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The Right Plant in the Right Place

By Martha Lederer, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Denver County

Growing the right plant in the right place is key to gardening success.

By looking at your yard's unique environment before you plant, you're likely to save money and avoid the disappointment of a plant that grows poorly, fails to bloom or dies. This is especially important for perennials and shrubs that require a greater investment of both money and time.

Every yard and garden space can be characterized by its amount and type of sunlight, soil and moisture. Selecting plants well-suited to this combination present in your yard is easy once you understand what all three are about.

All plants need light to grow but they differ dramatically in the amount and intensity of light needed to prosper. Plants are identified as suited to full-sun, part-sun and shade.

Full-sun means a minimum of 6 hours of direct light found in open areas, such as the south exposure of a home. Prairie coneflower and Siberian peashrub are examples of plants adapted to full sun.

Most part-sun plants do well in filtered light for most of the day, or in direct sun for morning or afternoon. Keep in mind that several hours of afternoon sun are more intense and create more heat than cool, morning sun. A heartleaf bergenia that grows well in morning sun on the east side of the house will not prosper in the hot, afternoon sun on the west side.

Shade plants may require anything from the indirect light found on the north side of the house to the deep shade found under evergreens. True shade plants, such as many ferns, bake in too much sun.

Some plants labeled part-sun/part-shade will perform well under a wide range of conditions. Be careful not to push their limits too far. The part-shade types (variegated feather reed grass, for example) may burn if it's too sunny, and the part-sun types fail to bloom if it's too shady (cranesbill geranium).

Plants frequently are identified in terms of the type of soil they prefer. Soil may be described in physical terms (sand or clay, deep or shallow), or by chemical makeup (acid or alkaline, fertile or infertile).

Plant labels will tell you if a plant will prosper in sand or clay, requires a soil rich or poor in nutrients, is best suited for highly organic soils, and more.

Most Front Range soils are clays or sands. They are generally highly alkaline and low in organic matter. It's possible that several different soil types will be present within the same yard, and it's likely several types are found within a neighborhood.

While fertility is relatively easy to alter by adding fertilizers, changing the pH from alkaline to acid is difficult. A plant, such as sugar maple that requires an acid soil, is not a good choice for an alkaline situation. Consider an alternative plant such as Norway maple that is better adapted to local alkaline soils.

In addition to light and soil conditions, plants are categorized according to their moisture requirements. Certain plants, such as most sedges, favor wet conditions, while others, such as pussy toes, require a well-drained soil. Still others, such as snow-in-summer, are described as drought-tolerant or "Xeriscape" plants that require very little watering to thrive after a one-to-two year establishment period.

The amount of moisture available to plants in particular garden areas depends not only on the soil, but also on other variables, such as slope, drainage, sun and wind exposure and the amount and frequency of water applied. Plants with similar light, soil and water needs should be grouped together for the greatest success.

Still wondering if a certain plant is right for your situation? You can receive help by describing your planting location to your nursery or garden center professional. County offices of Colorado State University Cooperative Extension also take calls and provide lists of plants well-suited to the light, soils and semi-arid climate of Colorado. Call Cooperative Extension for this information.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010