Shopping for Landscaping Plants

Have you visited a nursery or garden center only to have regretted your purchase when you got home?

A problem with shopping for landscaping plants can be the sheer number of choices available. It’s quite easy to become disheartened by the rows and rows of offerings and lose your motivation just as easily as it is to become overzealous and buy things you don’t need.

Here are some ideas to make it easier to choose the right plants for your landscaping projects.

Knowing your home’s USDA Plant Hardiness Zone

One of the most important things you need to know about your planting site is your “zone.” This refers to your area’s coldest temperatures in winter.

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones.

Taking Photos

Before you embark on a plant-shopping trip, take photos of the front of your house, your patio, or wherever you are planning to plant. This can be dramatically extremely eye-opening, because a photo offers an objective view, which is often hard for your brain to assess when simply looking at a site.

Photos are also helpful to show nursery staff, who are often a gold mine when it comes to choosing the best landscaping plants for your needs.

Viewing Your Home on Google Earth

Look up your home on Google Earth, take a screenshot, and print it out. This is another treasure trove of useful information, such as showing you which direction your planting site is facing (north, south, east, or west), a key factor when choosing landscaping plants.

It can also show things like shade patterns and tree canopies to help you determine another of the most important bits of information you need when choosing plants: is the site in full sun, partially sunny or shady, or in full shade?

Looking at a bird’s eye view of your home can also remind you about where snow and ice pile up in winter, for example. Or if there are any areas where you have a “microclimate,” such as a hot, concrete wall or a narrow, windy side yard.

Measuring Your Planting Area

Unless you are planning to plant a large “specimen” plant (e.g., a tree) directly into your lawn, you will want to put your plants in a garden or landscaping bed, where all turf (lawn grass) and weeds have been removed.

You may already have a planting bed prepared. If not, create one that is between no less than 3′ in depth for perennials, and generally no less than 6′ deep for most shrubs (larger is even better visually, but it will require more maintenance time).

Keep in mind you want to give your plants room to breathe, and you do not want to plant under any overhanging eves, which prevent rainwater from reaching your plants’ roots.

You’ll also want to note things like utility lines and anything where the mature size of a plant (like a tree) could be an issue.

Checking Out Your Soil

Dig around a bit in the area where you plan to plant:

  • Is the soil rich and well-drained, dry, or soggy?
  • Is it sandy, loamy, or does it contain a lot of clay?
  • Do you know if the soil is very acidic or alkaline (soil pH)?
  • Is the soil subjected to de-icing salt in winter (near a road or walkway) or ocean salt spray?
  • Is the soil compacted from construction or vehicles parking?

An inexpensive soil test is a great way to learn about your soil. Check with your local cooperative extension office for information about their soil-testing services for landscaping purposes (as opposed to agriculture). Often, they will mail you a kit with instructions that you can easily do yourself and mail back.

Doing a Little Research

After you have gathered basic information about your planting site, you can use a plant database to make a list of ideal landscaping plants for your project before you head out to shop.

You can go to good online plant sources like Proven Winners and White Flower Farm, which allow you to enter search terms such as sun or shade, plant hardiness zone, deer-resistance, and so forth.

You could also look for more sophisticated databases at universities in your area with horticulture programs, such as Cornell University’s Woody Plants Database.

Shopping at a Quality Nursery

This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you want to shop for landscaping plants like a pro, then go where the pros go! Usually there are at least one or two high-end nurseries in your area. Yes, they might be more expensive than a big-box store, but quality nurseries and garden centers can save you quite a bit of money and hassle in the long run.

The staff at good nurseries often hold horticulture degrees. They are usually passionate about plants and usually have extensive field experience to share with you.

They will know what diseases and pests are problematic in your locale, for example. They will ask you about the function of your intended planting (e.g., privacy screening, color in the landscape). And they can help you understand the maintenance requirements for any given plant.

If you have a lot of questions, you might even call ahead to find out a good time to visit when things are not as busy, or you can even ask to make an appointment to meet with a staff person who is especially knowledgeable about landscaping plants.

You can also set up an account at a nursery, so that the plants you purchase will be on record and possibly guaranteed, sometimes for as long as a year. Meaning, if a plant doesn’t thrive, they will replace it. Many nurseries offer point programs and special sales for their account holders, too.

Quality nurseries might also offer planting and delivery services, which can make a huge difference for your plants, which can suffer when these things are done improperly. A new tree can become irreparably damaged, for example, if it becomes dried out from a trip home on the highway if not covered with a tarp or transported inside a van.

Ask around your community (farmers’ markets, garden clubs, landscape contractors) for names of the best nurseries and garden centers in your area, and then do some scouting to find places where you feel comfortable, the staff are friendly, or you just get a good vibe.

Purchasing with a Plan

Ideally, you will have a design in mind for your planting. You could have saved some ideas form Pinterest, downloaded a plan from a magazine, or even hired a landscape designer to help.

But if not, here’s how to put together a simple planting. I call it the 1-2-3 landscaping plan. You select one tree, two kinds of shrubs (one evergreen, one deciduous), and three kinds of long-season perennials that will bloom successively in the spring, summer, and fall.

For example, at my own house, I could do a nice front yard planting with a river birch tree at the corner, a grouping of boxwoods on either side of the front door, and then a mass planting of Annabelle hydrangeas along both sides of the front foundation. I could then do groups of ‘Rozanne’ geranium for spring color, ‘Happy Returns’ daylilies for pale-yellow summer blooms, and ‘Magnus’ coneflowers for fall.

I like to make mood boards where I put photos of my plants together the way they could be situated in the landscape. And then I play around with that until I love it. I include a photo of the house, our light fixture, and other accessories.

The trick is to buy enough of each plant to fit your space. “Mass planting” one type of plant creates the maximum impact. Avoid planting your landscape plants in any kind of “every-other” arrangement, which is hard on the eye and looks very unnatural.

Think about planting in “drifts” and the classic advice of planting “in threes and fives” because odd numbers are also soothing to the eye. Except on either side of the front door, where a symmetrical pair is simple and elegant.

You can supplement with annuals, spring bulbs, or even tucking in the occasional one-off “find” when you truly fall in love at the nursery.

This post previously appeared on The Simple Landscape blog.


Elizabeth Douglas is the founder of Pocket Meadows. She holds a degree in landscape architectural studies and is a member of the NY State Nursery & Landscape Association.

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