One of the core principles of Florida Friendly Landscaping is the notion of putting the “right plant” in the “right place.”
So what does that really mean?
Well, have you ever brought home a small plant from the nursery, and pretty soon found it taking over the walkway, or pushing up against the side of the house?
If your weekends regularly involve pulling out ladders and loppers, you might have chosen the wrong plant...
Or maybe you’ve had the opposite experience. A plant that looked amazing at the garden store soon begins to look like it’s on a one-way trip to the compost heap…again. Maybe you don’t have a “brown thumb” – you just picked the wrong place for those plants.
It’s ok. We’ve all done it… Gardening inherently involves a spirit of adventure, and sometimes a bit of trial and error. But, if rather than describing an occasional whim purchase, the above description sounds more like your gardening strategy… we need to talk.
“Right plant, right place”
It can be tempting to think of plants like outdoor décor. You love how it looks, you pick a spot, dig a hole, PRESTO! Just like hanging a picture on the wall, right?
Nope. Plants are living things, and it can be helpful to think of them as having “needs” (i.e. all living things need water) and “preferences” (i.e. it ideally prefers _______, but it can settle for __________ and still be healthy.)
In addition, just like a Chihuahua puppy will never grow very large, but a Great Dane puppy is destined to be huge, most plants have an eventual size and shape they will try to attain.
The concept of “right plant, right place” is all about trying to match the plant’s needs, preferences and growth habits with the location you’re giving it to grow. The closer those match up, the happier the plant will be… and the happier you will be, since it means less time, work, and cost to maintain it (pruning, fertilizing, protecting from freezes, pests, etc.) and less time/cost replacing sick or dead plants.
Choosing the “right plant” means considering a few things:
What is the “cold hardiness” (or chilling requirements) of this plant?
Cold hardiness: The USDA “Plant Hardiness Map” divides the country into “zones” based on the average annual coldest winter temperatures. (Here in Pasco County, we’re in Zone 9b. Some older maps list parts of Pasco as 9a.)
If you choose plants that are rated to your zone, they can typically survive our brief cold snaps with little or no help. On the other hand, if you live here in Pasco County but keep choosing tropical plants rated for Zone 10+, you’re going to be pulling out the frost blankets every time we get a cold snap, or replacing plants every few years.
Chill hours: Some fruit trees / bushes will actually require a certain number of “chill hours.” (And no, that doesn’t mean time spent listening to “Dark Side of the Moon.”) In order to set flowers or fruit, some plants actually need a certain amount of cold weather as a biological “trigger.” Fortunately for us here in Florida, UF/IFAS is at the forefront of developing new varieties of plants that require less chill hours than their northern counterparts, continually pushing the boundaries of where fruits like peaches and blueberries can be grown!
What soil conditions (pH, salinity, drainage, etc.) does this plant need to thrive?
While it’s true that soil conditions can be tweaked with the addition of irrigation, fertilizers, compost, etc., the closer you can match the plant to the normal soil conditions, the less work (and $$$) it will take to keep it happy in the long run.
Take some time to understand your soil conditions around the yard. Then, rather than “forcing a square peg into a round hole,” ask your nursery to help you choose plants to match those conditions.
Tip: Grouping plants together that have similar needs allows you to water and fertilize efficiently!
What sun / shade levels does this plant need in order to thrive?
Tip: Remember to consider how light conditions could change throughout the year.
Example: Let’s say it’s January, and you’re looking at a plant that wants “full sun.” There’s a bed along the south side of your house that has “full sun” – right now in the middle of January – but in the middle of summer, as the sun drifts north in the sky, that same bed will be 100% shade…
Some plants can handle those changes. Others, not so much…. So unless the plant is adapted to those changing light levels, it’s probably better to find another plant, or pick a different place.
How big will this plant get? (height x width)
If you live in a studio apartment, you probably wouldn’t bring home a Great Dane for a pet, right? Likewise, if a plant eventually will span 10′ across, you shouldn’t plant it 2′ from the walkway, the side of the house, etc.
Remember, thanks to intensive research and selective breeding, even a single species of plant may come in a huge range of varieties or cultivars. That doesn’t just influence the size and color of the flowers or fruits, or provide a variety with disease resistance. It can also change the growth form of the entire plant.
Example: Let’s say you love your neighbor’s magnolia tree, so you decide to go buy one for your own yard. At the local nursery, there are two Southern Magnolia trees sitting side-by-side. Both are skinny, about 8’ tall, sitting in 10 gallon pots.
They look nearly identical (for now), but the “dwarf” variety ‘Little Gem’ will only reach a maximum size of about 25’ tall and 15’ wide, whereas the “standard” Southern Magnolia can eventually achieve heights of 80’ and span 40’ across!
Tip: Pay attention to the details on the plant’s tag, and don’t be afraid to ask the nursery staff for guidance. A good nursery should have knowledgeable folks who are more than willing to help steer you in the right direction.
Tip: Avoid the urge to “overplant” a new landscape. Try to account for the full size of the plants when thinking about spacing. Overcrowding can lead to competition for space and nutrients, and can even encourage some pests and diseases. (Remember, if you suspect you’ve already overplanted, it’s easier to divide and transplant while the plants are still healthy and at a manageable size.)
Depending on your specific landscape, you may even have additional factors to consider when choosing the right plant – i.e. wind/storm resistance, salt tolerance / reclaimed water, wildfire protection, etc. Fortunately, there are some very good resources out there to help:
Here’s a few helpful links to help you keep your New Year’s resolution to always put the “right plant” in the “right place” –
- Your local UF/IFAS Extension Office & Master Gardeners can help with plant questions, bug questions, soil testing – you name it, we’ve got you covered. Link: Find your local UF/IFAS Extension office & Master Gardeners
- Visit good nurseries / garden centers – Asking questions is a great way to tell the difference between a good nursery versus “a store that happens to also sell plants.” When you find a good nursery, the staff tend to know their plants’ needs well. With a little information from you, they’ll often be able to help steer you to the right plant selection.
- Landscaping for Specific Sites – UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions hub containing links for coastal, shade, drought, fire-wise, etc.
- NOTE on growing turf in shade – Turf growing in shade typically requires much less water and fertilizer than turf growing in full sun. Irrigation can often be greatly reduced for shaded turf, while mowing height should be increased. For more information, see the UF/IFAS publication: “Growing Turfgrass in the Shade”
- For additional landscaping ideas for shaded areas, including lists of some recommended plants, see the UF/IFAS publication “Landscaping in Florida Shade”
PLANT SELECTION GUIDES –
- Florida Native Plant Society* (Includes native plants only) – Searchable plant selection guide for Florida native plants. This guide allows you to choose your county, select site characteristics, etc. (NOTE: To avoid losing your search results, click the green “Back to List” button, rather than using the ‘back’ button on your browser.
- Waterwise Plant Selection Database – by St. Johns River Water Management District – This user-friendly searchable plant selection guide allows you to select plant type (groundcover, flower, ferns, trees, vines, etc.), soil conditions, plant height, growth characteristics, flower color, etc. Includes native and non-invasive options.
NOTE: To request a paper copy of the UF/IFAS publication – Florida-Friendly LandscapingTM Guide to Plant Selection & Landscape Design click this link to visit the free publications section of the Southwest Florida Water Management’s page, WaterMatters.org.
- Other UF/IFAS online materials: There is an enormous collection of information available online from UF/IFAS. I always tell people, “If it can grow in Florida, UF/IFAS has info for you.” Simply go to your favorite search engine, type (name of the plant/animal) + ‘IFAS’, and you’ll have a good starting point.
Native Plant Suggestions for different sun/soil combinations– From the Tarflower Chapter of FNPS (UPDATE – This link is no longer active.)
Happy New Year!
by Frank Galdo