Make it green: Building a plant list

Design lieutenants! Do you have favorite plants? A plant with a particular flower or form? A special or memorable fragrance? Or, perhaps a plant that has performed in the same garden spot for years and years? Perhaps your neighbor or the store where you shop also has a plant you admire and would like to use?

For design lieutenants populating an existing garden with new favorites, simply be sure that the cultural conditions are correct, and have fun.

But what if you are engaged in a major overhaul? Or perhaps starting from zero, doing plantings where none currently exist? Is there a place for “favorite” plants?

No. No. A thousand times no.

Well, maybe.

Our conceptual plant list

Of course, we begin our design project with no plants in mind. Is this clear? Certainly you have a few special plants in mind. In the purest sense, though, start your design by defining all of your materials conceptually; only then look for a plant that satisfies the conceptual specification. The Plant List is populated after the Conceptual Plant List is created.

Here is an example of a conceptual specification:

Tall hedge, fine texture, very opaque, maximum 6 feet wide

Patio tree, no fruit drop, minimum 6-foot clear trunk, flowering

Low Shrub, fine texture, yellow or purple flowers

Structural shrub, medium texture, winter flowers, will be combined with low shrub above

Major flowering tree, deciduous or evergreen, more than 40 feet tall, winter color preferred.

The ‘Big Six’

Planting design is a process with two primary activities, and they proceed in this order: first, determine all of the plants that would grow, given site conditions. Second, combine the plants in a meaningful and dramatic way as directed by your design concept or goals.

This is a lot like painting: start your image with all of the colors available, and then choose the ones suitable. In the world of planting design, do the same thing, by starting with the entire universe of available plants. A good place to start is the PlantFinder (www.betrock.com). This is a monthly magazine listing 3,000 available plant materials by species and grower.

Design is often described as a process of elimination. Perhaps the reader thinks this takes the magic out of the process, but I assure you it does not.

More importantly, design is a process where every alternative is considered, and there are a lot of alternatives. Taking the universe of 3,000 plants, the number of combinations for our hypothetical conceptual plant list is about two quadrillion. Who knew?

I have made the point that horticulture precedes anything every time. Let’s put the notion to the test, and see what we get, by first remembering horticultural traits that are inviolable. That is to say, these are plant qualities that are either yes or no for each planting site, and are great ways to reduce the list.

I call this the “Big Six” method. Filter every single available plant by the Big Six. The information is available because, as you worked through the design, you took note of these conditions for each micro-climate (didn’t you?):

Plant type: Tree, Shrub, Vine, Patio Tree, Palm, Aquatic. Don’t be tripped by”‘groundcover.” This is a false category

Site zone: Find plants that will thrive in Zones 10-11. For example, Ligustrum thrives from Zones 7-11; Red Maple from 6-11; Coconut from 10b to 11

Salt tolerance: Plants that thrive in ocean-front conditions are few, but plants that thrive with a bit of protection are more numerous than you might think. Be very careful here.

Light requirement: If you have fewer than 6 or 7 hours’ full sunlight, eschew Hibiscus. Similarly, if a plant needs broken shade, but your site gets a few hours’ July sun, think again.

Design height: I have been beating this drum for a long time: The road to low maintenance goes through correct plant sizes. If you don’t want a shrub that is 4 feet high and 5 feet wide, don’t use plumbago.

Persistence: Do you want deciduous material? Be aware that many trees, for example, are partially deciduous, and that individuals may be idiosyncratic. If you are planting near a pool, don’t plant an oak if you don’t want leaves in the water.

Building the plant list

At this point, you have a short list of plants that satisfy the site and satisfy the conceptual qualities. Now starts the process of combining this plant with that plant, considering the alternatives. Does a combination excite you? Is it vibrant?

More importantly, there is this: You have a list of every workable plant. Consider that for a moment. Perhaps a “favorite” plant is on the list, perhaps it is not. But more than likely you will see alternatives that you simply never considered. I know that I do. Even though I do know plants, the process inevitably results in unusual choices.

And now, go forth and plant.

Questions? E-mail Michael: ms@msadesign.com. His web site and blog are www.msadesign.com.

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