In May’s column, we discussed a quote often seen in gardening literature: “Plant the right plant in the right place.” Selecting and planting a plant that will do well in the place where it is planted (and do well without a lot of extra work by the gardener) is fundamental to a successful landscape. Ignoring this garden advice may equal a struggling plant that fails to thrive and a frustrated gardener. Selecting and installing the right plant in the right place results in less maintenance (for example, pruning), less money spent on fertilizer and other chemicals, less water requirements, less disease and less insect problems.
Various accurate sites on the internet offer excellent horticultural information; we often buy a plant because we fall in love with it with no thought of its future. It is vital to evaluate a plant’s needs in relation to your landscape. Even the most attention can not help a plant if it is not suited to a particular site.
A plant can grow too big or stay too small for its planting site. Sometimes, it can be in the way of pets and children and get damaged. Many things can happen to a plant that may be out of our control, such as drought, cold, insects and diseases. However, the choice of the plant and the place where it is planted are in our power.
We see repeated “crepe murder” because the crepe myrtle outgrew its spot. There is a size for almost every spot. If you must have a crepe myrtle, pick one that does not get murdered on a yearly basis — pruned in such a way that the limbs are cut to the trunk.
There is no such thing as a yard that requires no maintenance (every gardener’s dream) but good planning will encourage an easy-to-care-for, beautiful landscape.
Last month’s column was about the selection process — choosing the right plant. Now is the time to pick the right place. The first step in choosing that site is to know your garden. Sadly, the wrong spot can doom a plant before it has a chance.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
• Plants, like puppies, grow. That four-pound puppy can eventually become an 80-pound adult. A plant in a four-ounce cup can become a 60-foot tree. Choose the spot to house a mature plant, not the tiny little thing that comes in the mail or from the garden shop. Plants grow in diameter as well as height. One of the biggest gardening blunders I see is homeowners who choose the wrong foundation planting and end up trying to keep the shrubs under the windows, a battle that eventually is lost.
• Take a good look at your landscape and decide how much space you require for children, pets or recreation. Those may not be the best places to start a rose garden (or even have it close by).
• Study the landscape in pieces, not as a whole. Every area of a landscape does not have the same conditions. Most landscapes have a micro-climate where the growing conditions may vary from the rest of the area.
• A slope can be drier and perhaps more suitable to a tough ground cover than delicate shrubs.
• Places directly against a building may usually be much warmer and even affect the climate zone and the walls can crowd out a plant. Some plants requiring acid soil may represent the alkaline soil that goes hand-in-hand with a foundation.
• Determine if some areas are windier, as plants — especially younger ones — may need protection from heavy winds. Wind can dry out the plant and the soil.
• It is important to understand if your planting site has poor drainage which will ultimately drown a plant. Some spots are better suited to be rain gardens. On the other, hand some of us have small desert areas.
• Places with a lot of foot traffic may not make good planting sites. Certain thorny shrubs are not a good pick for sites close to people on paths, pets or sitting areas.
• Know the sun and shade patterns in your landscape. Shade plants do not do well in the sun and sun plants do not flourish in deep shade. Plants requiring part or full sun do not develop beautiful blooms or foliage in the shade. We could easily end up constantly watering a plant growing in full sun who prefers the shade.
• Know your USDA climate zone and select plants for your zone. If a plant is labeled for zone 1 or zone 11, it is surely not going to do well in our 7A/8B zone. A plant that prefers a warmer climate will balk at our cold nights, unless the gardener is willing to insulate the plants throughout the winter (à la Martha Stewart, who wraps her plants).
• Plants grow and change, making them more interesting. When a plant grows, it means it is surviving. Even if we try our best, a plant still dies; we select a new right plant and choose another right place. We may have to do this because conditions in our gardens change or we change.
• Study your planting site. If it includes a steep slope, think carefully. Slopes are difficult to mow safely and can be hard on some plants as water can wash over them. Choose a plant that can handle a slope – a nice non-invasive ground cover, for example. If you have lots of extra money, you can terrace your slope with walls and build fabulous gardens. Mulch often just washes off a slope.
• Determine how much competition your new plant will have. Is the area already crowded with old growth trees, roots from other plants or even invasive plants? A newbie will have a difficult time establishing itself in those conditions. There is only so much water, light, air and nutrients to go around.
• Determine the exposure for your planting site: north, south, west or east. A southern exposure can be baking hot and is best for plants that can tolerate a lot of heat. A northern exposure can be colder and shadier. Everyone longs for an eastern exposure — morning light. A west exposure brings the hot afternoon sun.
• Check your sight lines. Will the plant obscure your driveway, making it difficult to see what is coming down the road or perhaps prevent a driver from seeing you?
• Know where your utilities are, underground and above ground. Have your utility company mark underground utilities before you dig. Look up as well as down. We all know what can happen when a plant gets too close to a power line: a bad haircut.
• Be familiar with your soil type: sandy soil, hard pan red clay or nice loamy soil. It may be necessary to amend your soil for a large planting. Return the native soil for a single hole planting. Some plants can handle red clay, others can not.
• The correct planting style is essential to the health of a plant. Plain and simple do not bury a plant, plant it. Plants should be installed higher than ground level.
• Know your soil’s pH (acid or alkaline). Plants can be picky. Lilacs prefer alkaline soil and azaleas thrive in acid soil. It is difficult to make changes to accommodate on a large scale basis. Select a plant that is happy in what you have.
• Be knowledgeable of property lines. Adjoining neighbors may not want your plants in their gardens. Homeowners can prune your plants hanging in their yards.
• Every plant deserves a good home; prepare your site and finish the planting job. Mulch is important for new and old plants. Mulch moderates soil temperatures, helps conserve moisture, keeps the soil from cracking, enriches the soil, cuts down on weeds and protects an innocent plant from the weed eater and the lawnmower. Think doughnut or bagel shape — not tepee or volcano — as you apply mulch.
• Be mindful of a plant’s traits as you plant it. Plants with nasty thorns or poisonous parts should be given a careful home.
• Group plants with the same desires together; those who need more water together, while those who prefer drier circumstances go nicely together.
• Place your plants where you can reach them. Avoid placing plants with high water or maintenance requirements in out of the way places. Too easy to forget!
• Select accurate sources for your information when you are choosing information about the right place. Sites ending in .org and .edu usually have the most current research.
I can remember times in my gardening life when plants died quickly or slowly and they were healthy when I planted them — 98 percent of the time, it was because I put them in the wrong place. I wanted the plant, and that was pretty much all I thought about. I now take extra care when I choose a location. I have been spending a great deal of time moving plants around in my garden because it became too difficult to water them, or they were not doing well in their original place.
Regardless of how perfect the plant is, it will not be perfect long if the place does not satisfy its needs.
Do April showers bring May flowers? See the photos here to see which ones.
Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star.