We are entering the prime planting season for hardy trees, shrubs, ground covers and perennials in Louisiana, which runs through early March. That makes this a great time for planning landscaping projects.
Think about what you need to do. Whether it’s planting some shade or ornamental trees, installing an area of ground cover, or enriching an area of your landscape with shrub plantings or flower beds, develop your plans now. Then take advantage of the coming planting season to install the plants.
Gardeners often are advised that the key to gardening success is planting the right plant in the right place. Although this sounds relatively simple, a lot goes into the decision of which plants should be used and where they should be planted in the landscape. In particular, a gardener must focus on what characteristics the plants selected need to have in order to first, satisfy the needs and taste of the gardener and second, allow the plants to thrive in the growing conditions provided.
Most gardeners are not walking around with a plant encyclopedia in their heads. It’s virtually impossible for the average person to look a situation and rattle off a selection of appropriate plants. Yet, early on in the planning process gardeners often try to come up with the name of specific plants they will use.
This way of thinking is typical of a question I am frequently asked. In all earnestness, someone will ask me to recommend a good shade tree. This question cannot be answered properly without considerably more information. It’s like walking into a shoe store and asking the salesperson to recommend a good pair of shoes. Without knowing your shoe size, what you will be doing in them, your taste, your budget and a variety of other factors, the salesperson won’t be able to help you.
Rather than immediately trying to think of a specific plant or asking someone for a specific suggestion, you must think carefully of the characteristics the plant needs to have, such as size, growth habit and preferred growing conditions. After that, you can check references or consult with professionals who can help you find the plant that most closely matches those characteristics.
Also, wandering around a nursery waiting for inspiration to strike can be risky if you don’t already have a clear idea of the characteristics the plants you need should have. Plants are sometimes selected because they are on sale, or less expensive or because of some momentary attraction. Many times these plants may ultimately grow too large, will not thrive in the location where they are planted or have some other major flaw.
For example, let’s go back to selecting a shade tree. What characteristics do you need to decide first? Proper size is critical. Average shade trees range in size from 35 feet to over 60 feet tall. That’s quite a range. So a decision needs to be made early on about the size that would fit best in the situation.
If the tree is to shade a small patio, for instance, a smaller tree 15 to 25 feet tall would be appropriate. If it is to shade a two-story house, a tree 50 feet tall or more would be most suitable.
There are other factors. The tree selected must be well adapted to your area and the growing conditions where you intend to plant it. Should the tree be evergreen or deciduous? Should it grow more upright, or is a spreading habit more desirable? Is the gardener interested in any special characteristics, such as color from flowers, fruit or fall foliage? How about the production of food for wildlife, such as birds?
Make a detailed list of the characteristics the tree should have, and then consult an appropriate reference, go to the nursery or contact a horticulturist at your parish LSU AgCenter office for help in selecting the tree that best fits your description. You and the professional you ask will find this so much easier, and the recommendations you get from professional will more clearly reflect what you need and desire.
Done this way, instead of having to make your decision looking at all the different trees available, your choice is made from the two or three trees that most fit your needs and growing conditions. Sometimes when the dust settles, only one tree best measures up to the list, and the decision is made.
This decision-making process should be used when deciding about any types of plants to use in your landscape. When selecting shrubs, ground covers, annuals, perennials or lawns, you will find this a very useful process that will help you avoid mistakes that are almost always difficult to correct.
This does not mean that the spur-of-the-moment purchase of a plant you just have to have should never be done. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a plant, or been given one by a friend, and then wandered around my landscape trying to find somewhere appropriate to plant it. This is part of the fun of gardening. I would never, however, choose trees, shrubs, ground covers or flowers for a major planting that way.
When using reference books to help you in this process, it is very important to choose references appropriate for our state. Also, contact your parish LSU AgCenter office for free pamphlets on selecting trees, shrubs, vines, bedding plants and ground covers that will thrive in our area. Lots of LSU AgCenter gardening information and plant recommendations for Louisiana also are available online at www.lsuagcenter.com.
Dan Gill is a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter. He can be reached at DGill@agcenter.lsu.edu