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Right Plant: Right Place—the First Time

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Submitted by: Marlys Bell

Last month, I transplanted about 200 plants. When finished, I asked myself, “Why was that necessary?” Since moving plants already stressed by the long hot summer is risky, I uprooted only those with compelling reasons such as: too big, or too close to neighboring plants, or too much or too little sun. I left those that were the wrong color, texture and shape. In most instances, the underlying reality was, I should have paid better attention to plant characteristics, needs and intended location before buying and certainly before planting. In the future, the question to be answered is, “Is this the right plant for this place?” It will help to avoid costly, time consuming mistakes and increase the likelihood that both the plants and I will be happier with the results.

The question, “right plant: right place?” is useful in gardening related situations. Both sides of the equation are equally important. When my husband and I arrived from Florida three years ago, I was tempted to recreate a lush, tropical look. I then concluded it would look terribly “out of place” and be impossible to achieve and maintain in this climate.

The Mother Lode has its own unique “sense of place” characterized by stately oaks, towering pines and subdued colors. Acknowledging that reality, I now look for plants originating in the Mother Lode or native to California. Other well-adapted plants come from places with similar temperatures, hot, dry summers and wet winters. Such plants can be found in the Mediterranean basin and parts of Chile, Australia and South Africa. Selecting plants from similar climates is the first step in finding the right plant for the right place.

But in the Mother Lode, there are often special factors to consider such as poorly draining clay soil; rocky, slippery slopes; wandering, hungry deer; intense, unfiltered summer sun; and heavy snow that can break brittle branches. When planning a design theme, determining plant types, and selecting individual plants, these are relevant realities.

Often plants are selected to perform a specific function such as providing shade from the hot western afternoon sun, screening an unattractive view or providing a wildlife habitat. Deciduous trees are usually selected to provide summer shade and access to winter sun. Dense evergreen trees and shrubs are used for privacy screens. When planning a habitat garden, its placement in the garden is critical. Not even the right bird-attracting plants will be successful if human and pet activity scares the birds away.

Once a specific plant is selected, find the location that best matches its cultural preferences (light, moisture, drainage, and soil pH) to assure its survival. Sometimes, existing conditions can be modified to accommodate plant preferences. Examples: limb up nearby trees for more light, create berms and plant high to improve drainage, or install a low volume drip irrigation system that takes water directly to the roots. It is far better, however, to select a plant that thrives with what is already there.

In addition to cultural factors, there are often microclimates within the garden with cold and hot spots and differing amounts of wind, sun, and snow. These factors affect how well the plant will tolerate its new environment. Some microclimates result from nature, such as cold spots at the bottom of the slope. But some are man-made, such as the heating system that blows drying winds on my heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica).

The long-term viability of the site (place) should also be considered so plants will not have to be moved or cut down later. Some situations to consider are: overhead or buried utility lines, septic systems, or nearby trees that will ultimately create shade or dense root systems. Particularly when selecting trees, the ultimate size should be considered. This will minimize possibilities for causing dangerous blind spots near driveways, infringing on neighbors´ property, or growing too close to the house and creating ladders for wildlife or fire.

Sometimes, requirements of neighboring plants are critical to the equation. An example is native oaks that will not tolerate summer irrigation. The best thing to plant under them may be nothing. However, there are some dry shade-loving plant candidates that may be successful without damaging valuable trees. Plant them at or beyond the drip line and water them infrequently or not at all. Examples of potentially “right” plants are deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), yarrow (Achillea), coral-bells (Heuchera), Pacific coast iris, Oregon grape (Mahonia), and sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus).

Fire safety issues also raise questions about right plant, right place. If it is tall and touching the house or roof, it is not the “right plant” in the “right place.” Plants in close proximity to structures should be low growing, fire resistant and have some moisture content. Examples are: sedums, Vinca minor, ajuga, thyme, or creeping St. Johns wort (Hypericum calycinum), also known as Aaron´s beard. Particularly within the 100-foot “defensible space,” pay attention to placement, proximity and flammability of plants. Trees and shrubs should be pruned or removed to prevent the possibility of fires leaping from one to the other. Dead trees and shrubs should be removed to reduce fire hazards.

Fortunately, there are resources to aid in deciding “right plant: right place.” Ask a Master Gardener for advice or pick up a copy of the book published by Tuolumne County Master Gardeners “Sharing the Knowledge, Gardening in the Mother Lode.” Browse through “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates” by EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District). A new resource is the recently published book by Glenn Keator and Alrie Middlebrook, “Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens.”

Marlys Bell is a Tuolumne County Master Gardener who is creating a demonstration garden on her property consisting of plants that thrive in the Mother Lode. She frequently writes about “lessons learned.”