Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Third Mistake: No Clue About Plants

This is the third in a series of articles on common gardening mistakes.

A third mistake is beginning your gardening project without enough information about plants. In this article, I'll give you a list of things you need to know about them, and help you find that info.

As I wrote in my last blog post, gardening should be pleasant and satisfying. Much of the satisfaction comes from success. Without it, you'd probably give up. So would I. So we need to know as much about our craft as possible. We don't need to be experts, either. Just a little
information is enough to start. But I bet that the more you learn, the more you'll want to learn.

Life Cycle

On of the first things you'll need to know when selecting plants is their life cycle. A life cycle describes how long it takes for a plant to grow, flower, produce seed and die. Imagine how disappointed you would be to plant a flower expecting years of pleasure, only to have it die within a season. Knowing the life cycle of any plant will help you choose one for its intended use and avoid disappointment.

There are three types of life cycles: annual, biennial, and perennial. An annual plant is one that grows, flowers, seeds and dies within a single growing season. Examples include marigolds, tomatoes, and zinnias. A biennial plant is one that grows during the first season, then produces flowers, seeds and dies the second season. Examples include cabbage, carrots, foxglove, money plant and parsley. A perennial plant is one that requires at least three years to complete its life cycle. Examples include chrysanthemums, daylilys, hostas, roses, woody shrubs and trees.

Though it may confuse matters a bit, there are some biennials and perennials that produce flowers during the first growing season. If they are too tender to live through the winter, gardeners may use them as annuals, enjoying them for a single year and planting them again the next year.


This refers to the characteristic appearance of the plant. There are common and scientific terms that are used to describe plant appearances. I won't go into them here. But it is important for you to know the habit of plants you might choose for your landscape. Know that looks can be deceiving, especially when the plant is young, so a little research is necessary. Imagine your dismay if you purchase a plant thinking it has a low, mounding habit because it looked that way at the nursery only to discover that it has an upright, ascending one.


Certainly, plants should be chosen with purpose in mind. Size is a factor in whether a plant suits a purpose, so it's important to know its potential or ultimate size. Let's consider foundation planting around a house. Though certain shrubs may be just the right size for a few years, they can outgrow their usefulness. And I'm not inclined to spend weekends pruning them to maintain an appropriate size. So I plant with potential or ultimate size in mind.

Growth Rate

Growth rate is nearly as important a factor as plant size. Because we tend to be impatient, we want plants that grow fast so they will look mature or fulfill their purpose in short order. But the problem is that plants which grow quickly may not stop growing when you think they should. If you want a large plant, my advice is to buy one.

Hardiness - cold and heat

Plants can't migrate when summer or winter approach, so they must be chosen with cold-hardiness and heat-tolerance in mind. The fact that you find a plant for sale at your local big-box is no indication that it is appropriate for your area. Again, a little basic research is necessary.

And while you're at it, learn the following characteristics of any plant: moisture requirement, nutrient requirements, pH requirement and sun exposure preference. If you have a deer problem, research that, too. With this information, you'll be able to choose plants appropriately according to what you've already learned about your planting site. For "how-to" information on that, see my last blog post.

I promised that I'd help you find plant information. Here are some places to look:

Check out the plant listings at goGardenNow.com. You'll find some basic facts such as plant hardiness, sun exposure, moisture and pH requirements.

Read articles on this blog. You'll find plenty of information now, and there's more to come.

Consult books. With so much information on the internet, it's fair to ask whether books are even necessary. I think so for a few reasons:

  • If you own them you usually know where to find them, provided you haven't loaned them out; (In fact, I have a ceramic plaque posted on my wall that I bought several years ago as a souvenir from the University of Salamanca which warns, "HAI EXCOMUNION RESERVADA A SU SANTITDAD CONTRA QUALESQUIERA PERSONAS, QUE QUITAREN, DISTRAXEREN, O DE OTRO QUALQUIER MODO ENAGENAREN ALGUN LIBRO, PERGAMINO, O PAPEL DE ESTA BIBLIOTHECA, SIN QUE PUEDAN SER ABSUELTAS HASTA QUE ESTA ESTA PERFECTAMENTE REINTEGRADA. So don't even ask to borrow mine.)
  • They seem easier on the eye;
  • They don't burn your lap when you're reading in bed;
  • They may become collectible.
Your local public library is a treasure trove of information. Not only may you borrow books without risk of excommunication, but you may be able to buy some cheap. Libraries often have periodic book sales. Some even devote part of their space to permanent book sales, so you may be able to purchase great material for a couple of dollars.

As I write this, I'm scanning the shelves around my desk. The vast majority of my books on plants were published by Timber Press. You should check out their online catalog. The National Arboretum Book Of Outstanding Garden Plants by Jacqueleine Heriteau with Dr. Marc Cathey, published by Simon and Schuster, is worth owning.

If you insist on browsing the internet, a quick search will turn up lots of information on practically any plant that comes to mind. But you should definitely check out Paghat's Garden for interesting observations, excellent photography, and a fascinating perspective on gardening and plants.

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