Selecting for Suitability

Gardeners often blame themselves when their plants fail to thrive, perishing during the hot summer months or never coming back after a cold winter. Too often, the problem is with the plant, not the gardener. It isn’t possible to grow a Mediterranean garden in New England. Successful gardening begins with selecting species that are suited to your location, soil type, and geography. Follow these five steps to select plants that will thrive in your garden.

Step 1: Know Your Hardiness Zone

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is one of the most reliable predictors of what varieties of plants will thrive in your region. This map uses the average annual minimum winter temperature as a guide, and most plant varieties sold in the USA are assigned a hardiness zone. Choosing varieties that are appropriate for your hardiness zone makes it more likely that they will perform well in your garden.

Selecting for Suitability
Step 2: Understand Soil Composition

The type of soil on a property can vary dramatically from one area to another. A simple DIY test can tell you what your soil composition is. Using a jar, a scoop of soil, and some water, you can see how much loam, sand, and clay make up your soil — which will help you determine what plants are best suited for your site.

Selecting for Suitability
Step 3: Amend with Soil Nutrients

When planning a garden, before you make any plant selections you should take a few soil samples from every area you want to plant in. Contact your local extension office to see about soil testing, and after a week or two they can tell you the mineral content and PH of your soil. This can guide your plant selections as well as tell you which amendments you should add to planting beds to achieve a better composition for the plants you want to grow.

Selecting for Suitability
Step 4: Consider Site Conditions

Understanding the wind, sun, shade, and hydrology patterns of your site is important, as well as knowing how different plants interact. No matter how suitable your soil and hardiness zone are, if you are planting on a north-facing slope that receives heavy morning shade and leaf litter from a black walnut tree, you will have challenges growing anything successfully. Walnuts contain a compound that inhibits the growth of other plants, and many plants require morning sun to thrive. Analyze your desired growing areas and find plants that are more likely to work with the existing conditions.

Selecting for Suitability
Step 5: Plant Native Varieties

Native plants often get overlooked in favor of more exciting, exotic hybrid varieties. While unusual hybrids may promise stunning visual variation, if they fail to thrive they are more work than they’re worth. Native species generally offer unmatched hardiness, as they are adapted to your region’s soil, climate, and topography. They also offer more value to native wildlife, due to the species having evolved together in the region over thousands of years. Providing food and habitat to wildlife increases biodiversity and helps to sustain a natural balance where non-native plants offer little besides aesthetic value.

Selecting for Suitability

With so many varieties available, plant selection for the garden can be a challenge. But using these five steps can narrow down the list and help you choose plants that are best suited to your site.