How to Increase Plant Success Rate (Includes “Right Plant, Right Place” Checklist)

Prior to starting McCoy Horticultural, I was a property manager whose charge it was to maintain estate gardens and properties. The initial steps of a project included the design phase, where my colleagues would create masterful sketches, true works of art on paper with remarkable attention to detail. Due to the high quality of the drawings I believe it was easy to sell to clients without regard for what materialized post installation. However, once it came time for the practical and functional side of the landscape to takeover, the maintenance of the newly installed and visually pleasing, yet unfortunately short lived gardens became exceedingly difficult. What was not seen by the creators of these ‘masterpieces on paper’ was the struggle we experienced keeping the properties up to a standard of quality meant for an estate residence. It is inherent in the nature of plants that are misplaced to be problematic. High plant mortality, increased replacement costs, and unecessary pesticide usage all became unnecessary expenses to the contractor during the allotted guarantee and the homeowner after the guarantee has expired.

Regardless of whether you are designing a grand formal estate garden or a diminutive informal garden space, the most important step you can take is choosing the right place for your plants. Without a proper assessment of a site, plants can end up either needing to be replaced or sprayed repeatedly due to stress, which gives way to pest outbreaks and other issues.

The “Right plant, right place” method requires knowledge of the specific cultural needs of each plant you intend to use, as well as the impact of site conditions, seasonal changes, and the plants’ full size at maturity. Secondarily, and almost equally as important, is the implementation of proper planting and mulching techniques, although even optimum planting practices will not help a plant to thrive if it is poorly suited for a specified site.

The following course of action is from a professional’s perspective. These steps are also applicable for DIY projects and homeowners seeking a designer or landscape architect. 

Initial site analysis should include:

Soil testing (both a complete soil bioassay and chemical test are preferred – these are the most common tests, however there are many others that can be used to gather as much pre-data as possible). If a project’s budget doesn’t allow for a combination of soil tests, a chemical analysis of organic matter levels should be performed at minimum. A perk test should also be undertaken to determine the drainage of a specific site. A small-scale perk test may be completed using just a manual posthole digger in multiple locations on a property. 

Identification of invasive species: During the first phase of construction the identified invasive plant species should be removed as practical. Once a project is completed, a site should be monitored for the reoccurrence or emergence of new invasive species and will need to be removed.

Some other considerations in the initial site analysis and design phase should be avoidance of monocultures, “design to do no harm,” water management, wildlife management, and of course using native plants and respecting local and neighboring natural/native areas.

Trees, shrubs and perennials obviously differ greatly by genus, species and even cultivar, and each plant contains a unique ability to adapt to different site conditions. It is critical not only to choose plants to match the existing growing conditions of the site, but also to match the cultural needs of the plants that will be planted together. When describing a plant’s specific cultural requirements, I suggest using the word “adapt” which has a more pleasing tone than phrases like “will tolerate full sun” or “can take sitting in water.” These types of phrases have negative connotations and imply the forced application of a plant in an improper location, not a plant adjusting naturally to a location properly suited for it.

The following are intended as general guidelines, individual results and experiences will differ.

“Right Plant Right Place” Checklist:

  • Consider how much sun or shade your site receives
    • Match plants to light conditions (availability of sunlight, direct intensity and length of exposure)
    • Plants that require full sun will not thrive in shade
    • Plants that require shade conditions that are planted in full sun will undergo stress and will require pesticide applications to control opportunistic pest infestations
  • Current state of soil
    • Soil type, drainage, compaction and level of organic matter
    • Match plants to existing soil and moisture conditions
    • Group plants together with similar watering requirements
    • Don’t force plants into conditions they will not adapt to
  • Other circumstances to consider 
    • Hardiness zone
    • Competition from existing vegetation
    • Exposure to wind and temperature extremes
    • Select plants for insect and disease resistance
    • Aesthetics of “finished” plants – mix up plantings so plants in a less attractive phase are disguised by plants in a more attractive phase
    • Proper spacing of adjacent plants for ample air flow to eliminate fungicide applications 
    • Above and below ground wires
    • Proximity to structures
  • Plan for the future
    • Placement of deciduous trees and large evergreens should be placed for maximum seasonal efficiency
    • Shade trees (large deciduous) planted where the sun will shade the structures in the summer months, heat in the winter
    • Evergreens to provide wind break from prevailing winter winds
    • Take into consideration the plant size at maturity – proper spacing of young adjacent plants to allow for future growth 

Benefits of the “Right Plant Right Place” approach:

  • Decreased plant stress caused by the impacts of severe weather changes
  • Reduces the effects of disease and pest pressures, and ultimately eliminates the use of synthetic pesticides and fungicides
  • Long term plant care such as supplemental watering during times of drought may be minimized as a plant’s natural ability to adapt and overcome weather extremes is also elevated
  • Larger, healthier and more colorful, robust plants
  • Less expense on maintenance efforts to keep poorly performing plants looking good
  • Less expense on call backs for plant replacements

Ignoring these guidelines in most cases will lead to increased maintenance, a failure of plants to thrive, and a majority of times result in a high mortality of installed plants. Nothing could have more of an impact in the overall care and maintenance of a property than this approach in the initial stages of a planting project. Why not select plants that will thrive in the conditions that are present on your property? Instead of changing the naturally ocurring landscape to suit your taste in plants, select plants that will thrive in the present conditions of your property: this approach will not only benefit you or your landcare specialist in the form of time and money, but it will enrich the local ecology, including insects, pollinators, other wildlife, and more. 

I would encourage homeowners who are in the process of designing a landscape to do some research on the plants that your “design professional” is proposing for you before installation. This will lead to restful weekends with more time spent enjoying your landscape as opposed to toiling in it (not to mention the financial savings over the long term). 

We all know that gardens and landscapes are ever-changing, and with every season new challenges arrive for us to adapt to. Plants that have been dependable and durable in the past, for one reason or another, may not survive after a particularly difficult season. Within these guidelines, you are encouraged to experiment with plants and their locations and realize that selecting the most well matched, right plants for the right places will pay off in the long run.

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Written by Richard A. McCoy