How to determine the Right Plant for the Right Place

By Kathy Conner Cornell VCE Southside Master Gardener If you have ever attended one of my presentations, you know that I always start out by saying “Always put the Right Plant in the Right Place”. I am going to give you some tips on how to do this. Our goal should be to garden sustainably, work with the Earth and cause no harm. Putting the right plant in the right place is key to the process.
This turtlehead Chelone lyoni is a lovely native plant that blooms in late summer and early fall. Note how the flower resembles a turtlehead. There are many native plants that will beautify your gardens and provide eco-system services to native bees and butterflies. Native plants can often be the right plant for the right place. Something basic is to know where north, south, east and west are in relation to the position of your garden. Direction impacts the amount of shade, prevailing wind and where the morning sun is versus the afternoon sun. These impact the plant choices. To truly select the right plant for the right place, you must know the cultural conditions of each area. Cultural elements include the amount of sun or shade, dry or moist, air circulation and air drainage, the health of the soil and the pH. You run the risk of having an unhappy plant if you aren’t aware of these elements and simply plant a shrub or tree where you want it rather than where the plant needs to be. Other things to be avoided are planting pest prone plants and invasive alien plants. Invasive alien plants include English ivy Hedera helix, Barberry Berberis thunbergia and Heavenly bamboo Nandina domestica. English ivy and heavenly bamboo both have seeds that birds are very happy to spread around for you. Unfortunately, you cannot depend on garden centers to offer appropriate plants. You must do your homework. To correctly determine what is the right plant, really assess the area. To check for shade levels, take a picture of the area at 9 AM, Noon, 3 PM and 6 PM on a sunny day when the leaves have completely flushed out. You will accurately be able to determine which plants are appropriate. Areas with only morning shade are alright for full sun plants. Areas that receive sun in the afternoon are fine for part sun or full sun plants. Places getting morning sun are ok for part shade plants. Areas receiving shade all day are obviously fine with shade plants. If you hear a squish squish when you walk over an area or places where down spouts empty, those areas probably has a moisture issue. There are plants that are fine with that if you want to plant in that area. But plants like herbs require good drainage so keep them out of moist areas. Under trees are a big more difficult to assess. If you have moss around your trees, you have moist shade. You can place a cup under a tree to see how much water it collects during a rain storm. If the cup is bone dry, you have what is called a rain shadow, meaning rain is blocked by the leaves. Plant that area with dry shade plants. Air drainage is when you have plantings at the bottom of a hill and air and fog hang there especially in colder weather. This is death to fruit trees. Air circulation is the amount of air movement around plants. Good air circulation can be helped by proper spacing. This takes into consideration the mature size of the plant and placing the immature plant accordingly. Another trick for things like bee balm Monarda and garden phlox, Phlox paniculata that are prone to powdery mildew, is to cut down the front half of the clump in the spring as the plants are flushing out. This will increase the air circulation and also give you a longer bloom time as the front half will bloom later than the back half. A soil test kit can be obtained from your local extension office. The kit includes directions on how to take a soil sample. Send the sample to the lab indicated on the form. An analysis will be sent to your email account. If you need help understanding your analysis, contact your extension agent or local Master Gardener group. The analysis will give you recommended lime and fertilizer recommendations. I encourage you to consider using organic soil amendments such as composted manure or compost. These amendments help nutrients cling to the soil particles and will be available when the plant needs them. Finally, I’d like to make a plea to use native plants. According to Plant Virginia Natives, a native plant is defined as plants that “occurred here prior to European settlement. This distinction is made because of the large-scale changes that have occurred since the arrival of the European settlers. Native plant species have evolved within specific regions and been dispersed throughout their range without known human involvement. These plants form the primary structure of the living landscape and provide food and shelter for native animal species, including migratory birds and pollinators”. As Doug Tallamy of Bringing Nature Home fame. says these plants perform eco-system services. Native plants are adapted to our climate and soils. They don’t need irrigation once established and don’t want to be fertilized. Plus, they are beautiful and will bring butterflies, beneficial insects and birds to your garden for your viewing pleasure. Visit for more information about native plants. You can have beautiful garden beds and landscaping if you plan ahead, do your homework and select the right plant for the right place.