” traits in our landscapes. Regardless of the reasons for this phenomenon, the rule should always be: Take advice from those who know.  University of Missouri Extension bases its advice on unbiased, accurate research. Here are three tips you can count on when deciding what to do in your yard this year.


1. Don’t volcano-mulch. This term describes the harmful practice of piling mounds of mulch around tree trunks. You don’t have to look far to find a tree that has been smothered by an inexperienced landscaper this spring. Hear this now—volcano mulching kills trees! Normally, tree bark does an adequate job of preventing disease and insect damage. A pile of water-holding mulch, however, softens the bark and makes it an easier target for wood-rotting fungi and insects. Furthermore, diminished oxygen levels below the pile bring roots to the surface where they can be damaged by summer drought. Mulch in place of grass around a tree can prevent trunk damage from lawn equipment, however. It also reduces root competition with your lawn. Just be sure it is no more than one to two inches deep and there is no mulch in contact with the trunk.

2. Take care of your soil. So much of plant health has to do with what is going on under your feet. Yet, many make no connection between soil quality and plant performance. Whether you are troubleshooting a problem spot in your lawn or thinking about some new plantings, get your soil tested first.

University of Missouri Extension provides this service. Our recommendations will tell you if the pH is too high or low, what the nutrient levels are like, and if you have adequate organic matter. These factors can make a big difference. Collect the sample with a shovel, auger, or soil probe. Take 8 to 10 samples from the area you want to use for planting, and mix them together. Do this at a depth of 3 inches for lawns and 6 inches for everything else. We’ll need two cups of air-dried soil to run the test. Visit for a list of locations to take the samples in East Central Missouri. (In St. Louis, a second drop-off site is now available at Sugar Creek Gardens in Kirkwood.) The cost for the soil test varies but is $20 or less. You’ll receive test results 10 days to two weeks after submitting the soil sample.


3. Buy for quality, not quantity. The business of growing and selling landscape plants is very competitive. Weather places tough constraints on the success of growers and retailers alike. The temptation to reduce quality to increase profits is ever-present.

Unfortunately, consumers don’t always detect compromises in plant quality. To save on labor, trees are often planted too deep in their containers. As a result, often less than half the volume of the container is actually occupied by roots. Insect and disease problems are also common but are unnoticeable to the average consumer.
That is why I recommend buying plants from those whose livelihood depends on it. Businesses selling plants as a seasonal supplement to their “regular” products have less incentive to ensure customer success and are less likely to have knowledgeable horticulture staff.  The next time you purchase plants, consider that a few extra dollars might mean the difference between short-lived fiscal health and long-term plant health.


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University of Missouri Extension Editor: Roxanne T. Miller