It is highly likely that, during the course of a yard clean up, desirable plants will be over pruned, stepped on, crushed, and otherwise destroyed. Oops! I have done all of the above at one time or another. Now there is a space that needs to be filled but what do you buy? In MY world of landscaping I want things to look pretty, to have as much color as possible with the least amount of maintenance required. So, selecting trees and shrubs that will fit and not outgrow a site means much less work from season to season.
You cruise the garden center aisles looking for something to fill in the blank spaces and you will see plants with pretty flowers, colorful foliage, or a plant that used to be in your Nana's yard but is it the right plant for that space? They are all small in size and will fit the space now but what will happen when the plant reaches maturity? The sheer quantity of trees and shrubs, perennials and annuals can make the choice(s) daunting but there are ways to make the choice(s) simple and easy, so don't stress. The easiest choice is the pick something like the existing neighbors in the shrub bed. If there are already azaleas and they look good, get another azalea. Don't know what the shrubs are – take a picture and pick a leaf/branch off and bring it with you to the garden center. Also, there are site considerations that can help narrow the choice(s) as well as plant characteristics to fit each space.
Prepare for shopping by collecting some site information. Get a tape measure and take a cursory measurement of the space. If the space is along the foundation of your house note where the windows are in relation to the space. Take out your phone and access the compass feature to find out which side of the house faces north, south, east and west. If you don't have the fancy phone then notice which side of the house the sun rises on (east) and which side the sun sets on (west). The north side is shady all day and the south side is sunny all day. Some houses are angled to face south-west, north-east, etc., note the directions the best you can. Next, take some pictures: take pictures of the area to be planted, take pictures of plants in your neighborhood you like, take pictures of plants you want to know the name of, take pictures of landscaping you like and want to copy. It is all helpful to give you ideas and help narrow the search.
Most plants in a garden center come from the growers with Identification (ID) tags. These ID tags are useful in providing basic information that will be helpful in placing a plant and in making a selection. Along with a picture and the name of the plant, the ID tags list the mature size of a plant usually the height, sometimes the width too, and the light requirements.
1. SIZE - The size listed on the ID tag is the ultimate size the plant could grow under optimum conditions. You have an idea, from the tape measure exercise, of the maximum size a plant can grow before it outgrows the space. Good to know. If the plant will outgrow the space by inches, it can be contained by pruning but if the plant will outgrow the space by feet it makes sense to pick another plant. Why put a plant, that will grow 6 to 8 feet in height, in a space where the house overhangs it at 4 feet. This will become a plant that needs serious pruning every year. Some ID tags list the width which should also be considered in that tape measured space. Apply the same thinking to the width of a plant. If the space is 3 feet wide it makes no sense to plant a shrub whose width will exceed this unless that is the goal all along. If a row of azaleas has been planted, it can be desirable for the plants to grow together and touch. But if a Hemlock is planted next to a front porch it will grow 50 to 80 feet in height and will be at least 30 to 40 feet wide. Why would you do that to yourself?
In the world of trees and shrubs there are many different classifications. The size classification is based on ultimate size. Shrubs are easier to conceptualize fitting into an existing space but selecting a tree is a bit more of a challenge. Small trees range from 15 to 25 feet in height, medium trees can range from 25 to 50 feet in height and large trees can range from 50 to 80 feet in height. For the purposes of locating the tree on a site, assume the ultimate width of the tree will be the same as the height to keep the placement process simple. Use the internet to verify the width, if this is more comfortable. Make sure you type in the name as it is written on the ID tag.
If you are planting this tree next to your house it will not stay small forever so it is helpful to consider the maximum width of a tree. If the tree width is 50-80 feet the tree should be planted at a distance of 25 to 40 feet from the foundation. This avoids conflict between the house and the tree. My parents allowed a pin oak seedling, that was five feet from the foundation of their house and four feet from their driveway, to grow to a mature tree. As it grew over the roof, it became a ladder for squirrels, leaves and acorns filled the gutters, roots began to heave the driveway. A pin oak's lower branches droop, which is a morphological feature of the tree. The lowest tier of branches can be removed but the next tier will start to droop. The drooping lower branches make a pin oak easy to identify but in my parents case, the branches interfered with the car passing by it in the driveway and kept interfering with the power lines coming into the house. If they had known this about the tree before they let it grow they would have removed it as a seedling. This poor placement cost them lots of repairs over the years and the tree still had to be removed. There were repairs to the roof and replacement of the Victorian trim pieces where the squirrels damaged the house, and they had to remove and replace parts of the driveway to repair damage caused by the tree roots.
2 . LIGHT - After size is considered, take a look at the light designation shown on the ID tag: full sun, part sun, part shade, shade. The importance of the light designation is actually about a tolerance for shade more than a tolerance for full sun. In general, most plants thrive in full sun provided they have adequate moisture. Most plants do not do well in shade, hence the light designations.
The designation “Shade” is basically saying this plant will “tolerate” low light or shady conditions where it may see no direct sunlight from sun up to sun down. Clear as mud, right?
The designation “Part Sun” or “Part Shade” means these plants will not tolerate complete shade but can tolerate a “reduced” length of direct sunlight, usually from 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day. Part sun designates a need for the higher side of 8 hours and part shade is less than 8 hours of direct sunlight.
The designation “Full Sun” is basically saying that this plant will require 8 or more hours of direct sunlight per day to grow optimally.
Plants will slowly fade away if the light is not within the “optimal” range. They will let you know by their failure to thrive. If you don't – oops! Don't panic, you will make mistakes, everyone does, it really is how you learn. The good news is you can try again. Landscaping and gardening is as much about trial and error as it is about enjoying the learning and caring whether they live or die. Look around your neighborhood for plants that catch your eye. See how they look when they are older. This also will help you decide. Keep in mind even professionals pick the wrong plants for the wrong spaces. It happens every day. My goal is to teach you enough so you feel prepared for the garden center and know how to select plants that you will have to provide low to no maintenance on. We all have busy lives and a yard full of overgrown shrubs all requiring pruning does not have to be on your weekend “to-do” list unless that is your idea of relaxation. It is okay to remove those trees and shrubs that usurp your maintenance activities each available weekend and replace them with ones that will grow gracefully into the space allotted.