That is the Question: And Here’s the Answer. With literally thousands of plant species and varieties available to introduce in your landscape, it is sometimes a daunting task to select the ones best suited for the space. There are multiple factors, if considered, that will ensure a healthy life for the new addition to your landscape family. Size (growth habit), zone (hardiness), exposure (sun/shade), soil (clay/sand), water (wet/dry) and wildlife (wanted/unwanted) are the main factors to focus on when making this choice. A little initial research can prove to be extremely beneficial in protecting your exterior investment.

Size. All plants are living organisms which grow and some much faster than others. That nice, compact, little shrub you just purchased at your local garden center will most likely quadruple in size over the next couple years. Bed width, surrounding plants and window heights must all be considered in location. Most plant identification tags will give adequate spacing recommendations and specify mature heights and widths. As an example, foundation planting design should be based on a 15-18 year life span. After that, it is typically time for a landscape renovation due to over growth and crowding. This guideline allows plant material to have enough room for healthy growth while not making the overall initial appearance look sparse.

Zone. Our geographic region of the Northeast is divided into three specific zones which affect plant hardiness dependent on temperature extremes. Certain plant varieties will have adverse reactions when exposed to low temperatures beyond which they are hardy. If you haven’t noticed, this is why palms are not grown year round in our area. They cannot survive temperatures dropping close to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or even lower. We are zoned as follows: 6b- central corridor of South Jersey (-5-0 F), 7a- eastern/western South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania (0-5 F), 7b- Shore points from LBI to Cape May (5-10 F). These zones, along with the rest of the United States are all available online in the USDA Plant Hardiness map, which you can find online.

Exposure. Most life forms utilize energy from the sun, and plants are no exception. However, some varieties prefer to bask in the sun all day long, while others are better suited to live amongst the shadows. It is extremely important to be aware of the exposure received from the sun, and how it differs, within areas of your property. Too much sun, and a shade loving plant’s leaves will scorch, while too little, and a sun bather will grow sparse with little flower production. Once again, plant ID tags specify this and also the duration throughout the day required. Adjacent trees and buildings cast shade and their orientation to the sun should be considered as well.

Soil. Something as seemingly simple as dirt can actually be a very complex balance of moisture retention and organic matter. Soils with high clay content will retain water and allow it to drain very slowly causing root systems to rot and decay. Sandy soils allow moisture to drain too quickly, not giving the opportunity for roots to capture necessary water. The first step is to identify your soil type. For those without a degree in soil chemistry, Rutgers soil testing laboratory in New Brunswick offers this service for a very small fee. They will provide instruction on necessary remediation to suit your proposed use and plant selection. The addition of organic matter (peat moss) or sand to soils high in clay may be the finishing touch.

Water. Probably the most closely connected reason for the untimely death of most plant material. Necessary water is closely related to soil type and its ability to drain sufficiently. The combination of sandy soil in full sun exposure will result in the need for increased watering versus soil with clay content in a shade environment. The investment in an automated irrigation system will make this chore much easier. There are even remote rain sensors available which can be integrated into a system and regulate the amount of water supplied based upon what is provided by Mother Nature. Wildlife. This can be a double-edged sword to include plant material which attracts “wanted” wildlife opposed to “unwanted” pests. Butterflies, hummingbirds and chipmunks are usually welcomed and add to your landscape’s coexistence with nature. Deer and rabbits are the main culprits in the decimation of landscape ornamentals and their presence should be identified. If you live in an area prone to Bambi or Peter Cottontail, don’t fret, there are extensive lists of plants they shy away from.

This all might seem like a lot to contend with, but with minimal investigation, your landscape can thrive for years to come. Landscaping is meant to be a therapeutic, enjoyable activity, so have fun with it.

Michael Pasquarello is a degreed landscape architect with Elite Landscaping. Email him at MPasquarello@EliteLandscaping.com or call (856) 753-1944. Visit EliteLandscaping.com for more information.