In my last post, I shared the sad results of planting a shrub in a site that was ill-suited to its needs. There’s a reason why ‘Right plant, right place’ is a gardening maxim.

In this post, I’ll share factors you need to consider when deciding what to plant if your goal is a garden that looks good without a lot of coddling from you.

Monarch on Butterflyweed Summer 2017

Start by Considering Purpose

As easy as it is to be seduced by photos of plants at their ornamental prime, in my opinion, the best place to start is by considering function. In other words, what do you want your garden to do?

Here’s an example. In my latest (and hopefully final!) redesign of the island bed where all those rhododendrons met their tragic end, I got a little smarter. Yes, I wanted that garden to look nice. But I also wanted it to:

  • Provide some screening between street and house while maintaining visibility at the end of the driveway (that second bit is another story I’ll tell you about sometime)
  • Shade the south side of the house during summer (at least in part)
  • Allow maximum sunlight to reach the house during winter
  • Be easy-care
  • Provide food, shelter, and possible nesting places for birds

It’s way too easy to consider only the ‘look good’ part of the equation. If you do, you’re in much greater danger of making choices you later regret.

Analyze Site Conditions

Where do you want to plant your garden? Is the site in full sun, part sun, filtered shade, deep shade? How windy is it? What is the soil’s pH, texture, and nutrient profile?

Are there any easements or local laws you need to be aware of?

Looking a little broader, what is the ecoregion where you live? For instance, I live in the Narragansett Basin within the Northeastern Coastal Zone. Knowing that tells me something about prevailing conditions and what naturally grows well here.

You can see a list of all the ecoregions in the United States here. If you really want to geek out, be sure to check out the resources the U.S. Geologic Survey has to offer.

Where does your address fall on the Plant Hardiness  Zone Map?

How much space do you have to work with? Particularly if you want a low-maintenance garden, it’s important to match a plant’s mature size to the space you have to offer.

Yes, you can keep a plant smaller than it would normally grow by regular pruning, but do you really want to do that ongoing work?

As an example, let’s say you want to plant a garden up close to the foundation of your house. Be sure that the mature heights of the shrubs you choose fall below your windows.

Scale also plays a part here.

For instance, you may theoretically have room for a spruce tree close to your house. But let’s say you have a single-story house, like I do. Is a tree which could be 100 feet tall at maturity going to look like it belongs there?

Basically, what you’re looking to do is find plants that are a functional fit:

  • They can contribute to the purpose you have in mind for your garden
  • They are naturally adapted to the existing site conditions
  • At mature size, they fit in the space you can allot and remain in proper scale to elements around them

Do No Harm

When a plant has few (if any) natural enemies and a high rate of reproduction, it can out-compete native plants. This, in turn, can lead to disruption of ecosystems.

Invasive plants are one of the factors involved in habitat degradation, which, along with habitat fragmentation, is a very real issue of our day.

Please don’t add to that, no matter how beautiful a plant may be.

You can Google invasive plants + your state name to see which plants to avoid as you would avoid a plague-infested rat. Pay particular attention to lists maintained by state and university websites.

In Conclusion

Having narrowed your list of candidates to those which pass muster on these foundational factors, you’re ready to go on to the fun part – thinking about ornamental qualities. And you can make your choices without fear of the gardening equivalent of ‘Marry in haste and repent at leisure.’

Have you ever made choices in the garden you later regretted? If you’re willing to share, what were they?