Plant Selection

by Jeff Wasielewski 

The foundation of good horticulture is putting the right plant in the right location. Problems with soil, nutrition and insects can all be avoided by making good plant choices and placing plants where they are best suited to grow. By knowing what conditions you have in your yard, you can make an educated decision as to what plants will thrive there.

Before you look at specific plants, you must first look at your yard. Where in the yard do you want to plant? What is the drainage like in this area? You must also ask, how much sun does the area in question receive (full sun, dappled light). If you are planting on the north side of the house, it will be shady. The southern side of the house will receive full sun. Once you have figured out the soil and sunlight situation, you can come up with a profile of plants that will grow in your situation. Individual plant lists can be refined by asking what you want out of the plant: shade, beauty, fruit, flowers, wild life attractant or all of the above. Then ask yourself, what ultimate size do you want the plant. Countless plantings go bad because the ultimate size of the planting was not known or taken into consideration. You don’t want to end up with an oak under the eave of your house. After you have answered all of the above questions, you now have the qualifications of a plant that will thrive in your yard, as well as, meet your needs. Pictured: the royal poinciana is well adapted to South Florida.

How do you find this plant? The first stop is the library. Public libraries often have a regional section which contains books on plants of specific areas and their characteristics. If you are in this for the long haul, you may also purchase books on plants for your area from any good bookstore. Other good sources of information are lectures and classes or if you are really dedicated, join a plant society. Fairchild hosts many South Florida plant societies which have monthly meetings to discuss and learn about plants. There are societies on everything from aroids, roses and bamboo to native and flowering trees. Other great sources of information are Fairchild’s plant sales where experts are on hand to answer any questions you may have about a plant.

Once a plant list is made, it is important to choose the healthiest plant available. New growth on the plant is a good sign and tells you that the plant is active. If you have the chance, take the plant out of the container and check its roots. Healthy roots are just as important as healthy leaves. Healthy roots are usually white and fibrous, although this may depend on the species. It is important that the roots are just beginning to grow to the edge of the soil in the pot. Roots that already fill the entire pot or wrap around the pot several times (root bound) must be avoided. Root binding occurs when a tree’s main support and storage roots are restricted by the size of their pot. The roots begin to wrap around themselves and coil within the container conforming to the shape of the container. Once the growth of these main roots is distorted, the plant should not be considered for planting because its roots may continue this pattern once placed in the ground. Distorted roots will result in a weak or slow growing tree that will topple or rot easily and may never recover. If you suspect this condition, you can elect to severely prune the roots to remove this destructive pattern of root growth. Pictured: a root bound oak.

The size of the tree for planting must also be evaluated. Many homeowners want instant gratification and plant the biggest tree they can afford; this isn’t always the way to go. Planting young, healthy trees has several advantages over planting large ones. A young tree is easier to transport and plant, will cost less, and has a far superior root system. That root system is going to be active as soon as the tree goes into the ground and will begin to expand and quickly absorb water and nutrients. A large tree has either been cut out of a nursery’s field or grown in a container for a long time. In either case, the root system of that large tree may be damaged or weak. A field grown tree has left many of its best roots back at the nursery and a large container-grown tree has a good chance of being root bound. A young tree has less chance of being root bound and will not have to be cut out of the ground to be transported to your home. Once planted, the young tree’s main support and storage roots can find their way into your soil and not the nursery’s. While young trees can establish themselves in one season or less, large trees typically take two to three years to establish. Large trees also have a greater chance of being wind thrown, as well as, harboring nutrient deficiencies in the first few years after planting. Don’t be drawn in by the idea of instant landscaping, when it comes to growing healthy, sturdy trees, bigger isn’t always better.