Think about what you really want and plan it out before you dig

By Dan Gill

Louisiana gardeners are often told that the key to gardening success is planting the right plant in the right place. Although this sounds relatively simple, a lot goes into the decision of what plants should be used and where they should be planted. In particular, a gardener must focus on what the plant(s) need to have in order to (1) satisfy the needs of the situation and taste of the gardener and (2) thrive in the growing conditions provided.

Most gardeners do not walk around with a plant encyclopedia in their heads. It is difficult, even for accomplished gardeners, to look at a situation and rattle off a list of appropriate plants. Yet when planning a landscape project, gardeners often try to come up with names of the specific plants that they will use early in the planning process. 

But that is the wrong way to select plants. Rather than immediately trying to think of a specific plant, you should think of the purpose of the plant and what characteristics the plant should have, and then find the plant that most closely matches those characteristics.

Lack of careful consideration and forethought is also an issue when gardeners seek professional help. In all earnestness someone will ask me to recommend a good shade tree. But I cannot make recommendations on the spot without knowing more – what is the desired purpose of the tree; site information, etc. It’s like walking into a shoe store and asking the salesperson for a good pair of shoes. Without knowing your size, what you will be doing in them, your taste, your budget, etc., the salesperson will not be able to help you. Or they will sell you the wrong shoes.

If you don’t have a clear idea of what you need or want, wandering around a nursery waiting for inspiration to strike can be risky. Plants are sometimes selected because they are on sale, or less expensive or because of some momentary attraction. Many times these plants will grow too large, will not thrive in the location where they are planted, or have some other major flaw.

When selecting the best tree, for instance, make a detailed list of the characteristics the tree should have and then go to the nursery or contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office. You will find this so much easier, and the recommendations you get from the professionals will more clearly reflect what you desire. Rather than trying to make your decision looking at all the different trees available, you’ll be able to choose from the two or three trees that most closely fit your needs and the growing conditions. Sometimes when the dust settles, there is only one tree that best measures up to the list and the decision is made.

A list of desirable tree characteristics might include mature size, bloom season, flower color, fall color, evergreen or deciduous, rate of growth, disease resistance, overall shape, supplies wildlife food, and so forth.

So rather than asking for a good shade tree recommendation, it is much more meaningful to ask, “What is a good shade tree that grows about 40 feet tall, is deciduous, tolerates low, wet areas, and, ideally, produces attractive flowers or fruit?” A horticulturist could then recommend a female Drummond red maple (Acer rubrum var. drummondii) because it would meet those requirements.

This decision-making process should actually be used when deciding on any types of plants to use in your landscape. When selecting trees, shrubs, ground covers, annuals, perennials, or lawns, you will find this to be very useful and help you avoid mistakes that are almost always difficult to correct.

But all of this does not mean that spur-of-the-moment purchases are never a good idea. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a plant, or been given one by a friend, and then just wandered around my landscape trying to find somewhere appropriate to plant it. This is part of the fun of gardening. I would never, however, choose trees, shrubs, ground covers, or flowers for a major planting that way.

Here in Louisiana, November through February is prime planting season for hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers, and perennials, making it a great time for planning landscaping projects. Think about what characteristics you desire, and develop your plans for what you will plant. Then take advantage of the upcoming season and plant!

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