Planting by Habitat

Creating a beautiful landscape is more than a matter of aesthetics — shape, color, balance and flow. It also means plants are healthy. So while lavender might be the perfect low shrub to run along your front fence, planting them on the north side, where they can't get the sun they need, would send those plants into a fatal depression.

Not so pretty.

A few plants for dry, sunny locations

— Perennials

Penstemon

Rosemary

Sages

Yarrow

— Shrubs & Trees

Cotoneaster

Lavender

Redbud

Smokebush

A few plants for dry shade

— Perennials

Bergenia

Cyclamen

Hellebore

Trillium

— Shrubs & Trees

Kerria

Osmanthus

Snowberry

Stewartia

A few plants for moist shade

— Perennials

Anemone

Astilbe

Bleeding heart

Ferns

Geranium

— Shrubs & Trees

Aucuba

Hydrangea

Japanese maple

Rhododendron

Sarcococca

"You need to think about what the plant needs, and a good way to do that is to think about where and under what conditions the plant would grow naturally," says Peg Prag, co-owner of Forest Farm Nursery in Williams. "A plant's habitat has the things that make it not only livable, but also comfortable.

Botanists have designated a number of major habitats you can use to choose a plant that will thrive. According to Prag, some useful designations are woodland, grassland, wetland, rocky/alpine, desert, coastal, heath and tundra.

"Most plants are fairly tough and will live in conditions that aren't just right, but the closer their true "habitat" conditions are matched, the better the plants will do, and the less care and maintenance they will require," says Prag.

Answering questions about your site will determine which "habitat" your landscape is offering.

"How much sun does it get?"

This is the first question gardeners have to ask, says Dan Bish, owner of Plant Oregon in Talent. "Open-prairie plants get full sun. Forest understory plants, like ferns, get filtered light," he says.

"Whether the sun is received in the cool morning or the hot afternoon makes a difference," says Prag. Bottom line: Sun tolerance is a firm constraint. You can't put ferns in a full-sun spot and expect success.

To learn the light and exposure requirements of plants, look at plant encyclopedias like Sunset's "Western Garden Book" or "Right Plant, Right Place," by Nicola Ferguson; read plant tags and ask nursery staff.

How much water is needed?

"Obviously, less if it's from a desert, but it may not like wet soil, at all," says Prag. "There are many degrees between a pond, a swamp, a meadow and a desert."

It's not just the amount of water, but the way the soil holds the water, the amount of oxygen available to the plant and the bacteria and soil life it supports, according to Bish.

"Heavy, dense soil (found in the Rogue Valley) will hold a lot of water," and the roots of some plants will rot right off, he says.

So watering and soil type are related. On the plant tag, it might say the plant needs "good" or "fast" drainage.

"Sandy soil has very large particles so it is very well-drained but does not hold water," Prag says. "At the other end of the spectrum, clay soil is made up of tiny particles. It does not drain well but does hold water."

Gardeners can adapt plants to their garden's soil by varying watering schedules, duration and frequency. Or, says Bish, instead of planting at the soil line, a plant requiring fast drainage can be seated 2 inches higher. Then dress the area with 6 inches of mulch to give it a reasonable chance. He recommends using chopped, ground trees, sometimes available from tree services.

How hardy is the plant?

"In this area we are generally zone 7 or 8," says Prag. "You can often experiment and try plants from one zone warmer (9) or several zones colder (4-5)."

In addition, look at the heat tolerance of the plant, especially if it will be a long-lived landscape plant, such as a tree. Summers appear to be getting longer and drier, another impact on vigor. The trick is to know the plant's needs and then be flexible.

"It's the difference between working with 'Ma nature' and trying to sneak by with what you can," says Prag. "She is generally pretty easygoing and will let you do that to some extent, but she knows."


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