How to Choose Plants for Your Garden

Choose a variety of plants to form an ensemble, rather than buying piece-meal and hoping that they will look good together

Choose a variety of plants to form an ensemble, rather than buying piece-meal and hoping that they will look good together. Most successful gardens will have the following: foundation plants of trees and shrubs, as well as other trees and shrubs, a ground cover, some perennials, annuals, and vines.

Foundation Plantings
Newly-built houses often look naked because they have no foundation plantings — the small trees and shrubs planted around the perimeter of the house. Foundation plantings soften the straight lines of the building and ease the transition from the house to the flower bed and lawn.

Evergreens are a good choice in cold climates, because they keep their foliage and color all year round. Several yews in a row with a tall evergreen
on the corner of the house is a time-honored arrangement, but explore your nursery for more creative combinations. Choose trees and shrubs that look good year-round and won’t grow too large for the spot. Place them so they won’t grow into the house, damage the foundation with their roots, or block entrances and windows when they are mature.

Trees may be evergreen or deciduous. Evergreens are great for spots that need some green year round; deciduous trees offer more variety, changing their look with each season, and offering beautiful leaves, flowers, and fruit.

Height can vary from one foot for a dainty alpine evergreen up to 100 feet for mature oaks. Spread varies too, up to 40 feet or more. Think about the characteristics you want — and don’t want — in a tree. Consider height, width, form, bark texture and color, fruit or berries, flowers, when the tree drops its leaves and over what period of time, seasonal color and interest, disease problems, suitability to your climate, how much shade it will create when mature, pruning needs, as well as sun, soil, and water needs. A crabapple, for example, has gorgeous blossoms, but unless you choose a sterile variety, it will produce thousands of little fruits, which can litter walks and drives. Draw up a list of characteristics you would like and present it to a nursery.

Like trees, shrubs are classified as either evergreen or deciduous. They can fill a landscape with flowers, fragrance, greenery, color, and form in a way that belies their size.

Shrubs vary in height from just a few inches to 15 feet or more; in some cases they can be pruned to serve as a small tree. The spread varies as well. For example, a spreading juniper grows just two or three feet high but more than six feet across.

Entire gardens created with shrubs and shrub borders are low-maintenance alternatives to flower borders. When choosing a shrub, consider characteristics besides size — flower or berries; bloom time; leaf form and seasonal color; requirements for sun, soil, and water; and pruning needs. Draw up a list of the traits you want and a description of the planting site, and take it to a nursery. A good nursery will help you choose plants fitting your desired traits.

Ground Covers
Ground covers require less maintenance than a lawn. Use these plants in areas that receive little traffic. Nearly any low-growing, spreading plant can be used for ground cover. The thicker and more vigorously a ground cover grows, the less you will need to weed the area and the less watering or other care it will need.

When selecting a ground cover, consider the following: height and spread; foliage color throughout the year; thickness of growth habit; disease resistance; soil, water, and sun needs. You will also need to find out how well the ground cover will coexist with other plants it might be near — some types of ground cover are so vigorous they choke out less aggressive plants. Top picks for ground cover include ajuga, hedera, hosta, lily-of-the valley, pachysandra, spreading juniper, and vinca.

Perennials And Annuals
One of the easiest and best ways to add color to your garden is to include flowering perennials and annuals to your landscape design.

Perennials come back year after year. They are more expensive initially, but you will find that they save money over time. Flowering perennials bloom for two weeks, or even all season long, depending on the variety.

Annuals die after one year. They are less expensive than perennials initially, but must be replaced each year. A few begin blooming in late winter or early spring, but most bloom in mid-to late spring and provide color for months.

Gardeners today have a nearly endless selection of these flowering plants. A good local nursery will feature those that are easiest to grow in your region. When choosing an annual, ask about its sun, soil, and water requirements; how long it blooms; what the flower looks like; and any diseases or pests that threaten it. When choosing a perennial, ask those same questions but also ask if the plant dies back in cold weather or, if not, what the foliage looks like throughout the year.

Vines add greenery or color and use little ground space, offering an effective way to create vertical interest in the landscape. Vines are also useful in creating privacy, hiding eyesores, and making the most of a small garden.

Whether you choose an annual or perennial vine, pay attention to how it will attach itself to its support. Some vines (such as morning glories, wisteria, honeysuckle) twine, others (clematis, grapes, most sweet peas) send out tendrils. Still others (such as trumpet creeper, ivies, climbing hydrangea) cling with “holdfasts” or tiny suction cups. The clinging types are somewhat permanent and are suitable only for brick, stone, and other surfaces that are virtually maintenance-free.

Some vines, such as large-flowered clematis, take two or three years to attain just six to ten feet. Others, such as wisteria, grow that much in a year, reaching 40 feet or more and toppling all but the sturdiest supports.

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