If you are new to gardening, finding the right plants for your garden can seem like a challenging task. There are several things to consider when choosing plants. The first thing is not whether you like, want and need that plant, but whether the plant is right for your garden. You need to take an objective look at your garden site. What type of soil do you have? Is it sandy, clay, or nice rich loam? Some plants will not grow well in sandy soil or clay soil or even in too rich soil.
Other plants are not that fussy about the type of soil as long as the soil drainage suits them. How does water drain off your garden site? Does water ever stand on top of the soil or is it so sandy that water disappears the moment it hits the surface? Some plants will thrive in wet areas and some like dry, gravelly soil, but most prefer a happy medium.
If you have never had a soil test it is wise to have one before you begin a garden and every 3 years or so afterward. Do not use the little soil test kits that you can buy in stores or from catalogs. They are rarely accurate and don’t come with experts to help you interpret your results. Nearly every county in the United States has a County Extension office.
They are affiliated with your land grant university and they are there to help you with research based information on a variety of subjects. If they don’t do the soil test they will know where to refer you to get it done. It can take several weeks to get a soil test done so get it done well before you want to plant. A soil test is not that expensive, in most areas it will be less than $20, and well worth the cost. The soil test will tell you if the soil is acidic or alkaline-an important thing to know when choosing plants- and it will tell you how fertile your soil is and how to correct it if it is lacking in a major nutrient needed for plant growth.
After you have evaluated the soil in your garden site, there are other things to know before choosing those plants. How much light does the garden get? Remember that light conditions may change over the growing season. If the trees are bare when you examine your garden site it may seem pretty sunny, but when they leaf out, you may have dense shade. Plant labels usually list whether a plant prefers shade, part shade,or full sun.
Full sun is considered to be 6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day, part shade is about 4 hours of direct sun or a full day of lightly shaded conditions, where the shade might be equivalent to a hazy or lightly foggy day. Shade means that the area receives less than 4 hours of sunlight.
There are a few more things to consider about your garden site. Is it in an area that is hard to water?, is it near a play area for children or pets?, is it near black walnut trees? There are some plants that will not grow within reach of black walnut roots and plants that will be near play areas should not be poisonous or too delicate and costly. And last but not least, what growing zone are you in? The country is divided into growing zones and the hardiness of perennial plants is rated by what zone they will survive through the winter. Almost every perennial or woody plant sold will list the hardiness zone on it’s label. Most garden books or catalogs will have a zone chart somewhere in them. If you can’t find one ask a local garden store what zone you are in or call your County Extension office.
Now that you have examined the garden site you can get to the fun part of choosing plants. Plant labels,garden books, catalog descriptions and knowledgeable sales people in plant nurseries, will guide you in making choices that suit your growing conditions. Even if you do not order from a mail order catalog they are worth getting because of the information you will get about various types of plants.
What do you want the plant to do? Give you shade or privacy quickly? Give you fresh fruit or vegetables? Or just make your home look beautiful and give you a quiet place to relax? How much time do you have- and want- to spend on your garden? What can you afford to buy? If you can’t afford to buy everything you need or want in your garden this year, you should decide what things are priorities and make a five year plan for putting in the garden. Now is the time to think about color and texture and what types of plants and garden styles appeal to you.
Good reference books and the better garden catalogs will help you decide which plants are right for your site, which plants work well together, which are hard to grow or don’t like those walnut roots. Take time to jot down the information about your plant site and write down your goals for the garden, what you would like to buy, the style you are aiming for, plants you must have etc. Having the right plants in the right place will give you the best chance at a successful gardening experience and you will spend less time and money trying to correct mistakes.
Yes, you will still be attracted to certain plants that really aren’t right for your site,and most certainly you will make planting mistakes. Don’t be afraid to do a little experimenting, gardening is as much an art as a science. Taking a garden class, reading garden books and magazines, and talking to knowledgeable people will make finding the best plants to grow in your garden a lot easier.