Plant Selection: The Big Picture

Before deciding what plants to buy, determine what you want your overall landscape to do for you. Are you an avid gardener, have an active family, or want a landscape that doesn’t require a lot of maintenance? The answer indicates how you will use or interact in your landscape and that helps guide your plant options.  

Included here are some functions that plants can perform in the landscape and the outdoor spaces where you would use them.

Screening and Defining Spaces

Evergreen trees are the go-to choice to define an outdoor space for quiet entertainment, open play, or to screen out an eyesore. Be sure to find out the mature size and shape of that lovely evergreen plant. A Leyland cypress, for example, in a 2 or 3-gallon container won’t screen much when initially planted, but it can grow up to 3 ft. a year! It can easily reach 70 ft. high by 15 ft. wide or more. Don’t plant them any closer than 15 ft. apart from each other and at least 8 ft. away from a vertical structure, sidewalk, or driveway. They can quickly crowd each other out and the whole group can quickly decline from competition for nutrients and space. The stress makes them vulnerable to insects and disease.

leyland cypress in a landscape
These Leyland cypresses, commonly used for screening, were planted too close to the fence and too close to each other. The lower branches are already growing through the neighbors fence.
evergreen screen
A mixed planting of trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses creates a more interesting and diverse landscape that will be less likely to be wiped out by disease or insect pests and doesn’t scream ‘green wall’ over here! This planting is near the outer portion of the property. It gives the owner the opportunity to create a more ornamental planting that can be seen from inside the home using this screen as a backdrop.

While you may want to screen your neighbor’s vegetable garden, those live Christmas trees that once fit inside your home will eventually grow to create too much shade for growing veggies. Consider the ultimate size of the tree and plant it so its full grown size is well within your property line.

Did you know that neighbors can legally prune any part of a plant that is inside their property? See this article from the Maryland Risk Management Education blog.

Creating Shade

Shade trees are the staple of every landscape design, but consider the surroundings when deciding the exact place to plant them. Plant your shade trees with respect to the direction of the sun so the resulting shade will be exactly where you need or want it. Along with evergreens, shade trees help to define outdoor rooms by providing a perceived ceiling to the green walls.

front yard landscape
Deciduous trees can provide shade in the summer months to reduce air conditioning costs. In the winter, the absence of foliage allows the lower angle of the winter sun to warm the home. This landscape is beautiful when viewed from within the home as well as from the street.
shade garden
You can see how the combination of shade trees, evergreens, mixed shrubs, and perennials create an inviting yet cozy feel next to the open grassy space.

Remember to find out the ultimate size of the shade trees before you plant. Sun loving plants that thrived initially when planted when these trees were young will ultimately decline as the amount of shade increases. Plan to switch to more shade loving plants as the trees mature.

Street Trees

Whether to define property lines or to bring an attractive element to the neighborhood, please know before you grow! You may not have any input as to what is planted on the neighborhood street but this demonstrates the need for awareness of the mature height of trees before you plant.street tree

When these street trees were planted, did anyone consider their full-grown size? It is unfortunate that so many trees are planted under utility wires. This situation requires utility crews to perform regular maintenance for the sake of the utility lines. However, the trees will never look like nature intended. They are typically topped repeatedly or split down the center to keep the branches from negatively impacting the wires.  The sight of mangled trees on the side of a rural road is too common. The unsightly appearance is not the only negative outcome to this practice. The unnatural and excessive pruning negatively affects the structure of the tree. This weakens the tree’s defenses, making it more susceptible to insects and diseases as well as breakage during storms.

Focal Point

Whether from inside the home or from the street or while walking around your own property, focal points are a great feature for visual enjoyment or to visually direct you through the landscape.

Chamaecyparis near the sidewalk
This planting bed was intended to define the property line and provide structure for the corner planting bed. Great idea but this lovely falsecypress is already covering half of the sidewalk and it is not even fully grown. What should be done now? It will never look normal again if it is pruned back and it likely won’t respond well to transplanting.
These falsecypresses have been given plenty of room to spread. They are a lovely focal point and screen between two properties.

Direct Traffic Flow

Providing a route for foot traffic through the landscape doesn’t need to be boring. And don’t feel like turf is the only answer, especially in a shady area where it will never look good.

shaded walkway
The experience of walking through this narrow space is greatly enhanced by a variety of plant types and textures planted at various heights. The viewer can’t wait to see what surprises might be revealed beyond this gate and vine covered arch.

Once you have an idea of what type of plant you want to use to accomplish the purpose, fine tune your choice with the plant selection guide from my previous post to help determine if a particular plant is suited to a particular location.

Additional Resources from the Home & Garden Information Center

By Ria Malloy, Assistant Program Director, Home & Garden Information Center. This is the third in a series of articles on landscaping. Look for future posts on planting practices and plant maintenance.

One thought on “Plant Selection: The Big Picture

  1. tonytomeo February 14, 2018 / 3:12 am

    You have such different plants to choose from. Leyland cypress is available here, but has too many problems to be popular.

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