Every plant has individual requirements. Before you invest in any plant, it is important to understand what the plant specifically needs to thrive.
The best place to start though, is figuring out what specific areas of your garden or landscape have to offer. Some areas may be sunny, some shady, some windy, some moist, some dry, and of course specific soil content could vary. Is the soil sandy or clay? Can you amend it? What is the pH? What minerals and nutrients are naturally available? You may want to do a simple soil test. There are articles throughout this site that can help you become more familiar with all your micro climates and soil types. Once you understand the conditions, you can determine which plants will thrive in your gardens.
Every plant needs the basics - soil, air, water, light and space. But there are other things to consider also, such as day and night temperatures, length of day or pH needs. Some plants have some pretty specific needs and you need to know if your conditions match up to the needs of selected plants.
Soil not only holds your plants in the soil and supports the plant, but it holds the water, minerals and nutrients that the plant takes up through its roots. The texture of your soil is very important. Loam is ideal for most plants with an ideal mixture of different size soil particles. It can hold enough water for your plants but drain off excess. Sandy soil has large particles and will not hold water or nutrients well. Sandy soil can warm up very quickly in spring, but dry out in summer. Clay has tiny particles that compacts easily, leaving no room for air that your plants need. It drains poorly and can be too wet for many plants. Although clay can hold nutrients well, it is often deficient in nutrients. Clay soil remains cold longer in spring, making it difficult for your plants to break dormancy. See the article on soil amendments to find out about amending soil texture.
Water is essential to every plant, but in different amounts and frequency. Your soil texture will determine how much water is retained for your plants but you need to know more. How much rain does your region generally get? Is the planting area easily accessed for supplemental watering? Is the planting area in a hot dry area of your landscape? or on a slope that drains off water quickly? or in a low spot that receives a lot of runoff? There are plants that can thrive in any of these situations, you just need to find the right ones.
Sunlight is the primary source of energy for plants. Sunlight is transformed into food through photosyntheses, so every single plant will need some sunlight. Some plants are very well adapted to thriving with very limited and indirect sunlight. Such plants are necessary on the north sides of buildings or where heavily shaded by trees, but these same plants can often do well with more sunlight. Each plant has a range of light that is tolerated and may grow a bit differently at the outer limits of the range. For example, a flowering shrub or plant may have more and larger blooms with more sunlight, but in shade fewer small blooms but with brighter color. Light requirements are always listed on plant tags, but to gain a better understanding of grower recommendations, see the article What Does Part Sun Mean?
Daylength is not quite the same as sunlight. Daylength refers to the light duration from sunrise to sunset. Daylength can vary by regions around the globe at different times of year. This is not typically something you need to be concerned with, growers in your region will supply appropriate plants. But you may want to be familiar for when you run into plants described as short day or long day plants. The daylength triggers plants to break dormancy, promote growth, initiate flowers and prepare for winter. Short day plants such as Aster, Mums, Dahlia and Poinsettia will only flower when the days are 10 to 12 hours. Long day plants include most annuals, hibiscus and tuberous begonia and will need 14 to 18 light hours. Many plants are of course indifferent.
Temperature can be influenced by your region, daylength and sun exposure for specific sites. Each plant has a range of temperature that it will tolerate, some a wide range, some narrow. Ideally you will want to provide the optimum range for the plant to thrive. Growers in your region will generally supply such plants, but you will need to consider micro climates in your landscape. Planting sites situated near the street or blacktop will tend to be hot. Sites among trees or in breezy locations can be cooler. And of course, the length of exposure to overhead or late day sun can heat up a planting site. How cold your region gets in winter of course will affect the choices of plants. Each plant is rated to survive specific growing regions based on the average cold temperature. Don’t forget that average is not a range, look for information on plant tags or through research that indicates the coldest temperature the plant can tolerate.
Air supplies carbon dioxide needed for photosyntheses to plants and the plants return oxygen to the air. The plant roots also need air, which is why good drainage is important and compacted clay soil can be a problem. Of course some plants deal with it better than others. And some plants are a bit fussy about how polluted the air is. Polluted air limits respiration and sunlight, inhibiting photosyntheses and causing pale unhealthy plants. Pollution particles can also create a film on leaves making the problem even worse. Some plants are much more sensitive to pollution than other, and some of course are very tolerant.
Space is very important to plants. They need room to spread to their full size. If you crowd plants they often grow more slowly and become tall and gangly. Some plants need extra space for good air circulation. Plants that are prone to fungus and disease should never be crowded.
Nutrients are typically taken from the soil through roots. The most important are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which you have probably seen on packaged fertilizer as N-P-K. Growing plants use up natural soil nutrients so one way or another you need to supply nutrients consistently. I wont get into it now, but there are a couple of good articles about feeding your soil so your soil can feed your plants. Preparing the Vegetable Garden for Winter focuses on putting natural organic nutrients back into your soil, and All about Fertilizer gives a good overview of organic amendments and supplemental synthetic fertilizers.
Soil pH determines how readily a plant can take up nutrients. Test your soil with a simple test kit from a garden center to find out if your soil is acid or alkaline. Although you can make minor adjustments to your pH it will fairly quickly revert back to its natural state. Certain plants are very particular about pH. You can increase your chance of success with plants if you know your soil pH and select plants that either thrive or are at least tolerant of your soil’s natural pH level.
Check on all these aspects of your soil and planting site, there are plenty of plants that can thrive in your gardens.
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