Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series researching and matching plants to your landscape.
Rainy winter days were made for reading seed catalogs and spending hours online dreaming of the perfect garden. Sunny winter days mean trips to the nursery or garden center to scout out the latest offerings.
All too often, however, our Clemson Extension clients comment that choosing the right plants is an overwhelming prospect. Many simply buy whatever looks good on the rack and hope for the best. At times, all gardeners let the allure of beauty override good sense.
Hopefully, this series will help you navigate the nursery with confidence. The first step is to sleuth before you shop so that the right plant ends up in the right place.
It is important to develop a wish list of well-researched plants that you know will work in your landscape. This way, when the urge to shop 'til you drop in the garden center arises, you will come home with a trunk filled with treasures, not trash.
Follow the light
Get started by taking a stroll through your yard.
The site analysis, a process that results in a plan for the landscape, begins with a simple drawing and thoughtful observations about the landscape. Doing a little investigating before you shop can save money and many hours of work.
Start with the original plat, or tax map, of your property, which can be accessed online based on the county in which you live. Make a few copies so you can write and draw on them. If you want to keep everything neat, a few pieces of tracing paper will allow you to make multiple notes without cluttering your map.
Begin by observing the amount of light your landscape receives and marking the cardinal directions (east, west, north and south) on your base map.
It may be difficult to accurately measure the amount of light your landscape receives in the winter while trees are leafless, so year-round observations are best.
New landscapes often begin as full sun sites but become shadier as trees and shrubs mature. Less sun often results in few flowers and less vegetative growth in sun-loving plants.
Generally six to eight hours of sunlight is considered full sun, four to six hours is partial sun, and less than four hours is considered shade. Seed catalogs and plant tags often describe light requirements in detail.
Map out yard
Next, identify existing plants, lawn areas, water features, utilities, compost bins, etc. Indicate them on your map using circles for trees and shrubs and label utilities.
Protective microclimates created by brick walls, sidewalks, courtyards and windbreaks can mitigate low temperatures for many of the semi-hardy tropical plants grown throughout the region.
These tender plants often survive brief cold snaps when protected from winter winds or where they will receive radiant heat overnight. Use these microclimates to your advantage.
The horticulture industry uses USDA plant hardiness zones to help gardeners predict a plant's cold tolerance, and how well it might adapt and survive from year to year. This is particularly useful in the Northeast where this map is most accurate, but the USDA hardiness zones do not take into account how heat and humidity can affect a plant. For example, plants that thrive in zone 8 or 9 on the West Coast would never survive the sultry heat of a Lowcountry summer, even though we share the same zone number.
While a similar zone map was created to take heat hardiness into account, few catalogs or nurseries use these in their descriptions. If you are in doubt, it is best to ask local nursery personnel or experienced gardeners.
Water is often the most overlooked and most critical aspect to a proper assessment of the landscape.
Choose a rainy day to observe how water moves across your landscape. Note storm drains, swales and wet, poorly drained areas. Mark areas that are consistently wet, and look for plants that will tolerate "wet feet." Keep in mind most plants prefer well-drained soils and often show signs of stress when too much water is present.
Make multiple copies of your map and plant wish list. Leave one at home as a reference for online shopping. If you are prone to spontaneous plant shopping expeditions, then always keep one in your car.
Next week: Shopping for plants that will survive and thrive.
Send questions to Amy L. Dabbs to firstname.lastname@example.org.