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Plant placement is important

Courtesy of Mary Dateo
The tree species pictured above and below make great 40-foot trees but not such great foundation plants.

By Mary Dateo

Following the “right plant, right place” rule can fill your yard with thriving, nearly care-free plants. Breaking this rule can leave you frustrated by plants that need a lot of care and overgrown plants that require hundreds of hours of pruning every year.

Habitat considerations

The adage “right plant, right place” addresses several factors. A major consideration is plant habitat. All plants evolved to suit a particular habitat. Some are found in sunny fields, some are native to the coast and others have their origins in shady forest habitats. The place in which a plant originally evolved is a good indication of the ideal amount of sun and water the plant requires.

Your garden is full of mini-habitats. There’s the deeply shady spot on the north side of your house or underneath a dense tree. There’s the dappled-shade area under a more open tree. There’s the gentle sun on the east side of your house, and the harsher sun on the west side. And then there’s the open area that bakes in the sun all day long in the summer. Work with Mother Nature instead of against. Match the plants you select to your mini-habitats, and you’re almost guaranteed to have happy, thriving plants.

In addition to sun, water is a major habitat consideration. First, select the majority of your plants to suit the local Mediterranean climate, with its normally wet winters and long, dry summers. Then, group your plants by water needs – known as planting in hydrozones. When plants are grouped by their hydrozones, it is much easier to ensure that they receive the right amount of water. Most people realize that too little water can kill a plant. The other extreme is also a problem – too much water is one of the major causes of plant disease.

Other habitat considerations include soil type, temperature and wind. Some plants are fussier about these things than others. How can you tell what your plants want?

For decades, the “Sunset Western Garden Book” has been a great reference for gardeners. Today, the Internet is another solid resource. Many wholesale and retail nurseries have excellent descriptions online of plant requirements and mature sizes, along with photos of the plants.

Mature size should be a major factor in siting plants, especially trees and large shrubs. Plants that have outgrown their space are among the biggest causes of landscape maintenance. For example, if you use a shrub that will grow to 15 feet tall as a foundation plant in front of a one-story house, you will forever need to prune it to keep it from hiding the windows and invading the gutters. Instead, use shrubs that only grow to 4-5 feet.

A plant’s ability to withstand winter chill and summer heat determines not only whether it will survive, but also whether it will produce fruit. For example, many types of fruit require a minimum number of winter-chill hours. Selecting the right species and variety can result in a tree that is much more fruitful.

“Right plant, right place” – can you break this rule? Certainly. Just do it selectively. If there’s a plant you must have but no suitable place in your yard, go ahead and give it a try. Sometimes plants will surprise us by doing well in unexpected places. Just be aware that it might not work, or that it could take some extra effort.

“Right plant, right place” – do you want to break this rule with every plant in your yard? Not unless you want endless maintenance and frustration. Instead, focus on selecting plants suitable to the local habitat for the majority of your garden. That will leave plenty of time for you to pamper those one or two special plants.

Mary Dateo of Dateo Design is a landscape designer, member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and certified in the Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper program. For more information, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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