Monday, June 15, 2009

Get in the Zone: knowing which plants to choose for your landscape

One of the most common questions I hear about landscaping is “how do I know which plants to choose?” It is certainly a good query, since choosing the right plant for the right spot is key to pulling off a good design. Fortunately you do not need to spend your summers working at a garden center to learn the basics. And since I did spend a couple of my summers that way, I’ll share with you what I learned about the basics. (hint: most of the info can be found on a plant's sales tags.)

Plant Shopping Basics
* first and foremost, know the climate you’re in! For instance, I live in the West which is dry, dry, dry. It would be foolish of me, then, to select plants that need lots of moisture. Like hydrangeas and azaleas, for instance. I could plop a fern in the middle of my yard and watch it crisp in the summer sun. So don’t waste your money on plants that aren’t right for your climate, because more than likely you’ll end up paying for it.

* related to climate, do a little research about “zones.”
The landscape industry has divided the country based on climate, temperature, etc, and then determined which plants can survive within those zones. So, for example, though I love birds-of-paradise and palm trees, they are not hardy in my zone and would not survive the winter. Likewise, Aspen trees are a Colorado favorite, but do their very best in higher altitudes. Even my town, which is almost a mile high, is a little low for Aspens to truly thrive. Learn what your zone is, and then check the label on your plant before you buy it to make sure it falls within that zone.

* next, take note of the plant's changes through the seasons.
In other words, when does the plant bloom? Will it lose its leaves in fall? Does it need to go dormant for a time? Fortunately, most of this information is usually printed on the plant’s tag. What you want to aim for is a landscape that looks good all year. Therefore, make sure you have blooming plants staggered during the growing months so you have flowers from spring through fall. And consider your winter garden, too: plant some evergreens and shrubs with winter berries to add color and texture even in the frost/snow.

* watch your lawn.
Just like you are supposed to watch your interior walls throughout the day to see how your paint sample looks at dawn as well as dusk, so you should apply the same principle to your landscape. Observe your outdoor space at several times throughout the day to get a feel for the ratio of sun to shade. Because just like us humans, some plants worship the sun and would prefer to bask in its rays all day, whereas others need cover to keep from baking to a crisp.

* finally, know your plant glossary.
Here are seven basics:

:: annual: a plant that usually only lives one season in your zone
:: perennial: a plant that will regrow from the roots year after year in your zone
:: deciduous: plants that loose their leaves in the fall
:: evergreen: plants that keep their foliage through the winter
:: sun/full sun: plants that like 8+ hours of direct sunlight
:: partial shade: plants that prefer morning/evening and filtered (aka less intense) sunlight
:: full shade: plants that need protective cover most of the day for your area

Then Get Personal

As for the rest...well, mainly it comes down to personal taste.
Wild for yellow and purple? Go nuts with salvia and daisies! Like silver and burgandy? Choose artemesia and penstemon. Or go green and layer willows with grasses and junipers. Once you have the mechanics of zone, climate and season down, the rest is simply up to preference.

Heard enough? Me too! So get shopping!

Previous Outdoor Living Posts:
good bones
taking my design obsession out
ode to patios

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