Let’s think about some of the characteristics that make each one of us unique. Take my husband for example. He’s of Celtic heritage with fair complexion that burns easily in the sun. I am of Italian heritage and love the warm sun on my face and the resulting golden brown color. (Of course, I’ve learned to use protection. After all, I’m no longer the youngster I once was on spring break, spending every waking moment at the beach, spreading baby oil on my skin so I could return to school showing off my “fast” tan or, truthfully, my fast burn.)
Plants, like people, have genes. The first word in the botanical name of a plant is the “genus”, which basically means a group of related species. For example, Arctostaphylos, commonly known as Manzanita, is a group of plants and there are many related plants within this group.
While plants, like people, are unique, they also prefer to be grouped with other plants that require similar conditions. Some groups thrive in full sun with little water, while others would wither and parish under these conditions. By grouping plants with similar water and sun requirements in your garden, you’re creating a happy and healthy family of plants. This is not a new idea, but one that is often ignored to the detriment of the plants and your wallet.
Like you, I’m eager to go to my favorite nurseries to buy some plants and sink my hands into the soil. To help you select the right plants for your garden and to create these plant groups, here are three questions you’ll want to answer before going to the nursery:
1. How wide and tall will each plant be when it is mature?
First, determine how much space you have for the plant. If your planting bed is only three feet wide, then select a plant that will be no wider than that when it is fully-grown. Suppose you’re at a nursery and find a plant that you just have to have, but the description on the container notes that it will grow to be five feet wide? This is not the right plant for that place because it will require repeated pruning to maintain its size in that three-foot wide area. Sadly, it will never grow to its natural shape and it will never look like that beautiful plant you just had to have.
2. How much sun exposure does the plant require?
To answer this question, we first need to understand what “sun exposure” means relative to plants: (Notice words such as “requires”, “do well”, “tolerate”, “prefers” in the descriptions below.)
Full sun – Plant requires direct sunlight for most of the day.
Full sun or part shade – Plant will do well in direct sun for most of the day or shade for part of the day and can tolerate the hot afternoon sun.
Part shade – Plant prefers light shade (such as dappled sun shining through the canopy of a tree) and will tolerate morning sun exposure but must be protected from the hot afternoon sun.
Part shade or shade – Plant will do well in dappled shade or in full shade. It will tolerate some morning sun, but it will not tolerate afternoon sun.
Shade – Plant requires full shade and never receives direct sun.
(Visit http://arboretum.ucdavis.edu for more information.)
Next, walk through your garden in the morning, middle of the day, and afternoon. Observe how much sun each planting area receives based on the definitions above? (While the intensity, angle, and day length changes with the seasonal movement of the sun, let’s keep it simple for now.)
3. How much water does the plant require?
First, it’s important to understand that all ornamental plants in our gardens – even drought-tolerant plants – need regular water when they are first planted and during the time when they are getting established in your garden. For example, “once established”, low water-use plants can be watered less frequently but deeply enough for the water to soak into the entire root area, which is at least as wide or wider as the “plant” above ground.
If we think about it, plants in a nursery have been nurtured so they will be in top condition when you purchase them. Once at their new home, we need to get plants acclimated or accustomed to these new garden conditions and give them time to get established.
When is a plant established?
Although there are many things to consider, such as the season of planting, age of plant when purchased, and soil type but, in general, a plant is established when it has reached two to three times the size it was when planted or after two or three growing seasons. (Trees are different; they can take between three to five years to become established.)
What does regular water mean when you’re getting your plants established? Generally, the plants will require supplemental water every two to three days, maybe more in hot and dry conditions. This is one of the reasons why fall is a great time to install most plants. Temperatures are cooler and the rains water your new plants for you. The soil is still warm enough – a cozy environment for the roots to start growing and spreading into the soil.
If it’s a dry fall or you plant during a warm spring, then your new plants will need to be watered regularly for a few weeks. After that time, watering can be gradually reduced and your plants can be watered according to that group’s water-use requirements until the weather starts to cool with the change of season and the rains begin again.
It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3. And, while plants are “As Unique As People”, unlike people, plants come with a manual or instructions of sorts because you can visit your favorite nursery and read the container label or nursery sign, read plant books, and visit the www.BeWaterSmart.info website – Voila! You’ll find the plant’s sun and water requirements and mature size right there at your fingertips.
Now, go and “shop ‘til you drop” and then please write to me about your experience and whether answering these three questions made it easier to select plants for your garden.