How do you choose which plants to grow?
Seeds catalogs and garden centers offer us more plants to choose from than have ever been available before. It can feel overwhelming. All too often, we end up with plants that don’t grow as well as we would like, or that take more care than we have time to give. This guide will help you select plants for your garden and landscape that will grow well, providing food, color, and texture, while not using up every hour of your day.
Step 1: What are you already growing?
Before you add something new, it helps to identify what you already have. Established perennials, sun exposure, and soil health will often dictate the conditions available for new plants. Trees and shrubs that are already in place need to be taken into account. They may provide the perfect protection for a collection of shade-loving plants, while sun-loving varieties would wither in their shade. Speaking of shade, just how much sun does each area of your garden get each day? It changes with the seasons. Knowing just how much sun each area gets can help you select plants more likely to thrive. Most garden plants need 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight each day to be healthy. Also, keep in mind that some plants use a form of chemical warfare, called allelopathy, to reduce competition from neighboring plants. Learning a little about allelopathy can increase the likelihood that your plants will thrive.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Take a soil sample and send it to a local, reputable lab. [Over-the-counter soil tests, with those little plastic tubes, are not accurate enough to be useful.] The results of your soil test will help you prepare better for those new arrivals, as well as help your established plants. Wood chips, mulch, or a ground cover may be just what is needed. Here, in the Bay Area, acidification is often recommended for many popular plants.
Step 2: What do you want from your garden or landscape?
For me, the answer to that question is simple - I want edible plants that my family will enjoy eating. Your reason for gardening may be something entirely different. Do you want an herb garden? A flower garden? Do you want maintenance-free plants that will look good year round? Taking the time to decide what you want from your landscape or garden design through each season will help you select the best plants. I use my shopping list. If I write a fruit or vegetable on my shopping list with any frequency, I ask myself if it is something I can grow at home. Nearly always, it is, so I do! [If you are at a loss on this one, take a look at the list of garden design prompts, below.]
Step 3: Zones, pathogens, and cultivars
Before ordering or shopping for plants, you should also consider your region. If you live in the United States, you can use the U.S. Hardiness Zone map. This tells you which growing zone you are in. Growing zones are based on average annual winter temperatures and they help you select which plants will thrive in your location. You should also check out resources from your local County Extension Office. They can often provide you with information about common pests and diseases, specific to your area. You can use this information to select cultivars that are resistant to the pathogens common to your area. Also, avoid installing non-native invasive plants. While reputable plant sellers are taking these plants off their shelves, not all sellers care.
Step 4: Start shopping and planting!
Finally! Now that you know what you are working with, what you want, and what will grow well in your area, you can finally start shopping for or collecting your new plants! Remember, catalogs and garden centers are not your only source for plants:
When shopping for new plants, watch for signs of pests or disease. You don’t want to introduce a new problem along with the plant. Many plant pests and diseases are brought in on contaminated soil and plants, which is why a quarantine period is such a good idea. It allows you to break the disease triangle before it affects the rest of your garden.
Garden design prompts
Sometimes, we just don’t know where to begin. I think this is especially true when we have an overwhelming number of options. If you have absolutely no idea what you want to do with your landscape or garden design, see if any of these prompts spark inspiration:
Rather than grabbing the first plant that catches your eye, taking the time to learn about what your microclimate has to offer and deciding what you want from your landscape or garden design can help ensure that the plants you actively choose to add will be appropriate, rewarding, and healthy.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!