Light intensity affects a plant’s quality and survival. Plants that evolved in the understory of tall trees prefer gentle morning light or filtered sun, while those from south-facing bare hillsides require many hours of direct sunlight to do their best. Put a sun lover in deep shade and, if it grows at all, except long, spindly stems and a weak defensive system. Conversely, plant an Appalachian bristle Fern on the south-facing wall of your Tucson garage and one summer afternoon you might discover deep-fried kettle chips. Though terminology varies, here’s range of light needs:
Selecting plants for your yard
This is an excerpt from the Book called “Yards“ by Billy goodnick . Continue reading to learn more about Selecting plants for your yard, thanks to the author.
Selecting plants that will love you back
The process of Elimination
A typical back yard garden on a quarter-acre suburban lot will have anywhere from ten to forty different varieties of plants. The variable for that number range from a total lack of self-control to having a brown thumb where only the fittest survive. Here on the Left Coast, our plant bible is the Sunset Western Garden Book, boasting an encyclopedic collection of “OVER, 000 PLANTS|” For many parts of the country, the equivalent resource is the American Horticulture p Society’s A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. And there’s the growing availability of online databases. So how is the average homeowner supposed to find a couple of useful needles in that massive haystack?
Keep in mind that developing a planting design isn’t just about appearances. Remember, my fundamental design philosophy is that yards should be useful and sustainable, too. Not only that, but as you’re well aware, you’ve got to keep the plants alive, no small trick given variations in soil compatibility, sunlight, watering, and the occasional plague of locust dining on your delectable dahlias.
Just as we did in the concept statement exercise, we’re going to begin our planting design with the big picture, then work our way down to the details.
Don’t just grow there-do something
Before we start sorting the ping-pong balls, our first objective is to consider whether any of these plants can do something for you. Yes, it would be nice to have a shrub that would do a midnight run down to the Kwiky-Mart for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, but I’m talking about plants that perform a function. A few ideas:
- Improving your comfort by shading the patio, blocking the wind, trapping dust, allowing welcome sun to warm the breakfast nook in winter.
- Hiding a busy street or apartment building.
- Controlling erosion, retaining topsoil, filtering pollutants from runoff water.
- Producing food, flowers, herbs
- Attracting beneficial insects
- Providing a soft floor for recreation and relaxation
- Composing a drop dead gorgeous focal point
Time to go back to your evolving schematic plan where you’ve already made decisions about the hardscaping components of the garden. Whatever spaces remain, that’s where your hard-working plants go. For instance, if you’re dining patio is blasted by afternoon sun, that’s a logical place for a shade tree between you and the heat source. Got a neighbor’s window with a beeline on your boudoir? Plant something tall and dense enough to give your privacy. Jot down your responses on a copy of the drawing, the same you did on your Now What? Plan from Chapter 1. Now go outside and see if there’s anything you missed.
One size doesn’t fit all
Plants come in all shapes and sizes, but for the convince of designing a garden, I divide them into four big groups: Trees, and high, medium and low plants. Time to bring out your trash cans, one for each category, and start lobbing ping-pong balls for Step One of “the great sort-out.”
Trees: These are the dominant players in the garden, usually, but not always, having a single trunk and sporting a canopy that starts higher than your head (unless you’re more than ten feet tall). We use them for shade, to screen views, as focal points, windscreens, and to add scale to the yard. Logical locations for trees include along paths (but not too close-don’t want surface roots messing up the paving), as a green colonnade, at the corners of buildings to frame the architecture, in front of ugly views, and placed throughout the garden for a woodland feeling. When I think walls and ceilings of the garden (more kinds of walls in the next category).
High: Anything above eye level when you’re standing up, and is not a tree. I think of this category as the “Skeleton”, or walls, of the garden. These consist mainly of big shrubs, but can include vines supported by a fence, wall or trellis. High plants can be effective screens, take the place of a wall for security, divert the wind, act as garden room dividers, or as the backdrop for a showy bed. Since they form the armature of the garden, I’m more concerned with their structural value and year-round appearance, rather than selecting them solely for the flowers they might produce. When selecting, pay close attention to the leaf color, shape and the overall density of the plants. However, if they do flower, they need to complement the overall scheme.
Medium: Shrubs, ornamental grasses and stout perennials in the knee-high to eye-level range. These are the workhorses in my palette, edging paths, punctuating beds of ground covers and annuals, defining spaces, framing views-and as the “muscle’ that fills out planting beds.”Mediums” are most effective in groupings of three or more plants, rather than tossed about here and there. A lot of plants in this category have showy flowers, but since flowers come and go, it’s still a good idea to pay attention to all the plant’s other attributes. Woody shrubs will usually outlive perennials and need less maintenance, so make good use of them to save time and money.
Low: Prostrate woody plants, herbaceous (soft-tissue) ground covers, smaller perennials, seasonal bulbs, moss and turf grass. Because these are generally the foreground plants we see up close, I look to them for making a garden sparkle. Floral color is usually a primary concern, but non-flowering plants with other interesting features fit here, too. Smaller plants mean you’ll use more of them, and as with the category above, be sure to include some longer-lived woody ground covers in the mix. If the tall and medium plants are the skeleton and muscle of the garden, these are the finery we drape over those forms.
Picking plants that thrive
Now you’ve sorted the truckload of ping-pong balls into four useful categories, but unless you stage a hostile takeover of all your neighbor’s garden space, you’re gonna have get rid of most of those plants represented by the balls. Call it triage time. You’ll do that by rejecting the plants that won’t thrive in your garden.
Notice I didn’t say grow in your garden, but thrive. I encourage you to pick plants that want to be in your yard, not the ones that have to be on life support to make it through the next day.
Every plant has a set of growing conditions that are optimal for healthy growth. Some can tolerate a broad range while others are more finicky. There’s no way around it: You’ve got to do some research. Find authoritative plant encyclopedias for your region, connect with the local Master Gardener program, get recommendations for a reliable nursery, tap into regional; plant databases, and put your computer’s search engine to work.
Four key criteria for choosing plants that thrive are hardiness, sunlight, soil preference and water management. Let’s take a look.
Hardiness refers to a plant’s tolerance of frost and low temperatures. The Windmill palm gracing your cousin’s lawn in Atlanta won’t stand a chance on your Boulder hillside, nor will your Colorado blue spruce work in his yard. I call it “Zone envy” and for the most part, it’s something you need to accept. Consult the USDA Hardiness maps in regional plant books and at your local nursery for advice.
- Full sun means at least six hours of direct sun. But not all sun is created equal: reflected light off a white wall or the heat-sink effect of nearby black asphalt can boost temperatures significantly.
- Half sun means at least four hours of direct sun. However, some plants will be fine in a half-day of cooler morning sun, but will look stressed with the equivalent hours of hotter afternoon sun.
- Filtered sun/bright shade means dappled light through a tree canopy, but light enough to read a book without straining.
- Full shade means no direct sun; typically found on the north side of a building (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere), or the canopy of a dense tree.
Soil type refers to both the chemical and textural properties of soil. Chemically speaking, we’re interested in whether a plant prefers an acidic, alkaline or neutral soil pH. Rather than bore you to tears with a treatise on soil chemistry (waaay beyond my pay grade, anyway), let’s just say that your best strategy for a hassle-free, sustainable, cheap-to-maintain garden is to stick with plants that are already adapted to the pH of your garden. Most local, in-tune nurseries will stock plants that are appropriate to the pH of nearby gardens, or at least warn you if that darling you’re bringing home might need special attention. When in doubt, look it up.
Soil texture (sometimes called tilth) is determined by the relative amounts of three primary ingredients: clay, silt and sand. The ideal soil type for most gardens is called loam, with more or less equal proportions of the following three:
- Clay soil is characterized by slow drainage (the kiss of death for many plants), high water-holding capacity, alkalinity, stickiness, high nutrient-holding capacity, and its nearly rock-hard, shovel-busting density when it dries.
- Silty soil drains better than clay and has some of its better nutrient-holding features, but compaction can be a problem, especially if the soil is worked when wet.
- Sandy soil is easy to cultivate, drains well and warms up quickly in spring. The trade-off is that it loses moisture quickly, meaning more frequent irrigation for many plants, and is not high in nutrients.
In addition, soil contains organic matter, air, and living organisms.
The good news is that if your soil runs toward either extreme, you can gradually improve its texture and fertility over time. It might sound like snake oil, but adding organic material works wonders for both clay and sand.
If you want to save some coin and your vertebrate, take the low-cost, sustainable approach and choose plants that are already adapted to your conditions, since making any significant change to your soil is very difficult.
Water management and your attitude toward irrigation should have a strong influence on the plants you choose for your yard. In arid regions, selecting plants that require dragging a hose around or turning on sprinklers comes at a financial as well as environmental cost. Water is essential for life and I think everyone with a garden and a bathtub needs to think responsibly about how we conserve or squander a limited and unreliable resource.
Like it or not, even the most sustainably conceived landscape will require some amount of supplemental irrigation to get established and make it through dry periods.
Of course, the most sustainable approach is to build your palette around local native plants that have evolved to survive on what the climate naturally provides. And since there are other parts of the world with similar climates to yours, you can include varieties from those regions as we’ll. Where I design, in coastal California’s Mediterranean Climate, we can use plants from regions of South Africa, Chile, Australia, Southern Europe and Northern Africa, as well as local natives. This doesn’t mean you need to feel guilty about tossing in a few special needs plants, but keeping these a t a minimum will make your life a lot simpler and hold your water bill down.