Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.
By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
Gardeners are often 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 the decision of what plants should be used and where they should be planted in the landscape. In particular, a gardener must focus on what characteristics the plants he or she selects need to have in order to satisfy the needs and taste of the gardener and allow the plants to thrive in the growing conditions provided.
Most gardeners are not walking around with a plant encyclopedia in their minds. It is virtually impossible for the average person to look at a situation and rattle off a selection of appropriate plants. Yet, when planning a landscape project, gardeners often try to come up with names of the specific plants they will use early on in the planning process.
This way of thinking is typical of a question I am frequently asked. In all earnestness someone will ask me to recommend a good shade tree. The question can’t be answered without more information on what the person needs the tree to be and do.
Trying to do it any other way would be like walking into a shoe store and asking the salesperson for a good pair of shoes. Without knowing the size, what you will be doing in them, your taste, your budget and a variety of other factors, the shoe salesperson won’t be able to help you.
Rather than immediately trying to think of a specific plant, you must think of the characteristics the plant needs to have and then find the plant that most closely matches those characteristics and will thrive in the growing conditions where it will be planted.
Wandering around a nursery waiting for inspiration to strike also can be risky – particularly if you don’t already have a clear idea of the characteristics you need plants to possess. Plants sometimes are selected because they are on sale or less expensive or because of some other momentary attraction. Many times these plants may ultimately grow too large, need more or less sun than the location provides or have some other major flaw.
For example, let’s go back to the shade tree question. Average shade trees range in size from 35 feet to 60 feet. That’s quite a range, so a decision needs to be made early on about the size that would fit best in the landscape. Indeed, if the tree is to shade a small patio, a smaller tree 15-25 feet tall would be more appropriate.
You also need to think about whether the tree should be evergreen or deciduous (lose its leaves in the winter). Should it grow more upright or is a spreading habit more desirable? Is the gardener interested in any special characteristics such as color from flowers, fruit or colorful fall foliage? Is interesting bark a plus? How about fragrance or the production of food for wildlife, such as birds? What about the growing conditions? Is the spot where it will be planted well drained or wet? And don’t forget that the tree must be well adapted to our area.
To continue with the tree example, you need to make a detailed list of the characteristics the tree should have and then go to the nursery or contact a horticulturist for help in selecting the tree that best fits your description.
You will find this so much easier. Instead of having to make your decision looking at all the different trees available, your choice can be made from the two or three trees that specifically fit your needs and the growing conditions. Sometimes, when the dust settles, there is only one tree that best measures up to the list, and the decision is made.
It is much more meaningful to ask what is a good shade tree that grows to 40 feet, is deciduous, produces attractive flowers or fruit and is well adapted to our area. A female swamp red maple (Acer rubrum var. drummondii) would fit that description of desired characteristics.
This decision-making process may (and generally should) be used when deciding about any types of plants to use in your landscape. When selecting shrubs, ground covers, flowering annuals or perennials or lawns, you will find this a very useful tool that will help you avoid mistakes that are almost always difficult to correct.
This does not mean spur-of-the-moment purchases of plants you just have to have should never be done. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a plant 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, choose a tree or shrubs or ground cover for a major planting that way.
Remember that the period from November through February is the prime planting season for hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennials in our state, so this is a great time for landscaping projects.
Books on plant materials that can help you are available at your local bookstores. Make sure you choose books written for our unique climate. Look for words in the title such as "Louisiana," "South," "Southern," "Deep South" or "Coastal South." The LSU AgCenter also offers several free publications, including pamphlets on selecting trees, shrubs, vines and ground covers. Contact your local LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit them online at www.lsuagcenter.com.
Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.