I hope you are enjoying the sustainable gardening series so far. We have a lot more great topics to cover, but today we are going to talk about how to choose the right (and healthiest) plants for your new garden.
Choosing the Right Plants for Your Garden
Many times we purchase plants on impulse then find there is nowhere in the garden that really suits them. Before buying plants, you should carefully examine your garden to see how much sun and shade it gets (more on this in the next newsletter!), whether the soil is well drained or waterlogged and whether your aspect is sheltered or windswept. You’ll then be better equipped to go and buy the best plants for your situation: shade-loving plants for the sheltered areas, sun-lovers for the warm spots, drought-resistant plants for the parched areas which may be either sunny or shaded, and swamp plants for the poorly-drained parts.
But first, it’s a good idea to test your soil, to determine the pH level of your soil and what kind of nutrients you need to add, if any. Is the soil acid or alkaline? Most plants prefer soil that is slightly acidic, but there are some that must have alkaline soil to grow. You can alter the soil’s pH level, but it’s much easier to simply plant for the soil you have. (Keep your eye out for more on soil preparation in a future issue!)
Now you are ready to plant. Well – almost…. Will you plant in groups or singly? If you buy ‘one of everything’ your garden may seem rather spotty. Group plantings are organized, harmonious and you can vary the flower or foliage color for visual interest.
Picking Healthy Plants
When it comes to getting started with your garden, you have two choices; planting seeds, or buying whole plants. Both have their own benefits. If you plant seeds and care for them every day, you will find it is a much more rewarding experience when you have a full, healthy plant. However, this method is a lot more risky. I can’t tell you how many seeds I’ve planted and never seen any trace of whatsoever, or else the seedlings germinate, but don’t grow very strong or very quickly.
If you choose to buy the plant from a nursery and install it in your garden, it reduces a lot of the work involved in making it healthy. However, I have found in the past that many incompetent nursery workers will absolutely ruin the health of the plant by putting certain chemicals or fertilizers in. I have adapted to this incompetence by learning to choose the healthiest plant of the bunch. Here I will discuss some of the techniques I use in my screening process for plants.
It may sound superficial, but the one thing you need to check for on your prospective plants is how nice they look. As far as plants go, you can truly judge a book by its cover. If a plant has been treated healthily and has no diseases or pests, you can almost always tell by how nice it looks. If a plant has grown up in improper soil, or has harmful bugs living in it, you can tell from the holey or yellowed leaves and wilted stems.
If you’re browsing the nursery shelves looking for your dream plant, you want to exclude anything that currently has flowers. Plants are less traumatized by the transplant if they do not presently have any flowers. It’s best to find ones that just consist of buds. However if all you have to choose from are flowering plants, then you should do the unthinkable and lop off all of the blooms. It will be worth it for the future health of the plant. I’ve found that transplanting a plant while it is blooming results in having a dead plant seventy to ninety percent of the time.
Always check the roots before you plop down the money to purchase the plant. Of course if the roots are in absolutely awful condition you will be able to tell by looking at the rest of the plant. But if the roots are just slightly out of shape, then you probably won’t be able to tell just by looking at it. Inspect the roots very closely for any signs of brownness, rottenness, or softness. The roots should always be a firm, perfectly well formed infrastructure that holds all the soil together. One can easily tell if the roots are before or past their prime, depending on the root to soil ratio. If there are a ridiculous amount of roots with little soil, or a bunch of soil with few roots, you should not buy that plant.
If you find any abnormalities with the plant, whether it be the shape of the roots or any irregular features with the leaves, you should ask the nursery employees. While normally these things can be the sign of an unhealthy plant, occasionally there will be a logical answer for it. Always give the nursery a chance before writing them off as horrendous. After all, they are (usually) professionals who have been dealing with plants for years.
So if you decide to take the easy route and get a plant from a nursery, you just have to remember that the health of the plants has been left up to someone you don’t know. Usually they do a good job, but you should always check for yourself. Also take every precaution you can to avoid transplant shock in the plant (when it has trouble adjusting to its new location, and thus has health problems in the future). Usually the process goes smoothly, but you can never be too sure.
Also, before transplanting your new plants outside, place your chosen plants around the garden bed in their pots to see how they will look. Re-arrange them until you are satisfied.
When planting flowers, grouping plants in sets of threes or fives usually looks better than planting in groups of even numbers. Be sure that you have an interesting combination of colors and textures. Tall plants should go to the back, or the center if your garden will be viewed evenly from all sides.
The right color pallette is one way to maintain the harmony in your garden. Imagine the color of the flowers when they are in bloom. Some colors may conflict with others, but can still be planted side-by-side if they have a different blooming season. Foliage color is also important. Many flower plants have silver, grey or purplish foliage that is just as attractive as the flower. This means that they are still attractive well past the blooming season and so have added value.
Try to keep your plants away from trees. The roots of trees are ferociously competitive and will steal all the nutrients and moisture meant for your garden.
Hopefully this will help in choosing the right plants to put in your new garden, and making sure you get the healthy ones, if you purchase them pre-started.
Stay tuned for our next blog, when we will get into the real nitty-gritty, and start talking about planting!
See you then!
P.S. I hope you enjoy the pictures — they are from my garden this spring!