Picking Plants: Understanding Is Key

Before you decide what to plant in your garden, get to know the various plant groups, different plants' needs and growth patterns, and other features that can help you pick the best plants for your space.

Garden plants come from a great number of different habitats around the world and each has a variety of needs. Providing them with their natural conditions, or as close to them as possible, is the best way to ensure that they will thrive in your yard. A plant's appearance - the leaves, in particular - can give you a basic understanding of its requirements, but it's a good idea to read the plant label carefully, too. Remember that plants which share a natural habitat will also look good together in the garden.

Plant Groups

Getting to know plant groups can help you plan and implement a successful garden.

Annual: Annuals live for only one year. They usually have a lot of flowers because their success at reproducing depends on their flowers, specifically, their seeds.

Biennial: Biennials live for two years, producing foliage the first year and flowers the next.

Perennial: Perennials are non-woody plants that can live for years. Most die down to the ground in winter and come up again in spring; some are evergreen.

Evergreen: Evergreens are plants that retains their leaves all year round.

Deciduous: Deciduous plants lose their foliage during winter, then produce new leaves in spring.

Grasses and Sedges: Grasses and sedges are evergreen or deciduous plants with grassy leaves. They can be clump-forming or spreading, and range in height from a few inches to 6 to 10 feet.

Shrubs: Shrubs are evergreen or deciduous plants with a permanent, multi-stemmed woody framework, growing from 1 to 12 feet tall.

Trees: Trees are large evergreen and deciduous plants, which usually have a single trunk and are capable of reaching great heights. Deciding where to locate trees requires careful consideration due to their longevity and size.

Climbers: Climbers are deciduous and evergreen climbing plants useful for their foliage and flowers. Most need wires or trellis to cling to walls or fences, and can grow to a height of several feet.

Aquatics: Aquatics are plants that grow in wet ground or in water, of which there are three groups: those with leaves held above the water, those that lie on the surface, and those that stay submerged.

Shade- or Sun-Loving?

One of the most important characteristics that distinguishes some types of plants from others is the amount of light it needs. But how do you know which plants love sun and which prefer shade? Looking at leaves is a good place to start.

Shade-loving plants grow where light levels are low, and whree it is protected from damaging drying winds and scorching sun; they tend to have large dark green leaves. Other plants have to cope with sizzling midday sun and exposure to wind. Sun-loving plants tend to have silver or gray leaves with reflective surfaces and protective hairs that protect it from drying out. Leathery or succulent leaves also indicate good tolerance of heat. Many plants fall between these two extremes, but, in general terms, leaves are a useful guide.

Moist and shady, sheltered conditions allow large-leaved plants, such as rhubarb and Rodgers flower to thrive (image 1). Most shade lovers tolerate some full sun during the day, but leaves may scorch with too much exposure.

Full sun and dry soil make a testing environment for a plant. Heat- and drought-tolerant plants may have silver, heat-reflective leaves, for example artemisia, or narrow gray ones, as with lavender, which minimize the exposed surface area (image 2)

Plants for Different Soils

It is easier to match your plants to your soil than to try to change the characteristics of your land. Heavy clay can be cold and wet, but it is fertile and productive once plants are established. Sandy soils can be worked year-round but will dry out fast in summer. Soil acidity is important if you want to grow ericaceous (acid-loving) plants such as pieris, camellia or rhododendron. Be aware that labels don’t always state whether plants need acid soil conditions.

Heavy clay soil is well suited for plants that like fertile, moist conditions, such as berberis (image 1).

Free-draining sandy soils are best for plants that rot if they get too wet, such as alliums and other bulbs (image 2).

Soil with a pH value over 7 is considered alkaline—if it is also fairly fertile, roses will love it (image 3).

Azaleas are ericaceous plants that require acid soil with a pH value below 6.5 (image 4).

Growth Habits

Understanding a plant’s habit helps you to place it in the garden. It also ensures you get the planting density right, so your garden isn't unexpectedly overwhelmed by vigorous growers. Height and spread are usually marked on the plant label, but expect some variation due to different growing conditions.

Mat-forming plants spread by sending out shoots which then put down roots. For example, Corsican mint will steadily creep over gravel and paving (image 1).

Clump-forming plants are exactly that, forming interesting groupings over a few years. Clump-forming plants such as the noninvasive fountain grass stay self-contained enough that it doesn't risk overwhelming its their neighbors (image 2).

Upright plants like verbascum provide useful vertical accents in the garden. With little risk of sideways spread, they can be planted quite densely (image 3).

Growth Habits, Continued

Climbers, including most clematis (image 1) take up little horizontal space because they want to grow up rather than out. Train them through shrubs and to clothe vertical structures.

Fast growing plants such as lavatera (image 2) need space when planted to allow for rapid spread. Plant labels give the size after 10 years, but check with other sources for growth rates.

Many slow-growers will eventually become big, but it can take years. Dwarf English boxwood (image 3) has a slow growth rate that makes it ideal for low hedging.

Plants in Containers

There is no reason why a container garden can’t be as well planted as a bed; container gardening is a very flexible form of gardening that allows an almost continual mixing and matching of your plants. However, growing plants in pots can affect their growth rates and restrict their size, since compost, water and nutrients are limited.

A wide range of plants will grow successfully in large containers since they can accommodate more roots, water and nutrients than small, narrow pots (image 1).

The restricted size and volume of compost in small pots limits your plant choices. You must water and feed plants regularly when grown in these conditions (image 2).

Mirroring Nature

Bringing together plants from different parts of the world but from a similar habitat, is a great way to create interesting and unique groupings. Seeing the plants in their natural environment will inspire you, and give you a feel for the conditions they require, so try to remember to take notes on what plants you see when you go on vacation or travel for work.

A plant’s ability to cope with gale-force winds and salty spray will govern your choice for a seaside garden (image 1). Luckily, there are some beautiful plants that are perfectly adapted.

You don’t need to be willing to go totally wild to create a woodland garden. You can combine plants from different countries, so long as they all enjoy cool dry shade in summer (image 2).

A rock garden is designed to emulate the free-draining dry conditions of an alpine meadow. This image of the real thing shows the effects you can aim for (image 3).

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