Right Plant, Right Place

By: Susan Handjian , 11:41 PM GMT on May 02, 2012

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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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7. CastleInk
1:36 AM GMT on January 30, 2013
Thanks, this info about climates has been very helpful.
Castle Ink
Member Since: September 7, 2008 Posts: 2 Comments: 0
6. Bobo87
7:43 PM GMT on November 27, 2012
Some good info here! Unfortunatly I live in Ireland so the weather is pretty much the same all year round! We do get a summer but its not amazing! Ink cartridges
Member Since: November 27, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
5. Susan Handjian
6:09 PM GMT on June 11, 2012
Greetings Crab,

Many thanks for the kind words. It's so interesting to hear about your Caribbean gardening experiences.

Regarding your questions about cocopeat: is that what we would call coconut coir here in the States? It's becoming quite popular as a soil amendment to replace peat moss. Do you use it as a mulch?

Soil health is something I'm going to be covering in my next blog, but let me mention now that I prefer using compost and mulch applied on the soil surface, allowing the abundant microorganisms do the work of "amending". This no-till method is proving to be very effective, although for many of us accustomed to digging something into the soil it is somewhat counter-intuitive.

I'll keep you in mind while I continue to work on the soil post.
All the best,
Member Since: October 4, 2011 Posts: 17 Comments: 7
4. hurricanecrab
9:04 PM GMT on May 21, 2012
Greetings greenthumber Susan, and nice to meet you!

Really excellent advice and taken to heart. I live in the Caribbean, and we sometimes get this notion that because our growing season is essentially all year 'round, that we can plant anything at any time. Nope.

I had occasion recently to plant open-pollinated Aussie tomatoes. I tried to treat them like regular tomatoes, and they wilted, and they almost died. I'd made a beautiful curved trellis for them to grow upon, and it was even partially shaded from the brutal midday sun. Nothing seem to work, until, in complete exasperation, I just let them go.

Turns out they were expending most of their energies (or so I presume) toward growing over and past all my obstructions. Once I left them alone, the grew like vines toward a small tree about seven feet away and roamed around that area, setting fruit and becoming quite bountiful. No cracking or crazing of the fruit, and true to the claim of the species, they require very little water. ... ... they just have to be allowed to go on walkabout.

I bought several citrus trees (Seville oranges) from the local agriculture department. They were very difficult to keep alive, so I started moving them around the property, looking for where they'd be happy. Of the six, I killed two before finding out that they wanted morning sun and not much else. The remaining four are doing great!

Companion planting also serves us well down here, and I suspect nearly everywhere. Sometimes a plant will grow when teamed with something else, where it would not be happy alone.

Appreciate your advice and words...... and now you're added to my favorites. Really look forward to your next offerings!


p.s. really miss the Bay Area. Be glad you're not trying to fight the muses and grow things in Walnut Creek. :D

p.p.s.s. Okay, I'm prone to verbosity; sorry about that. Regarding water conservation, perhaps you could speak to us about including soil amendments that help plants? I make coconut oil, so I use a LOT of cocopeat. I have no idea what the rest of the world uses. I think most of us want to use things that are sustainable within our environments, without having to buy expensive soil amendments.

Member Since: January 20, 2005 Posts: 64 Comments: 9247
3. ij24
2:39 PM GMT on May 16, 2012
I am also a lover of plants and flowers and I even have my garden printed out using cheap printer cartridges because it is so lovely. One important consideration that must be remembered is to carefully assess all of the present elements in a place before deciding to plant. It takes some effort and time to garden and for sure you wouldn't want any of these to just be put to waste.
Member Since: May 16, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
4:02 PM GMT on May 07, 2012
I am all too notorious of doing some of the things you describe, but I have been learning! My problem is, I purchase plants with the notion of exactly where I want to put them, but unfortunately when they arrive the beds I wanted to plant them in aren't ready yet usually due to laziness. Thus they sit in thier shipping container, doomed to an ill fate. Now I try to have the beds prepared prior to even ordering my plants, which greatly decreases loss!

Now I just have to remember to keep the dang things watered!! LOL!

Thank You again for the great read!
Member Since: July 20, 2009 Posts: 23 Comments: 1394

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About gardencoach

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.