Location, location, location.
Temperatures, rainfall, soils, and altitudes vary tremendously in the United States. What grows well in the California's dry summers and Mediterranean climate might be completely lost in Colorado's mountains, or on the damp coastal plain of Louisiana. Even within a given area, there are microclimates. When most people think of cacti, for example, they picture Arizona or New Mexico. But some cacti are native to the upper Midwest. They've found a desert-like niche in dry, rocky slopes that get lots of sun.
On a website called Colorado Gardening, Sally Codgill describes the mistakes commonly made in her state: "Too often plants that require mild winters, cool summers, ample rainfall, a humid environment, or loamy, acid soil end up in gardens here. Doomed from the start, these misfits die an early death."
Fortunately, it's simple to avoid this kind of doom. Just get to know the plants that grow best in your area, and the microclimates of your own yard. You'll be spared the grief of having raised a bunch of sickly plants and you'll save time, effort, water, and fossil fuels. Next thing you know, your house will be on the garden tour.
- Know your climate zone. This zone information will quickly lead to the facts about what plants grow best where you live. To see which plants can survive your winters, check the U.S. Department of Agriculture's maps. To see what plants will thrive year-round, check out Sunset magazine's website.
- Know your neighborhood. A walk around your community will give you an idea of which plants do best.
- Talk to gardeners. Some of the best experts you'll find are people who have gardened in your area for many years, and have learned what works and what doesn't. If you see people working in interesting-looking yards, strike up a conversation. They may be more than eager to share their experiences. Generally, gardeners like to see things grow, including other people's knowledge. Joining a garden club is the fastest way.
- Go native. More and more gardeners are turning to plants that have been growing wild in their area for thousands of years. These plants have learned how to survive in their homelands, and will usually require a lot less attention than species that are imported from places with totally different weather and soils.
- Try groundcovers instead of lawns. There are several hundred types of low-growing groundcovers, most of which require no mowing and need far less water and other care than grass. They are especially helpful in tough-to-mow spots. In some areas where grass won't grow, they will thrive and add color, like a thick carpet of moss under a big shade tree.
When shopping, look for
- Healthy plants. Even if a plant is perfectly suited to your area, it might not do well if it's not healthy. Don't go for something on sale if it's not in good condition.
- Younger plants. You'll save money if you buy a smaller, younger plant rather than a larger, more mature one. And in the end you'll have a plant that's just as big and beautiful.
- If you really want plants that can't make it through cold weather, consider planting them in a container and bringing it in during the cold season. This way, you can even grow semitropical fruits in the far north. If the container is heavy, put it on wheels. We even know of a fellow in New Jersey who rolled his lemon tree into the house on rails he installed for the purpose.
- Shade trees are nature's air conditioners. Where it gets hot in the summer, plant deciduous shade trees as close to the house as is safe. In winter, after their leaves have dropped, they will let in sunlight to help warm the house. In colder areas, choose evergreens on the windiest sides of your yard.
- Fruit trees can be a beautiful addition to a garden, and low-cost source of food. But be careful to purchase trees that are right for your area.
- Garden catalog companies often have plants that you might not find at a local supplier, and they may be cheaper. But make sure the plant is right for your yard.
For most of us, being surrounded by plants is a joy.
...to your wallet
Climate-appropriate plants can save tons of money on maintenance. From the grass in your lawn, to your shade trees, to the ornamentals in the front of your house, you'll spend a lot less money on water, fertilizer, fighting bugs and weeds, and even heating and cooling costs if you make the right choices.
...to the Earth
Smart plant selection is as good for the Earth as it is for you. It minimizes fertilizer runoff and pesticide pollution. It saves water. Shade trees and wind barriers can reduce energy use. And once your garden is thriving, it can provide food and shelter for birds and butterflies whose natural habitat has been diminished by development.
- Overwatering. For many plants, overwatering can do as much or more damage as underwatering because excess moisture suffocates the roots of the plant and can cause disease.
- Thirsty plants. Choosing plants that demand lots of water can dramatically increase your water consumption.
- Doing too much at once. You may have seen folks at a garden shop pile up cartloads of plants. They often do so without enough preparation, either in knowing the plants or in tilling the soil. It is much better to develop a garden gradually, carefully mastering small parts of it with well-worked and properly amended soil.
- Putting plants in the wrong place. Plants have different requirements for sun and water. Put a poppy in the shade or a rhododendron in the sun, and you will likely be disappointed.
- Try perusing some of the wonderful books and magazines about gardening, from national publications like the venerable Organic Gardening to regional publications like Sunset, which covers the West. One good tip from such sources can be worth the cost of years of subscriptions.
- One of the best-kept landscape and gardening secrets is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service. These offices are staffed by experts with a detailed knowledge of a region, what plants will do best there, and how to take care of them. The Extension also has volunteers known as "master gardeners," who are eager to share years of experience in landscape and gardening in specific regions.