Picking Plants: Understanding is Key

Before you decide what to plant in your garden, it's worth getting 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.

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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).

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Excerpted from Garden Design

©Dorling Kindersley Limited 2009

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