Plant selection can be an overwhelming task if you have not done your homework. Nurseries and Garden Centers are full of colorful, blooming plants just waiting for someone to grab them and take them home. The temptation is almost irresistible.
A lot of us, including Master Gardeners, have done it many times. You buy the plants on impulse, take them home, and there they sit for a month or two until you get in the mood to plant them. Even worse, you may find a likely spot and then watch as the blooms slowly fade away and the plant dies because you purchased a plant that was not suitable for Parker County.
Before you yield to this temptation, apply some common sense. Take a few simple steps that will help ensure greater success in your landscape, and you will end up with plants that will reward you for years to come.
Step 1: Decide on your landscape goals for a particular area.
What are you trying to achieve? Do you want privacy from the neighbor next door? Would you like a focal point to view from your kitchen window? Do you just want to add some color to a particular area? If so, what color? The outcome from this process should be a general statement that is not specific to a particular plant type. For example, a goal could be to add more color to your flowerbed.
Step 2: Think about how large the plant will grow.
How large is the space, and how large do you want the plants to be when fully grown? All too often we plant a cute little shrub in a small space not realizing its mature size is quite large. We then spend all our time trying to prune it to a smaller shape, instead of buying a plant that better fits the space. Take a photograph of the planned space and measure it, then take the photo with you to the nursery.
Step 3: Analyze the site.
Is the space in full sun, partial shade, or full shade? Does it have a drainage problem? What is the underlying soil? How is this space used? The answers to all these questions will help determine what plant will work best.
Step 4: Research possible plants.
How can you identify plants that will grow here? Check out local books with suggestions for plants, especially those that focus on plants for North Central Texas such as Home Landscaping Texas by Greg Grant and Roger Holmes, Lone Star Gardening by Neal Sperry, Texas Gardening Guide by Dale Groom, or Easy Gardens for North Central Texas by Steve Huddleston and Pamela Crawford. Consider getting your own copy of The Real Dirt, a garden handbook written by the Parker County Master Gardeners. Go online to Texas Smartscape at http://www.txsmartscape.com/ and browse their website. From this research, develop a list of plants you would like to consider.
Our Master Gardeners' Shade Garden Study Group has put together a LIST of plants with all of the specifics you should consider as a part of your research. Download the PDF here.
Step 5: Learn about the plants that thrive in Parker County.
What kind of soil do you have? How much supplemental water can you provide? The majority of Parker County is in hardiness zone 8a with areas from NW to SW are 7b. Make sure any plant you purchase is rated for zone 7b. Otherwise you will have to spend a lot of time protecting them in the winter. Confusing? Check your zone by ZIPCODE on this USDA Plant Hardiness Zone MAP.
On average, we receive 33 inches a rain a year, while East Texas gets 45-50 inches. So, unlike East Texas, we need to purchase drought tolerant plants. With watering restrictions going into effect each year, your best bet is to get plants that can live on our natural rainfall. Finally, most of us have alkaline soils (high pH). This means that acid loving plants will not grow well here. Select plants that are well-adapted to our alkaline soils.
Step 6: Work with your local nursery professional.
How can you narrow your choices? Armed with all this knowledge, go to your local nursery and engage in a conversation. Share with them your thoughts and photos, then listen to their suggestions. Many times the plant you thought you wanted is not available, and often new plants have been brought to market that are more appropriate. Be open to suggested changes to your preliminary ideas. This is how I discovered both Japanese kerria and Chinese indigo, two plants I had never heard of that are now favorites in my landscape.
Step 7: Buy wisely.
How big a plant should you buy? Develop patience. Our infatuation with instant gratification results in two problems: buying plants that are too large and plants that are in full bloom. Purchase the smallest container that you can find. A four-inch lantana may grow to three feet in one season. A shrub in a one-gallon pot will get established much quicker than one in a 10-gallon container, and in and in three to five years will out-perform the larger plant because it gets established so much quicker. Blooms on a plant that is newly planted will rob it of energy that should be going into root growth. Look for plants that have no blooms; and if they do, cut off all blooms when you plant them in order to help them develop roots first. Your goal is to have a healthy plant that rewards you with blooms in due time. You may not get any blooms the first year, and that is fine. You will be amply rewarded in the years to come.
When selecting a plant, look for one that has good foliage color, a uniform shape, and no thick roots protruding out of the bottom of the container. If you are buying a plant for its berry production, it is best to buy the plant in the fall and look for one that has berries on it. Many berry-producing shrubs will only produce berries on the female of the species.
Step 8: Take care of your new plants
Now what? If you have planned well, the space where you want these new plants to go will be ready for them. Once you get them home, you want to get them established quickly, so arrange your schedule to plant them the same day you purchase them. Once they are planted, the main thing they need is water. Do not let the roots go dry during the first three weeks. Fertilizer is not useful for plants until the roots are established. So hold off on fertilizer until you see new leaves growing on the plant.
Be sure and add mulch around the new plant to help with water conservation and to prevent weeds from sprouting. When planting small shrubs in large spaces use some annuals to fill in the first year or two until the shrubs are fully developed. Once established, perennials, shrubs, and trees should require very little care in subsequent years.
Step 9: Repeat this process each year.
If you use the simple steps outlined above, you can repeat the process year after year, adding to your landscape or replacing a few plants that did not work out as you envisioned. Just decide on your landscape goals for the area, research the plants that may work, talk to your nursery professional, buy wisely, and then take care if those new plants.