Fancy Plantsy Choosy

This time of year, as we go through the drama of snow falling-snow melting-media outlets going through meltdown over the next big winter storm to drop an accumulation of an inch, we gardeners enjoy the thrill of opening the daily arriving plant catalogs. (How do they get my address when I have never visited their website anyway?) We look at all the million possibilities calling to us, and perhaps we just start picking out without much thought.

Today I want to take you through the selection process, or filter, I go through with each and every plant I select for Wellfield Botanic Gardens. It is a process I am using right now as I order plants for the new Children’s Garden, which is under construction as I write this. Anyone can learn this process, and it soon becomes second nature. It is a step-wise approach to reduce poor decision making (i.e. I picked this plant because it was pretty), wasted money and time.

As the diagram below shows, there are five steps, or things, to consider when picking plant material, or any other landscape material for that matter. Imagine you have a funnel with a series of screens built into it. You pour a whole universe of possible plants into the top, and out the bottom comes a very narrow list of options.

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Form Follows Function
The first thing to consider is what is the purpose will this plant serve? What is its function or contribution to the overall desired landscape effect. Do you need a privacy screen? A windbreak? Do you need a weed suppressor, nitrogen-fixer or some other bioaccumulator? To what plant layer does the plant belong? Do you want it to provide more than one function? Stack as many functions into one plant as possible. Could the plant also provide medicine, or a food source for you or others? You would not want pick a short plant if you need it to screen. Do you want complete, four season privacy or just semi-privacy for three seasons? This will affect how dense of plant you need, etc. Let form follow the function the plant serves.

Consider Aesthetics
This step may seem pretty straight forward, but think about color and texture too. Consider the plant in context of the rest of the design. Remember flowers are seasonal, but form and foliage are eternal. Design around foliage more than flower or fruit color.

Don’t Fight the Site
Your plant choice might fit the right function and be all you want it to be aesthetically, but will it grow where you want it? Considering, soil, light, moisture requirements etc, will you have to do a lot to keep the plant alive or prepare the environment for it to thrive? It is a lot less work to pick a plant which will already work with your site.

Fostering Requirements
Site consideration leads naturally to the next question: What are you going to have to do to foster the plant’s growth? What capacity do you have? How much time do you want to devote to your garden? I will give you a hint, there is no such thing as a completely maintenance free landscape. However, if you design the system well, you can eliminate a lot of unnecessary and energy wasting work.

Plant Availability
Lastly, are the plants you are interested in purchasing even available to you? I cannot tell you how many times in my early professional career, I would run across a cool variety in some compendium of landscape plants, and think it was the perfect solution only to find nobody but the author of my landscape book seemed to know where to get it (or more likely they just love the idea of the plant, but know no one sells it). I would then have to start all over.

These days, I have a whole pile of plant catalogues and internet browser tabs open, from which I select the exact variety based on what I can actually find, once I have narrowed the list to this point. I then find out if it is truly available.

When I run my list of possible plants through these five filters, I come up with the right plant for the right place more often than not. Hope this helps you, too!

Josh Steffen
Horticulture Manager


3 comments

  1. It is so frustrating that so many of these points are so often missed. I suppose knowing the plants makes it that way for me. I can not understand why people put big trees in small spots for example. However, knowing the plants does not help if one is lacking in aesthetic judgment! Ha! That is why I need to ask other who are better at it.


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