Susan Handjian is a garden educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was a contributing editor of Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates.
By: Susan Handjian , 11:41 PM GMT on May 02, 2012
We’ve all seen them in gardens everywhere, struggling to survive, hanging on until they succumb to their circumstances. These are very often the plants we impulsively purchase on a trip to the nursery only to realize they don’t fit anywhere in the garden. They can be too tall and/or wide to fit the spot chosen for them, shade lovers planted in full sun, thirsty in a dry spot, almost guaranteeing a short and unhappy life.
The consequences of such a helter-skelter approach to plant selection are distressingly common. Love at first sight without looking into the facts leads to disappointment and robs us of the self-confidence we need to be good gardeners.
This is the heartache of many a gardener and it almost always comes back to one thing: we didn’t think things through. We’ve all fallen for beauty at one time or another, only to be discouraged because looks aren’t everything. We’ve put our needs ahead of the needs of the plant.
Don’t despair. With a few simple rules of thumb, plant selection can become a pretty straightforward process and translate into a garden that will bring joy and satisfaction, not pain and recrimination.
Right Plant, Right Place: Learn that mantra, repeat it frequently. Abandon the temptation to succumb to beauty alone, which causes you to buy a plant without taking into consideration all the factors that make the difference between success and failure.
Make a plan, and rather than buy a plant then find a place to put it, identify a spot that requires a plant. Start by realistically evaluating what ta particular spot can accommodate, and then work toward selecting the plant to match that spot.
Be as accurate as possible when assessing the spot –how much sun it receives per day, if there’s shade, what kind of shade it is, how large a plant the area will accommodate, what the soil and resulting drainage are like, and what other plants are already there so you can create a zone of plants requiring the same amount of water (a hydrozone). These considerations are crucial to plant and garden success.
Your Climate Zone: Before anything else, you need to identify your climate zone. The United States Department of Agriculture has a climate zone map based on winter minimum temperature. It is widely used, but is lacking in other vital factors. Sunset climate zone maps are another excellent resource, providing more detailed and comprehensive climate information about your area.
Your Microclimate: Within your climate zone are crucial microclimates that affect the way your garden grows. These are differences in terrain and aspect (orientation to the sun) that are unique to your neighborhood and even your own plot, which may be home to several microclimates.
Your Exposure: Full sun is generally a minimum of 6 hours daily. If you have partial shade, is it sunny in the morning and shady in the afternoon, or vice versa? If you have full shade, is it the dappled shade under a tree or the deep shade cast by a building? These considerations can mean the difference between a plant that thrives and one that languishes.
Your Soil: If your soil is unyielding clay with poor drainage, look for a plant that tolerates such conditions. If you pick something that demands excellent drainage, you’ve inadvertently consigned this plant to an early death.
Water Needs: This is a critical consideration, and is the lynchpin of a correctly hydrozoned garden, where plants are grouped together on the same irrigation valve or in the same vicinity according to their water needs. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you will always have to water a bed or border to meet the needs of those plants with the highest water needs. If you fill a border with drought tolerant species and stick a water-loving fern in the middle, you will harm or even kill the dry plants in order to keep the fern happy.
Size: Plants have two vital statistics, height and spread. You must familiarize yourself with exactly what this means, even if you have to take a tape measure with you into the garden and then to the nursery to remind yourself in unsparing terms how tall and wide 8 feet actually is. If you’re selecting a plant for a 3 foot wide spot and you ignore the numbers, nothing but disappointment awaits.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind about plant size. Within a plant genus (and certainly within plant families), there are often many species of varied sizes and shapes. If you see a plant at the nursery that you like, but realize that it grows way too large for your spot, do some research to locate another species of the same genus. Also consider dwarf varieties (cultivars), which often are perfect miniatures of a larger species.
What it all boils down to is that you need to educate yourself, and you need reliable assistance. There are many wonderful resources available, including a number of books that specialize in proper plant selection and provide lists of plants that fit certain spots.
An internet search may take only seconds to reveal an array of plants that begin to fit your needs. If you have a hot, exposed dry clay patch that needs a plant, simply lay out those requirements and you end up with an impressive list. It’s then that you begin your search in earnest.
To come up with a plant that meets your aesthetic needs and thrives in your landscape is one of the great joys in the journey of a gardener.
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