Gardening 101: A buyer's guide to plant selection
A visit to a garden centre to buy plants for your garden can be an overwhelming experience. For me, it’s like being a kid in the candy store with so many pretty things begging to go in my trolley. While it can be great fun, plant selection is key - otherwise, when you get home you may find that there’s no room for your new purchases or they’re not appropriate for your garden.
So if you don’t impulse buy, how do you know which plants will work in your garden? Buying plants is more like buying a kitchen appliance than buying sweets, cushions or shoes. You need to do a bit of homework first and then choose the plant that fits the brief. Don’t worry, there’s always room for a few impulse buys!
Know your garden's needs
When you are shopping for plants you need to know some basics about the conditions in your garden – the amount of sun, type of soil and exposure to wind – and also have an understanding of how the plant may grow – its height and spread (usually found on the plant label) as well as its need for care and maintenance (available from trained garden centre staff).
For example, you need to know if your garden has sun or shade (and how much) and whether it’s exposed to hot winds or sea breezes. Ideally, you also need to know if the area gets frost in winter and if you can water it when times are dry.
Plants also come at a range of prices. The cost of a plant reflects its size and the number of years it has taken to grow to the size that’s on offer. Advanced plants cost more but make a bigger impact in the garden.
Plant selection can be a difficult process and you may find yourself distracted by foliage or flowers. To make a trip to the garden centre work for your garden, take a list – either in your head or, better, written down - that describes the type of plant that you need. Several plants may fit the brief so you can decide which has the most appeal when you look at the options.
Your plant shopping list may read something like this...
- Plants for a 6m evergreen hedge: full sun, 3m high, white flowers ideal. How many?
- Plants for two pots at front door: shaded all day, pots are 50cm across, needs to look good all year round.
- Fruit tree: full sun, lots of room, but don’t want pests.
- Plant for that tricky spot down the back: hot afternoon sun in summer.
If possible, have a few photos handy on your smart phone to remind you exactly where you are going to put the plants on your list. If you don’t know your soil type bring some with you for testing or read this link to discover how to analyse your soil.
Then you can shop for plants that match your list and select the ones that appeal. The options for the hedge, for example, may include murraya, sasanqua camellia, lilly pilly or photinia, and you’ll need six plants spaced a metre apart. The two feature pots at the front door could be planted with dwarf palms, a topiary fig or even clivias, while the fruit tree could be a fig, a citrus or even a mulberry. And that tricky spot that gets a blast of late afternoon summer sun may be the perfect place to grow a frangipani or an agave.
Plant selection isn't something you need to do alone. Don’t be afraid to ask the garden centre’s horticulturist for their input. They’ll be able to steer you towards plants that will do well and away from those that look wonderful in the garden centre but will struggle in your garden.
They will also know which plants grow easily in your neighbourhood and which ones grow but require more care and attention. Ideally, they’ll even know where there’s a good example of a plant you want to buy growing in your district so you can see how it looks after a few year’s growth.