Selecting the appropriate plants for your landscapes can reduce the amount of maintenance and labor required for the property. You will also reduce the chance of needing to replace the tree or shrub due to poor growing conditions. It is true that horticulturists try to make “that plant grow there,” but we would be wise to find a plant that will easily grow there. Consider the following.

  1. Soil conditions

    These include pH, drainage, soil texture and structure, soil depth and whether or not it will be irrigated. If you don't have a soil probe, get one. Use it to collect soil samples as well as to poke around to see what is there. If the probe goes in the ground easily, you might guess the soil drains well, maybe even too well. If not, you may have a drainage problem or compaction, and a species that tolerates low oxygen should be selected.

  2. Climate

    This includes winter hardiness, heat (whether direct or reflected), wind, ice and other precipitation. Gamble with plants on the edge of your zone only if you can provide some protection and be willing to lose the plant during a severe summer or winter.

  3. Above ground influences

    These include sun vs. shade, terrain that is flat or hilly, a compaction producer nearby such as a sidewalk or driveway, and the presence of microclimates produced by a courtyard or wind tunneling around a building. Also consider the size of the property — will the species you select need to be planted en masse in order to make an impact?

  4. Function

    The mature size of the plants will play a large role in selecting species for residential vs. commercial, public vs. private, park, shade, screening and seasonal interest. There are many plants that grow too large for smaller, residential properties. Looking ahead to the future, you don't want to be left with the bill for removing a large tree that has overgrown its location. On the other hand, you want to plant large species on large properties.

  5. Maintenance

    Many a tree, shrub or perennial has been installed without serious thought to whether there is staff available to adequately maintain it. We are in the business of making properties look good by making the plants around them look good. If you have a restrictive maintenance budget, select species that look good without much work. Ornamental grasses need only one pruning per season. Many shrubs installed in today's landscapes grow much too quickly, requiring three to four prunings per season to make them look good. Can you afford this? Perennial gardens have been promoted as a low effort, inexpensive way to dress up a landscape. Most perennials are not low maintenance. Ask anyone who has dead-headed daylilies several times per growing season — it is tedious, labor intensive work. Also consider whether deicers will be used nearby (select salt tolerant species), and whether the plant will be shedding fruit, leaves or twigs. How resistant is the species to pest problems. If you can't afford a spray program, better select plants with few or no pest problems.

Once you have listed the qualities needed for your landscape, there are many references that provide lists. You will most likely want to consider the soil needs and begin narrowing down your selections from that point. You can change the soil to improve drainage and aeration, but in many cases it is not practical. If you can't find an appropriate species, keep looking and mix accordingly.

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