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What is the Best Plant?

Choosing Plants like a Pro

If you are looking for a place to find out how to choose the best plant for your landscape project, read on. After the circulation paths have been created, the hardscape has been installed, and the trees are in place. It’s time to pick out the plants that will be viewed at eye level.

For your project, you want plants that will perform, bring in lots of color and texture, and take care of themselves (within reason).

A simple trip to the local home improvement store will not do. You want the results to match the pictures in the magazines and catalogs. There is a special magic to getting great results.  Rather than bore you with lessons in Latin and science, you can find mentoring tips here in non-technical lingo.

The information is for professional-level landscape planting plans for public, commercial, industrial, and high-end residential sites. Because there is a significant cost involved, it is important to choose well and to choose carefully what and where you plant.

Let’s get started. Here’s a link to the soon-to-be published draft version 0.0 of a new Advanced Guide to Shrubs, based on years of experience working with the pros and evaluation of thousands of landscape projects.  

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Advanced Guide to Shrubs

The Advanced Guide to Shrubs; Choose Plants like a Landscape Professional  Available Now!

Advanced Guide to Plants














The first edition of The Advanced Guide to Shrubs: Choose Plants like a Landscape Professional is available for download. Almost 300 pages of concise plant information and pictures to help you design your landscape project like a pro. Landscape trade secrets and authentic plant descriptions help you manage the overwhelming number of shrub choices. How do you decide which shrubs will perform successfully for your project? Read this book.

Happy Planting!


Soil Preparation

soil preparationWhat Lies Beneath

Once you have finished your landscape design and located plant sources, it’s time to do bed preparation for the big installation day. First, get a soil test and follow the testing agency’s instructions and recommendations. Beautiful plants will not grow well in bad soil. Then till in the recommended organic matter and fertilizers and lime and mycorrhizal mixes to a depth that will open the soil to water percolation and absorption. Soil needs to breathe and have access to moisture to provide a growing ground for healthy landscape plants. Plants typically like reliably moist, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. The northern prairies have this kind of soil naturally, but the rest of us must amend the existing soil with nutrients, grit, lime, fertilizer, and compost.

Tilling creates a fluffy texture and access to air. Ideally, you should break up the soil at least eighteen inches deep. In the heavy clay of the south, you must do what you can. I have broken several tillers attempting to break up old cotton field soil! Tractors with ripping attachments are needed for densely-compacted areas before tilling can begin. In the old days, green-thumb gardeners would double dig the plant beds to pamper their new plants. Mechanical tillers do that job for us today.

Adding well-rotted compost to plant beds adds a magic fairy dust that improves the soil in amazing ways. It invites earthworms to come and play. It holds moisture. It really is wonderful stuff! Add as much as you can afford.

Plant Spacing

plant spacingPlant Spacing Basics

The only way to know the proper spacing intervals for shrubs is to know the mature size of the plants you are proposing for a site. Space your new plants far enough apart so they can shake hands with the other plants around them. Keep them far enough apart so they don’t get pushy with their neighbors. In difficult situations, you may need to cluster them more closely together for survival and to compete against weeds, but don’t get in a hurry for results and create a stressful, competitive environment for your shrubs.

Here are some rules of thumb.

• For most small annuals and groundcover plants, one foot on center is appropriate.

• Keep most perennials and small ornamental grasses one-and-a-half feet apart.

• Small shrubs should typically be about two-and-a-half feet apart.

• Medium shrubs should be spaced about four feet apart. Larger shrubs should be seven feet apart.

• Tall shrubs should be fifteen feet apart.

• Hedge plants should be four or five feet apart.


A Shrub for Every Situation


Until the nineties, few people used Loropetalum plants in the landscape. They grew more like small trees than shrubs, up to fifteen feet tall. It was often planted in woodland gardens, even though it wasn’t native. It suited woodland sites because of its loose-branching, flowing form. In winter the foliage is evergreen (or ever-burgundy for the rubrum cultivars). In spring, the white forms of Loropetalums bloom stringy white flowers while the rubrum forms flower a strong pink. The blooms look a lot like Witch-hazel blooms. It is called Chinese fringe tree to denote its origin and to describe the flower.

Then red flowered forms were a sensation in the nursery industry. The rosy pink foliage of the first red-flowered forms were further developed into deep purple or bronze foliaged forms. Then dwarf cultivars were created. They are obviously easy to propagate. You can find some form of Loropetalum, small – medium-large, in every nursery or big box store in the south.

Loropetalums tolerate dry shade. Because their leaves are furry, they tend to handle drought well and preserve moisture. I’ve seen them survive roadside plantings in mass. Their fuzzy leaves can act as a natural Velcro-like surface, clinging to your clothing when you prune the branches. They also deter deer. Loropetalums may not be graceful, but they are strong and tolerant of harsh growing conditions.

The tall types can be tree-formed, but it would be time-consuming. The foliage is too thick and dense, and it shoots out stiffly from the trunks. Loropetalum’s arching branches look suitable in an Asian garden style.

Dwarf Yaupon

The Green Meatball of Foundation Shrubs

green meatball, foundation shrubsWhat is evergreen, slow growing, heat tolerant, drought and wet-soil tolerant, self-sufficient, self-pruning, grows in sun and partial shade, insect and disease resistant, takes shearing well, and “native”? Dwarf Yaupon Holly. It’s the perfect foundation plant, the perfect ornamental landscape shrub, and the perfect low hedge plant. At the time of this writing, it is not even overused, like so many serviceable shrubs tend to be.

Yaupon Holly in tree form is large and awkward in shape and form. Its pendulous forms look like frozen waterfalls in the landscape, great for industrial landscapes as contrasting forms on large, horizontal, blank walls. The Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’ cultivar is the perfect shrub for ornamental highway landscapes. It stays dense and full without pruning and stays under six feet tall. The new growth is bright green and turns darker over time. The leaves are very similar to Common Boxwood. You can distinguish it from Boxwood because the stems are grey and stiff, the leaves have slight serration. Other than that, the two shrubs are quite similar from a distance. Dwarf Yaupon is a carefree shrub, well worth incorporating into many landscape designs.


The Everyman's Shrub

forsythia, common shrubsForsythia is a shrub of firsts. It’s the first shrub to bloom in the spring. It’s the first shrub new gardeners buy. It’s the first shrub people learn by name. Everybody knows Forsythia, the first of thousands of shrubs I hope to examine on this web site.

Forsythia evokes a cheap landscape job. It ubiquitous in run-down neighborhoods built prior to the end of World War II. It is old-fashioned. Forsythia is the shrub everyone loves to disrespect. In my opinion, its unending popularity despite its dubious quality is what makes it cool! It carries with it the nostalgia of new life, ephemeral fairy bells, and the childhood delight of bright color in the dormant landscape, but it doesn’t merit the label “heirloom shrub.” Forsythia is super easy and inexpensive to propagate from cuttings, and nurseries make a killing on sales of the shrub when it blooms.

Collecting Plants in the Wild

A Challenging Project

collecting plants in the wildMany people have asked me about collecting plants in the wild for their landscapes. It’s a bad idea. Plants from the wild are acclimated to special soil conditions. They rarely survive transplanting. When you move plants from a wild location, you must babysit for them for months before they can grow well on their own. Plants cultivated in a nursery are grown in containers for years, so the shock of being moved to a new location is minimized. Collecting plants is the wild is too much trouble with little chance of success.

With nursery-cultivated plants, you can be sure of performance. A Dogwood collected in the wild might not bloom the first fifteen or twenty years after you plant it! A Red Maple can be an ugly Brown Maple when collected in the wild, instead of a reliable, fiery red. There is no guarantee of plant performance when pulling wild-grown seedlings.

Once you experience trying to keep a collected plant alive, you’ll discover just what a terrific bargain it is to purchase container plants from a nursery. There is a lot of work that goes into raising little baby plants into nice, dense, full specimens capable of being transplanted successfully! But why wait to learn the hard way? Save your time and money and pat yourself on the back for getting a nursery-grown product.

A Ground Cover which Lives Up to the Hype

Georgia Blue Veronica

Georgia Blue VeronicaI am trying out a new ground cover—Veronica penduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’. It seems to offer just about everything you would want in a ground cover. It is evergreen, with foliage turning slightly purple in the winter. It blooms over a month, starting in late winter or early spring. It stays almost flat to the ground. It grows quickly and spreads in a two-foot circle. It becomes drought-resistant with time. It can handle both full sun and partial shade. It is hard to Zone 4. Wow! If this new ground cover delivers on all its promises, I will be impressed.

I planted four-inch pots in late fall, and the plants have already spread to about nine inches in diameter. The winter foliage was slightly darker during the cold weather. It survived a brutal cold snap in January. It is blooming sporadically in mid-February, and I am hoping there will be many more tiny, bluebells as the weather warms. The flowers have four petals and are violet-blue with a white eye in the center. So far, Georgia Blue Veronica is growing into its catalog description very nicely!