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Selecting the best plants for your garden

Hooray! Spring is really here with its rainy days, windy days and beautifully sunny days. So, it is time to visit the garden center and buy new plants for your home and garden. Many people want help in selecting just the right plant for their particular location. Plant selection is tricky and should be based on a number of factors. First and foremost, evaluate your planting site. Does it get full sun, partial shade or is it shady all the time? Is it dry, moist, well-drained? Is the soil sandy or clayey? Are there competitive plants nearby? Are there walkways or buildings close to the planting space? All these factors should be considered when selecting the best plant for any landscape. Remember to learn how large a plant is expected to grow; don’t expect the plant to stay the size and shape it is when purchased. Think about when and how long it blooms or what fall color and winter interest can be expected. It is easy to walk around a garden center and be wowed by the plants that are in bloom, but they are not likely to bloom all season, so you should also enjoy the habit, bark, leaves and branch structure of the plant.

Most people select plants based on ornamental characteristics like flowers, fruit, fall color, bark and interesting branch structure. Those are important and should be considered when choosing a plant to occupy space in your landscape. Think also about how it will be viewed. Is the plant going to be viewed from a distance, where fall color and habit can play a big factor or is it going to be located right next to your patio where fragrance might be most important? Maybe a tree should be selected that will provide shade or screen an unsightly view. Really think about what you want the plant to “do” in your landscape. That will help narrow your choices. Of course, start with plants you like, but then focus on the functions the plant will perform.

Unbalanced plant selection criteria based only on landscape design principles vs. balanced selection including ecosystem services factors.  Graphic courtesy of Doug Tallamy
Unbalanced plant selection criteria based only on landscape design principles vs. balanced selection including ecosystem services factors. Graphic courtesy of Doug Tallamy

So far, we’ve been talking about traditional landscape design principles. But, I propose there is another set of factors you should consider when selecting a plant for your landscape—the ecosystem services that plant will provide. All plants provide some ecosystem services such as taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen; absorbing pollutants from the air; and taking up water, breaking the fall of raindrops and having root systems that allow water to filter into the surrounding soil. But, not all plants are created equally when it comes to some ecosystem services. Especially when it comes to wildlife habitat, native plants are superior to exotic plants. Most plants have evolved defense mechanisms to protect themselves from predation (getting eaten by insects), but plants and insects that have evolved together over many thousands of years have special relationships that allow insects to find food in their native environment. A good example is the Monarch butterfly whose larvae are able to consume milkweed, even though the milkweed contains a chemical toxic to most insects. This relationship is so important to these specialist insects that they won’t survive without the native milkweed they have evolved to eat. So, if you want to support a diverse population of wildlife with your home landscape (and you should), consider including a variety of native plants in your selections this year.

Susan Barton, Extension Specialist

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