Making the Best Plant Choices

Whenever I get a plant catalog in the mail, I feel like a kid in a candy store – so many plants all with unique beauty and benefits - I want them all (Just look at the Plants offered by the CCCD!)  As I gaze out of my window at my snow-covered gardens, it seems the possibilities are endless and I can get carried away.  Do I have room to tuck a new shrub between the Pagoda Dogwood and the Blueberry?  Can I possibly force a few more monardas into my overcrowded perennial beds?  There must be room for some native columbine and trilliums in my woodland garden.  Can I create an edible garden with shadbush and hazelnut?  A butterfly garden with asters?  An herb and medicinal garden with lavender?  Maybe a rain garden with elderberries and ferns at the end of the driveway to capture and filter runnoff.  I try to incorporate conservation values into my gardens by selecting plants that are native to the northeast to maximize befits to wildlife and the environment and are adapted to the site conditions to minimize water consumption, inputs and labor.

I need to consider the soil, sun, moisture and space requirements of an individual plant before I order anything.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), my choices are limited by the size and site conditions of my tiny yard.  I have sandy soils that are high and dry with a persistent westerly wind.  My full sun gardens are full (pun intended) so that just leaves my shade gardens with room for additions.  I need to search for plants that are drought resistant with low light and fertility requirements – this narrows my possibilities considerably.  Add to these criteria a preference for species that are native to the northeast (preferable with a wildlife value) and I have what I would call a “manageable list”.

Now that I know my site conditions, I can eliminate plants not suited to my site before I get my heart set on them by reviewing the plant requirements.  I have learned the hard way that additions of compost and soil amendments can improve site conditions to some extent, but a plant that requires a rich deep humus and moist conditions will not survive long in excessively drained sand without continuous inputs of water and amendments – not a good conservation choice for me. 

Next, I ask – is it invasive?  I prefer to plant native plants and there are many native options and cultivars that can satisfy the aesthetic requirements of yard and garden plantings.  If I cannot find a native plant that suits my needs, I make sure it is not on an invasive or noxious weed list.  Invasive plants readily escape from gardens and manicured landscapes in a variety of ways and wreak havoc on the natural landscape.  Why take the risk in planting these when there are so many native and non-invasive alternatives out there?

I can take this process a step further by looking for plants that satisfy other criteria.  Is it beneficial to wildlife (provides nectar, pollen, fruit, nuts or nesting and cover) or is it just taking up space?  I like to support local agriculture and businesses - how and where the stock was collected?  I can plant a species native to NH but it could have been dug from the wild in Wisconsin and shipped here (can you find three concerns here?). 

So before I get out my checkbook and place my order I ask myself – What are my site conditions?  What are the characteristics I want or benefits the plant provides?  What are the native options?  What is their origin and can I find them locally?  I can’t always say yes to everything on this list whenever I buy a new plant for my cramped gardens.  However, by going through this process I feel better about the choices I make.

 

Written by: Wendy Ward, NRCS Soil Conservation Technician

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landscaped garden in the spring