How to select the best plants for your garden.
This is a subject that I get asked about most often. Wandering around local garden centers I often see people struggling to choose something and discussing with their partners whether it’s right or should they get ‘the other one’. The labels on plants don’t really help either – they give some information but rarely enough for the novice gardener to buy with confidence.
I also read on local community pages when someone asks for advice lots of answers that aren’t really true, misidentification or even scaremongering “don’t plant any type of bamboo - it will take over the world and destroy your house!!”. At the Garden Shows I attend I see people asking questions from the traders, which is fantastic (most of these growers are specialists and should be regarded as the authority on their chosen species) but if you then google the same plant you will find a different opinion and varying guidelines on position, soil type, care etc etc etc.
With so much conflicting information and over 200,000 different species to choose from in the UK, many with multiple variants or cultivars, no wonder its confusing.
This article explains how I approach plants as a designer. I normally have a clear idea of what the whole garden needs to look like and what the environmental conditions are, but I have 2 guiding principles that I recommend for everyone:
I usually design planting scheme in the following order:
What is the purpose of that plant?
For each plant choice I consider why I am going to specify that particular species for a specific role in the garden:
Screening - Trees are good for screening but do you want to totally block a view with dense evergreen foliage or will a tree with a more open habit allow better light in your garden (and neighboring properties). Evergreen hedges may screen a utility area or outbuilding but will affect how the wind moves around the garden. A mixed native hedgerow is brilliant for encouraging wildlife but may lack the neatness required in a modern or formal space.
Colour – What is the colour scheme of that particular area of the garden? Will the colours clash or will it be overshadowed by bolder colours. White is quite a difficult colour to use in a garden unless it has a bolder backdrop as a foil.
Movement (or flow)– this brings life and interest to a garden even if it has extraordinary planting! This can be done with repeated plants or features to punctuate the overall scheme or to highlight a change of direction or transition through the space.
Structure – A good planting scheme has a backbone of permanent structure that remains throughout the year. This could be evergreen trees, shrubs or topiary.
Time of interest – when does that plant reach its best? Will it stand out? Will it be overshadowed or overgrown? Is part of a season of interest scheme or will it add something to an otherwise dull area at that time of year.
Theme – Group plants with similar environmental needs and origins. It makes sense and looks natural. For example lavender and rosemary go very well with olive trees as the all like dry, hot and sunny positions evocative of Mediterranean conditions. If a bamboo was added (which prefers richer, moist soil) it would struggle to thrive and would always look out of place due to its oriental origins.
Needs of the plant – what soil type and position does it need? Is this compatible with the existing conditions or will significant soil improvement be needed? Consider the ongoing needs of the plant such as nutrition and water requirements. Will it need irrigation systems (permanently or temporary).
Eventual height and spread - (the labels in the garden center don’t always tell the whole story). Consider its rate of growth too. Will it still look good in 4, 5 or 10 years. Will it get too big or will surrounding planting smother it?
Needs of the environment – The majority of my gardens have an underlaying positive environmental impact of some description. Will the plant I add contribute to the tiny eco-system within the garden and the wider area? Will it be a full on ‘Nectar bar’ or something to attract more wildlife – bees are attracted to blue, purple, white and yellow in that order. Can the pollinating insects actually access the pollen? Will a self seeding plant drift into a conservation area or other protected area?
Is it suitable for the client – Some designers will specify slighty rarer or more unusual species or cultivars that take some real detective work to find. Most of my clients appreciate ease of maintenance. Many of us couldn’t spot a rare or unusual cultivar even if it had a giant label on it! My clients don’t want to worry about their garden surviving while they go on holiday for a few weeks. They may not remember to cut a climber back to the 3rd bud on a specific date. If your garden becomes a ’chore’ – it is the wrong garden for you. Horticultural diva’s have no place in an average garden!
Ok, so now you have decided what plant you want to buy and head off to your favorite garden center or nursery on the hunt for the perfect example. Many growers now offer mail order services and there are several specialist ‘online garden centers’ with live stock levels and pictures of individual plants for you to order. The modern attitude to convenience also comes with a modern attitude to quality control – the wholesale and retail nurseries I use have very strict procedures to ensure they only supply the very best condition plants every single time.
If you prefer to select your own plants from a nursery or trade stand at a show, here’s what to look for.
Overall visual health – it should look heathy and happy with strong growth and good buds or new shoots. Compare it to those next to it – does it have good colour and is it in a suitable size pot? This is all indicative of a plant that is well looked after.
Lift your chosen plant up and turn the whole thing upside down while gently holding the pot. Lift the pot off the root ball – there should be slight resistance. If the pot falls off, the plant is dehydrated. If it is tight it could be root- bound. It is normal to see some sections of root showing thorough the bottom of the pot but not too many. Is the compost too dry or too wet for that particular species?
Check the label – is it the right one? Does it have a plant passport number (legal requirement and a way of tracing a plant back to its source if it has a serious disease).
I hope this small insight to how I select plants for my designs helps give you confidence to choose suitable plants for your own garden.