When Deciding on Plants : Three Questions to Ask Yourself

It’s not easy to decide on which plants to plant where and why. All too often we see a plant we like, think that it’ll do fine wherever we put it, and are surprised (maybe) when the plant goes south before summer. If you’re the kind of gardener who likes to replace dead plants with new ones every season, maybe the above tactic works for you. If you’re like the rest of us who might get a little too attached to their little too pricey plants, then this post is for you.

There are three questions we at EZ BioFriendly Gardens and Landscapes ask any time we are designing and planting a garden. The answer to these questions sets you up to narrow down which plants you need, where, and for why.

Question 1. How does my yard interact with the environment beyond my fence line?

You do not exist in a vacuum. The world does not end at your driveway. What you put into the grass will go somewhere ; What your uphill neighbor does to their soil will affect the quality of yours.

The emphasis of question 1 is to broaden your scope of what you consider “your land”. Your land is just one piece of a puzzle consisting of arbitrary property lines. Realize that a successful gardener works with the ecology of their land ; Ecology studies the nature of nutrient flow: Solar energy turns into plants. Plants transform water, nutrients, and carbon into more plant matter which is then ingested by the grazing bunny which is eaten by the hawk who defecates the remains of said bunny onto your yard. Your neighbor has lost the nutrients of the plants, and the bunny while you have gained the nutrients of said plants, said bunny, and the hawk. The nutrients therein will flow from the bunny to your soil which grows your sunflowers which feeds the bees who pollinate your neighbors flowers and return to their hives at the local organic farm down the street. Eight months later you buy their honey and it’s delicious. Ecology.

The landscape you exist within operates through connections and networks overlaying your daily happenings without your awareness, like a clever selfie filter. Your yard plays hosts to countless such ecological functions like those listed above. A successful gardener understands that the further away you get from what the ecology of the landscape is already doing, the more delicate and expensive things become. Thus, step one in determining what the landscape is already doing is to pay attention to the ways your land is influenced by factors outside your fence line.

This is largely a mental exercise in which you envision your property seasonally. Some people know their land well and can do this via memories of the seasonal differences. They probably know how much sun they’d rather be getting in the summer, or exactly what spot in the yard gets seasonal flooding ; Others might be new to the land and need to visit government sites with publicly funded surveys. These include such entities like the NRCS Web Soils Survey, NRCS USGS.gov, NASA, National Atmospheric and Oceanic Associations, County Soil Surveys, Local Agricultural Extension Agencies, and public colleges like WSU. SunCal.org is a great resource for expecting how much sun you’ll receive during the summer and winter solstice (the longest and shortest days of the year respectively) and how high in the sky the sun will be. Take your time in recognizing how the nutrients are flowing within your environment, as it will be your ability to adapt to the environment that will determine your success. Equally, it’s important to know the seasonal differences in the biotic and abiotic players as change is inevitable, and the successful gardener adapts to changes.

Question 2. What is Beyond my Control?

Question 2 is similar to question 1. Question 2 asks you to focus on what you can’t change. You can’t change the climate, biota, soil age and type, parent material, or influence of other humans. Coincidentally these considerations are so important that worksheets already exist to help you determine these parameters to develop your site characteristics. You are not alone.

The site characteristics should be its own document. You should have a pretty good sense of the flow of nutrients, and the dynamics at play in your environment. This information makes up the backbone of what to plant where, and makes choosing plants an infinitely easier.

We at EZBFGLandscapes have been developing our own plant matrix and plan to make the working file available later down the road. Stay tuned. Until then, the tried and true method of searching the internet on plant information will suffice. Googling such terms like “PNW succulent gardening” or “Erosion control plants PNW native” or “Fire resistant PNW Hedge” is sure to get you some excellent plant candidates. We use sources like the WSU Extension Agency, Horticultural Societies, XercesSociety, anything peer reviewed. Dave’s Garden.com is decent, PlantsForAFuture is hit and miss, the US Forest Service is spot on.

TIP 1 : Stick to natives. Easy wins, super useful, cheap, low maintenance, ecologically preferable, water wise, native pollinator friendly, what more do we have to say?

TIP 2 : The information you care about is the following, in this order -

  1. Preferred pH

  2. Solar needs

  3. Water needs

  4. Form

  5. Native habitat and niche

These features compensate for the nature of question 2 : Which plants are adapted to the site characteristics which can’t be controlled? In other words : “Which plants will grow without my help?”

Question 2 urges you to stop trying to control nature. Stop fighting what nature is already doing. For you, this could mean planting more grapes and less apples to adapt to the heating effects of climate change in our region. Or it could mean planting more kale and less lemon trees. Or to turn the flooded spot in the backyard into a blueberry bog. Maybe stop with the tomatoes and focus on mushrooms instead? This is the magic of knowing what you can’t do - suddenly you realize what you can do.

Question 3 : Is My Plant Good Enough?

That may seem a little harsh. It’s understandable to want the perfect plant to fall out of the sky, into your lap, and into a cozy little future where the grandkids are swinging on an old mossy branch. You will, eventually, get the swing, but don’t shortchange yourself on the perfect plant.

How do you know when a plant is perfect? When the plant in question performs at least 7 different ecological functions. It’s said in the biodynamic community that an ecosystem composed of organisms who fill 7 different niches is more stable, resilient to, and tolerant of change. This means that you must rationalize your plant choice. It’s important you give dedicated thought to this point, as a plant which embeds itself within the flow of nutrients is a plant that will maintain itself. Equally, an ecosystem made up of such highly functional plants is a cheaper ecosystem to maintain. This can be measured financially, via carbon footprint, via diversity censusing, and via soil organic matter. In short, choose plants you can justify. 7 such justifications include: Soil Nitrogen Fixation ; Water Retention ; Water Filtration ; Soil Erosion Control ; Soil Biomass ; Wildlife Habitat ; Food for Pollinators - all of which have been researched and are easily googleable criteria.

This is the best part. It’s the slow reveal - the unveiling of the handful of plants that will turn your yard into a stage for nature to delight you. This is the casting call. The plants will start to surface and the best candidates will become self evident.

Once you’ve gotten to this point you will have successfully set yourself up for choosing the perfect plants for your yard. As you can see, finding the perfect plant is a mixture of ecology, biology, botany, soil science, and research. There is an art to it, but that aspect develops with the fluidity of plant familiarity. But, as with everything in nature, all in good time. Now go, fellow gardeners - tiptoe through the virtual tulips. Seek the makings of your at home paradise and make the world better.

We at EZ BioFriendly Gardens and Landscapes empower landowners to make positive ecological impacts by working with nature so that we can all influence the future for the better. The crew at EZBFG believe our shared connectedness is more significant than our fence lines would suggest.

From the EZBFG Crew to you, may the cocoa be warmer than lukewarm, the socks more soft than sweaty, and the twinkle lights a source of seasonal delight in the darkness.

Happy holidays and happy planning~

Email : EZBFGLandscapes@gmail.com

Phone : 360 - 390 - 8346