Making Plant Choices

There has been a trend in recent years among garden designers to shift the focus of the garden design to the hardscape. I don’t ascribe to that tendency. Gardens are all about plants. Gardeners should be plant people. Plants are the dynamic growing and changing element within the hardscape and structural elements in the garden that keeps our interest alive. A brick herringbone-patterned path is all very interesting and pleasant to see. The daily growth and progression of plants through the seasons is what holds our interest.

Sowing seeds of grass, anxious watching of thin green blades poking up through the ground and their subsequent widening, thickening and elongating, the smell of first cut grass and visions of children and pets romping in the grass are the glue that binds our enthusiasm, time and work. The warm sense of nature and belonging comes from thyme overlapping and smoothing out the hard lines, spent rose petals dotting the walk and piles of windblown autumn leaves that create the irresistible urge to traverse its length.

It is through the plants in our landscape that we receive our connection with nature. Not just the connection with the plant world, but with the birds and bees, insects, rabbits, squirrels (and yes, deer) along with our own pets. Healthy plants are sources of food and habitat that attract and invite the animal kingdom into our lives.

In teaching the basic principles of gardening, I emphasize first off not to think about the plants. Concentrate first on your gardening statement, the theory of gardening you wish to implement (control or cooperative oriented gardening) and your gardening style. Plan out the design and amend the soil based on these first choices. I don’t see this as a contradiction. By making these choices first, you lay the framework and establish the plan.

By following the first essential steps, you will make better plant choices. You’ll make better plant choices in terms of suitability for our climate and conditions for a low, or at least lower, maintenance garden. Better plant choices in terms of coherence, unity, flow, transition from one garden room to another, and bed composition. You avoid the “shotgun garden” approach – rushing out to the nurseries, buying carloads of plants without an inkling of where they’ll be planted. This will not take any of the fun or thrill out of plant selection and buying, but it will eliminate the panic once you get them home!

Before you begin selecting plants, there are a couple of things you need to know about plants in general, about their naming and classification system and how it will help you be a better gardener, a working knowledge of common terms, adaptation characteristics of low water-use plants, how to choose plants, container gardening for the low maintenance garden, how and when to plant.

Some of the material may seem elementary to practiced gardeners. I’ve tried to be detailed enough for people new to gardening to achieve success quickly. Remember, the success of your garden does not depend on you using each and every one of these guidelines, however, the more guidelines you implement, the more successful you will be in achieving a low maintenance, low water-use, beautifully thriving and ecologically friendly garden.

Have fun! It’s all about the plants!

Angie Hanna, January, 2006