Make the Most of Your Garden
Let your garden help you choose the right plants for it.
Does this sound familiar? You drive to your local big box store, ready to buy some plants to spruce up your garden. Park the car, walk into the nursery section and suddenly, you are confused. The plants mostly look the same. And there are so many you have no idea which to choose. You stand there wondering, "Am I the only person to feel so overwhelmed?"
Choices are everywhere. Some plants are tall, others short. There are vines and shrubs and trees.... Some have pretty flowers, others interesting foliage, and some are labeled "sweet scented."
You read the labels but aren't sure how to interpret them. Let me reassure you that many people feel the same way. The nursery sections of big box stores are no different from the lumber section or the hardware section. These warehouse style set-ups work great for people who already know what they need. But the rest of us are lucky if we can find a helpful sales person. More often than not, though, we are on our own.
Here's what I suggest. Hop back in your car and head for your local independent nursery. The independent nurseries tend to be smaller and more intimate, have a better selection, and usually have folks dedicated to helping you find the plants you need.
You don't pick plants, they pick you
Rather than name nurseries, I should point out that we skipped a step. Before you set foot in your car, you need to gather the information to help you (or the friendly nursery sales person) select the best plants for your garden. I'm not talking about deciding between a vine or a tree. I am talking about selecting plants based on their size, sun requirements, soil needs, water, etc. So, grab a tape measure, a pencil and a pad of paper, a digital camera if you have one, and let's begin!
Take photos of the planting bed, including the plants nearby. Print out a few of those photos — nothing fancy, you can use plain paper —to take to the nursery. Consider which plants will best match the style of your garden. Photos also help the nursery sales person see the plants that already thrive or struggle there — which is important for predicting how well other plants might do.
Measure the the empty area in your garden. Use these dimensions to choose a plant (or a collection of plants) that won't outgrow the spot (figures 1 and 2). This is the only way to avoid hours of labor and the ongoing frustration of eternal pruning to fit a too-large plant into a too-small space.
Notice how much sun that spot gets, both during a single day and over the course of a year. If there are six or more hours of full, bright sunlight every day of the year, you can grow a plant labeled "full sun." If it gets direct sun but not for quite that long or not every day of the year, look for a plant labeled "part sun." If the spot is in shade much of the day, look for a plant rated "part shade." If the spot is shady all the time, a "full shade" plant is what you need (figure 3).
What happens if you put a full sun plant in too much shade? The plant won't grow as well, nor will it flower or flower as much as it would in full sun. It might even die. On the other hand, a shade plant set in full sun can burn up. Leaves turn blotchy yellow, then completely yellow, then brown as the plant dies. Indeed a sad sight.
Test your soil drainage. Dig a hole about two feet wide and two feet deep. Fill it with water. Let the water drain through. Then, fill it again. Track how long it takes for water to drain the second time. If it drains in a few hours, you have well draining soil. If it sits for hours and hours (or days and days), you have heavy soil (clay is an example of a heavy soil). In heavy soil, water drains through so slowly that it can, quite literally, drown plant roots.
Plants that tolerate heavy or clay soils are usually labeled to that effect. If you fall in love with a plant that prefers well-draining soil, your options are to grow the plant in a pot filled with well-draining potting mix (figure 4), or to build a planting mound of well-draining soil, eight to twelve inches high. You might build a mound for each plant, but that can make your garden look like it is filled with molehills. If you're replacing an entire border, it's best to bring in good soil and raise the whole thing, end-to-end, side-to-side.
Note how much water the spot gets from your sprinkler or manual watering system. While a low-water plant may do fine in a high-water garden bed, a high-water plant will wither and die in a low-water bed. If you have the opportunity, swap out high-water plants for low-water plants. In Southern California, water is in critically short supply and growing more limited every day. For a garden that is sustainable over the long term, low-water plants, also referred to as "drought tolerant" plants, are your best choice (figure 5).
Low-water plants have other advantages as well. Think of them as the "don't take much" plants. They don't take much water. They don't take much fertilizer. They grow slow enough that they don't take much pruning either. These are your all-around low-maintenance plants!
One important point about watering the newly planted: All plants, even low-water plants, need regular water through their first full year in the ground to become established. It is only after that first year that you can cut back on water.
Make a plan
Let's review. By now, you know the size of the plant you need, the amount of sun or shade available, the kind of soil you have, how much water the plant will get, and you have some shots of the planting area itself. You are ready to head down to your local independent nursery and start looking around. See something you like? Read the label. If it has the right requirements and you like the way it looks, Bingo! And if you are still at a loss, don't hesitate to head over to the register to ask for help. After all, that's what they are there for!
Photos by Nan Sterman