Right Plant, Right Place?

It’s that time of year again, time to close 2001with beautiful memories of plants, past and present. Imagine all the gardening that lies ahead; a winter’s anticipation of witch hazel and spring’s promise of serviceberry blooms. Know what that makes me think of, you guessed it, a “pop” quiz. Remember those school days, the dreaded “pop” quiz. Let’s give it a try. The answers will be given at the end of the article, so don’t peek. I will list a number of woody plants. Please look at each one and determine the most appropriate planting environment for that individual species. I would send a prize to the winners, but the publishers of this horticultural digest would fire me for mailing you their money, so let’s just call it fun and perhaps learn something along the way.

In what environment would you correctly install the following plant material:

  • Bald cypress
  • Winterberry holly
  • Sweet gum
  • Red Osier dogwood
  • Southern red oak
  • Inkberry holly
  • Sourwood
  • Cranberry bush viburnum
  • Virginia fringetree
  • Sweet Pepperbush, (clethra)
  • Pawpaw
  • Gingko 

Your answers might include things such as, sun, shade, wet or well drained. What’s the point, and why all the fuss? For years I have been fortunate to live in the world of plant maintenance. When people ask me for help or suggestions it is usually a result of things or situations done incorrectly in the past. The majority of concerns we face are a direct result of what was planted and secondly, that particular plant’s placement within the landscape environment. Example: Six feet off the right front corner of a house stands one of three plants, please choose the one you would consider correct for this space: Nellie Stevens holly, Fosters holly or Dragon Lady blue holly? A guiding question would be, what will this plant look like in 20 years? Nellie Stevens will be 30 feet tall and 15 feet wide. The Fosters, not quite that large but trying. How large will the Dragon Lady be? Maybe up to the gutter, with less pruning required over the years. We often spend a great deal of time turning trees into shrubs due to incorrect site selection. On the other hand, have you ever seen a Nellie Stevens holly in a yard with room to grow, or better said, with room to allow for the plant’s natural genetic tendencies to prevail. No matter which Kingdom we discuss, animal, fungi or plant, each individual species is restricted by the genes it possesses, sometimes known as a plant’s “hard wiring”. We cannot change this natural, behavioral phenomenon, and to ask a plant to live where it is not capable of doing so is no different than asking you or me to pull up roots and live in a place of discomfort. There must be a fit, a square plant cannot go in a round hole. There is a logical formula I learned from Dr. Bonnie Appleton, State of VA Extension agent in Virginia Beach. I sat through a class of her’s on this exact subject. Allow me to paraphrase it for you as a guide for planting.

Most plants and sites are chosen in the follow order. 1) Aesthetics, 2) size, 3) maintenance, 4) environment. Plants are often chosen because they are favorites we wish to have in a particular location. We often start with a large specimen with little regard for future space requirements. We forget how often the plant will have to be pruned or the condition of the soil structure, as well as how close it is to the house, sidewalk or driveway. As Consulting Arborist, Edward Milhous states, “if you are pruning your plant material out of your way every year, you more than likely have the wrong plant. As a contractor that prunes plants, I believe that pruning every year in an effort to enhance a species natural beauty and genetic possibilities is justified. However, required pruning to allow both you and plant to peacefully co-exist can be an arduous effort as well as be taxing on your precious landscape budget. What may be a better way to look at site selection? Let’s simply reverse the process, and choose our plant material according to: 1) Environment, 2) size, 3) maintenance, 4) aesthetics. Another way to put it; designing your plant material to fit within your environment is easier and more successful that contorting the environment in an effort to satisfy your own desires. As harsh as that sounds, it tends to be biologically correct. Dr. Bonnie suggests we look at the environment and ask, what is the soil type, water table and drainage? Is there enough light or shade? Exposure to wind and cold, heat and humidity. What is the topography and slope? What is the surrounding plant material, environment, or soil ph? Again, how large will this plant become in 10-20 years? Keeping plants smaller than their genetic requirements can manifest itself in strange and sometimes ugly ways. Try picturing how large oak trees look when we prune them out of our utility lines. Imagine how better the situation could be if we replaced those oaks with species such as, Virginia fringetree, redbud or one of our many cornus species. We could replace tedious pruning with flowers and put public pruning dollars to positive use. How fast will the plant grow and what will its root system do to surrounding structures? Finally, how much work is this plant going to be over the years? So often I hear the term, “low maintenance garden”. Low maintenance rather than no maintenance is certainly possible by following Dr. Bonnie’s guidelines. The use of native plants can also add to your success. Pest and disease concerns are fewer when plants exist within their native soils. In short, I believe Dr. Appleton is asking us to match our plant material to the existing environment rather that creating an environment foreign to our particular site. In As much as we want to plant that yew, Japanese holly or boxwood in naturally moist soil, chances are these species will never reach the luster of maturity in such an environment.

One, hopefully useful note on wet vs. dry conditions. It is plausible to take a moisture loving plant such as bald cypress, (oops! There’s one of the answers), and put it in dry arid soil, but to reverse that situation is nearly impossible. Plants that require dry, well drained soil cannot survive the restraints of a moist to wet site. Along with this phenomenon are myriad other considerations for site selection as we mentioned above. Be sure you are comfortable with the situation or environment you face, and if you are not, seek professional assistance. “A stitch in time”, or “an ounce of prevention”, is critical in the site selection process. “Does the plant match your particular environment”? “How large will the plant become at maturity”? “What are the maintenance requirements of this plant”? Finally, “can I spend the rest of my life with this chosen species”? If you can answer these questions positively, in that order, you are on your way to successful site selection.

Now, how did you score on our little quiz? Thanks for playing and sharing your love for plants with us. 

  1. Bald cypress: Wet to dry, sun, plenty of space. 
  2. Winterberry holly: Wet to moist, partial to full sun. 
  3. Sweet gum: Wet to well drained, full sun. 
  4. Red Osier dogwood: Wet to moist, full sun. 
  5. Southern red oak: Moist to well drained, plenty of room, full sun. 
  6. Inkberry holly: Moist to wet, partial to full sun. 
  7. Sourwood: Shade to full sun, well drained. 
  8. Cranberry bush viburnum: Partial to full sun, well drained. 
  9. Virginia fringetree: Shade to full sun, moist to well drained, (excellent small tree!). 
  10. Sweet Pepperbush, (clethra): Wet to moist, partial to full sun. 
  11. Pawpaw: Shade to full sun, wet to moist. 
  12. Gingko: Full sun, plenty of room, well drained. Great urban tree.

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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