As I’m mentally getting my lists together of the plants I’ll need to buy this season, minding the color schemes and heights needed, the things I ought to replace and new things I want to try, I’m always reminded by the voice in my head telling me to Mind the Gap. No, just kidding, its telling me “Right Plant, Right Place” in a stern but soft voice- the kind that makes you pay closer attention and sit up straighter.
I often find that the best gardening advice is the stuff that, when you hear it for the first time, makes you think, “Yeah, No Duh”. But then also, “Holy Crap! That makes so much sense!” This was exactly my sentiment when I first heard this phrase and it has been branded onto my brain ever since.
I’m sure you are all familiar with the concept, but its the simple idea that if you plant something that loves the conditions you already have, it will thrive. You’ll have healthy, beautiful plants that will reseed or spread and make themselves at home in your garden. This one idea has been my guidepost at every nursery I ever visit and helps tremendously to keep me in check and prevent foolish purchases.
Now, for this whole concept to be practical and useful, you have to have a baseline understanding of your site(s). Here are the key things to have stored away in your head so that you can look at a plant tag and know, quickly, if it will work or not.
- Soil- do a simple soil test (or a fancy one if you like) and figure out if you have loamy, sandy, or clay soil. Us?
- Water- do you get lots of rain or not much? Does your soil stay soggy or muddy after rain or does it drain quickly?
- Sun- How much do you get every day. BE HONEST. Take a day and set a timer for every hour and go look at that space. Tally how many hours it has full sun, how many it has shade. Full sun is 6-8 hours or more. Part Shade is 4-6 hours. Shade is 2 hours or less.
The rest is avoiding temptation. If you stick to plants that like your particular combination of soil, sun, and water (and obviously growing zone) you won’t be tempted to buy something that likely won’t end up working.
For us here at ye olde Box & Bay gardens- we sit upon hundred of feet of fine, loamy sand. We get about 32″ of rain every year, about the same in snow. But, it drains away quickly due to the sand. Our garden is oriented due South so we have full blazing sun for well over 8 hours a day. This is the framework I work within.
Well drained soil. Average to Dry water conditions. Full sun. Zone 4b.
Thus far I’ve only ever selected plants for our garden using these four criteria. I’m rather chuffed to say I’ve not had any one species or variety totally crap out on me and fail to thrive. Sure, there will always be that individual plant that just didn’t make it. Or the one that is happier a few feet to the East or West, but by and large my plant selections have thrived because I only bought things that WOULD thrive in my conditions. This also means you can identify those plants that really, super-duper LOVE your conditions and plant boatloads of those. For me, its Bearded and Siberian irises, yuccas, false irises, and native grasses. They adore my conditions and grow like there’s no tomorrow.
Now, I know some will feel like these criteria really cramp your style and limit your choices in a not-fun way. I get that. But here are a few points that help me get past it when I get pouty about not being able to grow something.
- You only, really, need 7 or 10 varieties to make a beautiful, dynamic garden. (I mean, I use way more, but you don’t need one of everything at the nursery to have success)
- There are far more varieties that fit your conditions than you even know. Use resources like the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Plant Finder to run a search using your site’s criteria- you’ll be shocked by how many plants will pop up!
- Despite these rules, plants are sneaky and sometimes will grow really well in not-quite-perfect conditions. I think this mostly applies to zones (one up or down), but if your conditions are all spot on save for one criteria, give the plant a try to see if it grows. This is how we have lavender everywhere- its only hardy to zone 5, but every other condition we have is perfect, so, they thrive. These are what I call calculated risks!
The beauty to this planting style is more than just happy plants. It saves on compost and fertilizer and a whole bunch of irrigation. I’m rather ruthless like this because Beth Chatto told me I could be. She is right (never doubt Beth Chatto!). I water them in at planting time- no soil additives, mulch them well, and they they are on their own. And they thrive- because that is what they are built to do- grow happily in the conditions where I planted them.
I hope this post is helpful for you the next time you saunter off to the nursery or start making out plant lists. And hopefully, by using it, you will have more success in areas that haven’t been as great as you’ve wanted them to be. All you need is the right plant in the right place!