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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!


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

An Expensive Mistake

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!

Garden Naturalization

A Landscape Maintenance Reality Check

garden naturalization, reducing landscape maintenanceAs residential customers age, they become less and less able to maintain an ornamental landscape design, especially if they have a large yard. Hiring a professional crew to keep up the pruning, raking, edging, fertilizing, and watering is an option. Another option is manipulating the existing and volunteer vegetation to morph into a more natural garden of natives and undaunted non-native species. Garden naturalization is a way to take away the burden of ornamental landscape maintenance, at least the bulk of it.

Each yard will have its own unique selection of volunteers. The invasive ones can be eradicated. The less-ornamental or more aggressive spreaders can be relegated to areas I call “dead zones”. Dead zones are micro-environments that somehow discourage any strong, healthy growth. Relocating aggressive species to dead zones will slow their spread and provide a living ground cover for an area that would otherwise be bare. Attractive volunteers, like the adorable Frost Aster, shown above, can be moved or reseeded into consolidated plant beds beyond the circulation paths. If your local plant volunteers are happy with your soil and climate, then why not allow them to join the garden party?

To naturalize a landscape, reduce the amount of turf grass to an absolute minimum. Older homeowners aren’t playing much touch football outdoors, anyway! Lawns require mowing, fertilizing, edging, raking, and weeding. Garden naturalization utilizes plant communities that are self-sustaining. Every inch of turf you keep is a patch of year-round work and intervention to unnaturally cover the ground. Mulched beds, when under a canopy of trees allows replenishing leaf litter to carpet the ground. Mulched beds, when in open, sunny areas, can be planted with diverse, massed shrubs and ground covers. The less grass, the more self-stable the plant community, if you choose the grass replacement plants wisely.

Ready, Set, Plant in Autumn

fall plantingFor a healthy start, purchase shrubs for planting in the fall. It’s the best time to install many woody ornamentals. Plants love settling into a new location after cooler temperatures arrive and more frequent rains begin. They are shutting down intense growth and phasing into dormancy for the winter. The new roots have time to grip the soil before the deep, penetrating freezes of deep winter can cause frost-heave in silts and loams. Purchasing retail plants early in the fall when plants are fresh off the truck, before big box store clerks have a chance to abuse them, allows homeowners to tenderly nurse new finds until they go in the ground.  

What is a Shrub?

A Muddy Definition

what is a shrubShrubs are woody plants that mature to fifteen feet or less in height. If a tall shrub grows to over fifteen feet, it becomes a tree. The reason the height rule is important is related to legislation. For example, many states do not allow trees to be planted in locations that would grow to obscure outdoor advertising signs, but you can plant shrubs. If you are designing plant material on public rights-of-way, you will need to avoid planting trees near areas adjacent to billboards. Local ordinances often require replacement trees and shrubs, with a distinction between the mitigation points allowed for each. Utility companies may have easement restrictions that allow shrubs but do not allow trees to be planted under overhead power lines.

Why fifteen feet? It could be the maximum height maintenance crews can easily reach limbs for pruning, while still standing firmly on the ground. That makes sense. It could be because that height falls between two common growth limits. There are a lot of shrubs that can grow twelve to fifteen feet tall. There are a lot of small trees that mature to twenty to twenty-five feet tall. Not a lot finishes out between those two limits. Some, but not a lot. A single species could have variations in maximum height, depending on where it is grown. There is no clear green line drawn in the air, but fifteen feet is a good number of consensus.

Shrubs with many stems and no distinct central trunk are called bushes. A shrub is a plant branched from the base, without a leafy crown above a trunk. If you think about the definitions for long, you’ll get a headache. I just call them all shrubs.


crapemyrtle varieties and careCrapemyrtles are named for the delicate, crape-paper-like, ruffled flowers they carry at the tips of each new stem. They tolerate extreme heat and drought, and are used often in public streetscapes in the south. They are perfect under utility lines. Their showy blooms can last over one hundred days! How many other trees can you name that do that? As a result, they are very popular, and can be overused. Nobody complains, though!

Crapemyrtles are tree-formed by default, so you must make a special effort to let your supplier know if you want the natural, shrub form, instead. They are also sold in standards with a single trunk, so communication is very important when bidding a project. Don’t forget about the possibility of plain-old shrubby-formed Crapemyrtles. They can have a certain old-fashioned charm to them, especially in a shrub border. I doubt you will resist the tree-formed versions. Their legs are just too pretty.