Here are some tips for selecting plants

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  9/28/2009 8:43:09 PM

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For Release On Or After 10/16/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

November through February is the prime planting season for hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennials in our area, so this is a great time for planning landscaping projects. Think about what you need to do, whether it’s planting some shade or ornamental trees, installing an area of ground cover or enriching an area of your landscape with shrub plantings or flowerbeds. Develop your plans now, then take advantage of the coming planting season to install the plants.

Gardeners often are advised that the key to gardening success is planting the right plant in the right place. Although this sounds relatively simple, a lot goes into deciding which plants should be used and where they should be planted in the landscape. In particular, a gardener must focus on the characteristics the selected plants need to have to satisfy his or her needs and taste and allow the plants to thrive in the growing conditions provided.

Most gardeners aren’t walking around with a plant encyclopedia in their heads. It’s virtually impossible for the average person to look a situation and rattle off a selection of appropriate plants. Yet, gardeners often try to come up with the specific plants they’ll use early on in the planning process.

This way of thinking is typical of a question I’m frequently asked. In all earnestness, someone will ask me to recommend a good shade tree. The question cannot be answered properly without considerably more information. It’s like walking into a shoe store and asking the salesperson to recommend a good pair of shoes. Without knowing your shoe size, what you will be doing in them, your taste, your budget and a variety of other factors, the salesperson won’t be able to help you.

Rather than immediately trying to think of a specific plant or asking someone for a suggestion, you must think carefully of the characteristics the plant needs to have – size, growth habit, preferred growing conditions, etc. After that, you can check references or consult with professionals, and they can help you find the plant that most closely matches those characteristics.

Also, wandering around a nursery waiting for inspiration to strike can be risky if you don’t already have a clear idea of the characteristics the plants you need should have. Plants are sometimes selected because they are on sale or less-expensive or because of some momentary attraction. Many times these plants may ultimately grow too large, will not thrive in the location where they’re planted or have some other major flaw.

For example, let’s go back to the shade tree question. What characteristics need to be decided? Average shade trees range in size from 35 to 60 feet tall. That’s quite a range. So a decision needs to be made early on about the size that would fit best in the situation. Indeed, if the tree is to shade a small patio, a smaller tree 15 to 25 feet tall would be appropriate.

The tree must be well-adapted to your area and the growing conditions where you intend to plant it. Should the tree be evergreen or deciduous? Should it grow more upright? Or is a spreading habit more desirable? Are you interested in any special characteristics, such as color from flowers, fruit or fall foliage? How about the production of food for wildlife such as birds?

Make a detailed list of the characteristics the tree should have. Then consult an appropriate reference, go to the nursery or contact a horticulturist at your parish LSU AgCenter extension office for help in selecting the tree that best fits your description. You – and the professionals you ask – will find this so much easier, and the recommendations you get from professionals will more clearly reflect what you need and desire. Instead of having to make your decision looking at all the different trees available, your choice is made from the two or three trees that specifically fit your needs and growing conditions. Sometimes when the dust settles, only one tree best measures up to the list, and the decision is made.

This decision-making process should be used when deciding about any types of plants to use in your landscape. Whether selecting shrubs, ground covers, annuals, perennials or lawns, you’ll find this a very useful process that will help you avoid mistakes that are almost always difficult to correct.

This doesn’t mean the spur-of-the-moment purchase of a plant you just have to have should never be done. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a plant, or been given one by a friend, and then wandered around my landscape trying to find somewhere appropriate to plant it. This is part of the fun of gardening. I would never, however, use that method to choose trees, shrubs, ground covers or flowers for a major planting.

When using references to help you in this process, it’s very important to choose references appropriate for our area. Some excellent references available at local bookstores will help you learn about plants that will do well in the Deep South. Look for books with the words “Southern,” “South,” “Louisiana” or “Coastal South” in the title. Also, contact your parish LSU AgCenter extension office for free pamphlets on selecting trees, shrubs, vines, bedding plants and ground covers that will thrive in our area. These publications and more are available online at www.lsuagcenter.com.

Rick Bogren

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