right plant, right place

“Right Plant Right Place” is one of the basics of sustainable landscape design. The idea is to put a plant where it can thrive and live out its life without much intervention from the gardener. The payoff is lower maintenance, as well as healthier plants and healthy habitats. A lot of decisions must be made before you put your plant in the ground. Here’s a personal example of how small choices can lead to big disappointments.

          Error #1 Impulse Buying

Several years ago, while shopping at a nursery, I spied a beautiful American Dogwood with variegated leaves called “Daybreak”  (cornus florida “Daybreak”). I go weak in the knees for variegation, so of course, I had to have it. Knowing that the nursery gets only a few of these rare beauties every year, I bought it.

Daybreak dogwood trees need a break from the afternoon sun and plenty of water.
Daybreak dogwood trees need a break from the afternoon sun and plenty of water.
          Error #2 Forgot My Excellent Mt. Lebo Education

Where would I put this tree? I picked out the perfect place (I thought) and put it in the ground. Gorgeous… until the middle of that hot summer, when powdery mildew and anthracnose covered the leaves of my rare beauty. Although not fatal, these leaf diseases are stressful and can compromise the tree’s immune system. I had not taken into account basic seventh grade botany, and forgot that the earth moves in a circle around the sun, shifting the sun exposure. Drat!

          Error #3 Radiated Heat

As the seasons changed, I watched my once-spectacular dogwood fade. It was not protected from afternoon sun, and I had not taken into account radiated heat either. As the sun beat down on the tree, our red brick home also absorbed the heat, which radiated back onto the tree, making it even hotter. The black driveway below also radiated heat. Radiated heat is great for tomatoes but really bad for an American Dogwood. As is often the case, it was not one thing but a combination of several that turned out to be too much for my tree.

          Error #4 Lack of Water

I underestimated how much water this tree needed. The bed where I planted it outside our front door is classic Mt. Lebanon. Our driveway is four feet lower than the front door; steps and a walkway built along a dry stack wall keep the soil from spilling onto the driveway below. The soil is very loose and does not hold water well. Because this tree was in the process of getting established in its new home, it needed plenty of water. What resulted was a drought-stressed tree.

Now what? Move the dogwood. That’s it!!  I found a spot near my backyard pond. I envisioned those spectacular variegated, yellow and green leaves brightening this shady area along with the beautiful horizontal branches spreading out above the waterfall and white blossoms falling into the pond like snowflakes. So I moved the dogwood to the woodland garden, right above the waterfall, where water is easily available and it is protected from late afternoon sun. In this location, my dogwood will catch dappled light coming through the canopy of shade trees, as the sun moves across the sky. There is plenty of air space to spread out, and (I hope) my little dogwood will finally look great. Will my sweet tree recover? It’s not dead yet, and we have had a mild winter. Summer will tell the tale.

This is a great (unfortunately true) example of what can happen when a plant is not placed well. Sadly, American Dogwoods often are placed in the middle of a sunny green lawn where the pH is too base and water is not plentiful. There, this eastern native tree always will struggle and be susceptible to diseases, which while treatable, will return eventually if the tree is not moved.
Here are three things to consider if you want to put the right plant in the right place.

Know Your Plants Do your research, and identify and get to know your plants. Walk through the garden and take notes. Solve small problems before they become big. Do online research about any plant you are considering buying. How tall does it get? How wide? How much water does it need?  How much sun? What kind of soil? And what should the pH be? If you want a healthy, beautiful garden, these important questions need to be answered before you buy the plant and put it in the ground.
One of my favorite plants is clematis. I like them all and buy them wherever I see them.

Relocating this clematis from a trellis, where it absorbed too much heat, to a shady spot underneath an evergreen cured its wilt.
Relocating this clematis from a trellis, where it absorbed too much heat, to a shady spot underneath an evergreen cured its wilt.

The clematis have taught me, though, that sometimes, even after doing research, mistakes happen. Take the case of special clematis, “Claire De Lune.” We share the name, so naturally I had to have her and special ordered this beauty from a catalogue. Claire De Lune supposedly prefers shade to sun. At that time, my whole property was shady, so I figured I could put Claire almost anywhere. I decided on a trellis in the front of our home.

Everything seemed right about this location. Claire was gorgeous the first year until about mid-bloom, when her stems turned black and the blooms died. My master gardener teacher at Phipps confirmed my diagnosis of clematis wilt and said no one knows exactly what causes it. The one thing they do know: location and conditions matter, a lot. She suggested digging the roots in deeper. So I coddled Claire De Lune a bit (clematis actually like to be buried deep) and dug a hole and planted her deeper. Still I wondered if lime could be leaching from the mortar of the house? I did a soil test. Nope, the pH was good. Too dry? Too wet? I gave my namesake more summers, but clematis wilt continued to rob her of her potential as star of the garden. Finally, we lost several trees in our urban forest, and the sun beamed in. By then, Claire was a mere shadow of her former robust self.  But also by then I had learned that clematis grow on shrubs in the wild. So I re-planted her under a large evergreen and forgot about her. The following spring, I noticed fresh green leaves growing up through the pachysandra and onto the lime green foliage of a beautiful conical evergreen called “George Peabody.” Sure enough, it was my Claire winding her way up through George’s soft new growth, loaded with buds! Perfect! The pachysandra keeps her roots cool and shaded. The two also enjoy the same acidic pH. George protects her root zone, gives her something to climb on and also supports the acidic pH, making this a very happy habitat. She gets almost no direct sun and lives in the open shade cast by mature shade trees. The contrast in Claire’s bloom and George’s foliage is perfect. Claire has bloomed happily in her new home for years. She is getting everything she needs and is not to be deterred. Sometimes you just have to experiment and wait for the plant to tell you when it’s in the right place.

Know and understand your location This is pivotal. What is your hardiness zone? The USDA says Mt. Lebanon is in Zone 6B. However, we’ve had two difficult Zone 5 winters in a row, and as I write, it is a crazy 50 degrees in January. They’re blaming that on El Nino. If you are just starting this journey, learn everything you can about the location of your home and conditions that surround it. Send a soil sample to Penn State for analysis. Is your soil friable or compacted? Do you need to dig in amendments like compost or leaf compost?  Are your conditions wet, dry, sunny, shady, what kind of shade? Where is it shady and sunny? Do you need to do some strategic planting of deciduous trees to block out the hot sun in summer? How many hours a day of sun and shade? Do you have large trees, and if so what kind? It is hard to garden under a mature maple. Should the maples come out? Do you have heavy winds? If so, consider planting a windbreak. What are your goals for your garden?

The last five winters have been tough on northern gardens, especially the Japanese Maples. Here on Shadowlawn Avenue, at least three froze to death during Snowmageddon. Sadly, one was mine—a mature specimen that added graceful elegance to my garden. It had a beautiful horizontal habit, stretching out over the shade garden below. The spring color was deep burgundy, fading to green in summer, allowing the shrubs below to take center stage. In the fall when most other plants were done, it blazed with neon orange, yellow and red. I’ll never have another one I love as much. Many Japanese maples are rated hardy to USDA Zone 6 (and technically so is Mt. Lebanon), but I have learned to look for Japanese maples rated for zone 5, as they are likely to handle Pennsylvania temperature fluctuations better.

Place plants where they can mature in place An effective way of keeping your garden low maintenance is to plant your landscape so that everything can grow unimpeded into its full height and width. It breaks my heart to see a beautiful tree planted too close to a structure and then brutally trimmed to keep it small. Disease sets in and the tree dies. Why does this happen? Because it often is hard to imagine what a cute little plant will look like when it has grown up into an 80-foot tree.

We’ve all seen a hemlock towering over the corner of a house. The homeowner was told hemlocks could be trimmed. And it’s true, they can be trimmed. The homeowner intended to keep that hemlock trimmed; then life happened, and 10 years later, the hemlock has grown past the roofline. At that point, the only thing left to do is cut it down. The better option is to plant an upright, evergreen shrub that will do the job and not outgrow its space. Upright hollies, arborvitaes and junipers are great for this. Many reach a perfect 15’ tall at maturity and are only 6’ wide.

Through experience, trial and error, these are some of the principles I’ve learned for putting the right plant in the right place. Ask questions, and do online research before you purchase and plant. A little bit of time spent now can save you the heartache of losing a special addition to your garden, as well as the backache from transplanting later on!