Gardening Questions Answered

People often come to me for help in selecting a plant. This is one of my favorite parts of my job, but it can also be one of the most frustrating. It usually involves a game of Twenty Questions, with me trying to get enough information to be able to recommend something appropriate. Unfortunately, the homeowners rarely know the answers, or are too vague to be of help. The questions, and replies, usually go some thing like this:

Q. Where is your property?
A. About a mile.

Having lived here for over 35 years, I am pretty familiar with specific developments. Please, tell me exactly where you live! It helps me factor in such specifics as exposure to salt spray, windy conditions or possible flooding, which could eliminate a lot of plants from the running.

Q. How much sun will the site receive?
A. Uh ... some.

The amount of sun the spot will receive is the single biggest factor in determining what plants are appropriate. I need to know roughly how many hours a day it will have sun and whether it is direct sun or partial sun. If it’s shady, is it filtered shade from tall trees or dense shade from buildings.

Q. Which direction does it face?
A. Well, the sun comes up on this side ... No, dear — spouse interrupts — it comes up on the other side …

The time of day that the site receives sunlight is as important as how much it receives. Obviously, the mid-day sun is more intense than early morning or late afternoon sun, and it influences which plants will do well in a given location.

Q. How is the drainage on your property?
A. Okay, I guess.

Good drainage is essential for the survival of all plants except those adapted to wetlands, so pay attention after heavy rains and get to know the drainage patterns on your property. Most properties will have areas that drain faster or slower than others and slowly draining areas will be limited in the types of plants they will support.

Q. Is the site ever subject to flooding?
A. Well, sometimes.

If there is periodic flooding, I need to know if it’s going to be salt water, brackish or fresh water flooding. Salt water is usually the kiss of death for most plants and even fresh water flooding limits which plants will survive.

Q. Are you here full-time to care for the plant?
A. No, I’m leaving tomorrow and won’t be back for six months.

Some people don’t seem to recognize that plants are living things with basic requirements for survival. A newly planted plant needs to be watered on a regular basis for at least the first season to have any chance of thriving, and Mother Nature has shown us time and again her penchant for irregular rainfall. While I can recommend plants that are drought tolerant, that doesn’t mean that they can get by with no water. If you want a plant that never needs water, think silk.
Once I have a general idea of the site conditions, I need some information about what you need the plant to do. The questions continue …

Q. What do you want this plant to do?
A. Um, grow.

Plants serve different functions in the landscape, from foundation plantings, to screening, attracting wildlife, to shade or accent plants. Knowing what you want from the plant helps me narrow down the choices.

Q. Do you want this plant to be evergreen or deciduous?
A. Does it matter?

This question really depends on what you’re attempting to accomplish. For example, while a formal foundation planting is nearly always evergreen, a plant used for screening need not be in some circumstances. If your neighbor who likes to stroll around in his boxers is only here in the summer, you could just as easily screen him out with a deciduous plant.

Q. How big do you want this plant to be at maturity?
A. Not too big.

This answer, which I get about 90 percent of the time, makes me want to tear my hair out! Visualize the space you want to fill and give it some dimensions. You need to think about both height and width. And the key words in that question are “at maturity”. Obviously, you’re not going to start with a plant that is already full size, so consider where you want it to end up. Choosing a plant that doesn’t naturally exceed your space will save you years of labor and the plant years of abuse.

Q. Do you want this to be a flowering plant?
A. I guess so.

Flowers, understandably, area a large part of the appeal of plants, and I encourage people to use flowering specimens whenever they are appropriate, but there are some considerations here as well. Take bloom time, for example. There are many beautiful plants that bloom in March and April, but if you’re in Florida until May, they won’t do you much good.

Q. What color blooms do you want?
A. Pink — spouse chimes in — red!

Actually, this is purely subjective, but it does help me narrow it down.

Q. How much time are you willing to devote to maintaining the plant?
A. I want it to be maintenance free.

Some plants, by there very nature, are more time consuming than others. Anyone who has ever grown hybrid tea roses knows that it can be a life long commitment. Choosing plants that will not need constant pruning to fit your space, or that are not known for insect or disease problems will save you time and money in the long run.

One side note: After you have considered all these questions, discuss them with your significant other. Preferably, before you head for the nursery. I’m not a marriage counselor, and not a particularly good referee. Having an understanding before you shop will save me time and you embarrassment.

The key to successful gardening is having the right plant in the right place. By taking a few minutes to think about these questions ahead of time, you’re giving me the tools to direct you to the most appropriate plant for your needs. We’ll both be happier for it.

Ginger Hogan is a certified Delaware garden center manager at Lord’s Landscaping.