Here are the rules I stick to when I’m choosing a plant for a particular location in the garden:
Know your climatic conditions
You can do this by checking which climate zone you are in for maximum and minimum temperatures as well as for rainfall. We have included a simplified version of climate zones on page 14 of the new edition of Paul Bangay’s Guide to Plants. For more detailed info, look up ‘climate zones’ on the Bureau of Meteorology website. Check the suitability of the plant you are interested in against the climate zone/s you are in.
You can also learn a lot by simply observing what is growing in your area, in neighbours’ gardens and in local botanical gardens, or by visiting your local nursery and talking with the staff there about what works well. Nothing can replace local knowledge.
Consider the position
How shady is the position you are planting in? As much as you might love the idea of including feather reed grass in a particular spot in the garden, if the plant won’t tolerate shade but the position is overshadowed by a house, fence or tree, you’re better off choosing a shade-loving plant such as hellebore. Planting a sun-loving plant on the south side of a structure in the shade will lead to poor or no flowering or leaf growth. Just not worth it.
Another important consideration is the amount of moisture available in the soil. Most plants like a well- drained position. If the position you are planting in is always damp, it’s best to recognise it at the outset and select a plant such as bog sage, which will thrive under such conditions.
To determine how much water is held in your soil, dig a small hole. In very boggy soils, water will seep into the hole and fill it up. If you fill the hole with water and it takes a long time to seep away, again, it’s a soil with poor drainage. But if the water seeps away quickly, you’ve got excellent drainage.
Check the mature height and spread
No doubt you know a story or two about a neighbour with a 15-metre jacaranda in their courtyard or a plane tree planted directly adjacent to a house and the disastrous consequences this can have. It’s wise to be realistic about just how big the tree or plant will get before you plant. Obvious, but a trap that so many fall into. Enough said.
Select a tree according to its deciduous or evergreen nature
Consider carefully the purpose of the tree you are planting. I like to plant deciduous trees near a house to provide winter sun and summer shade. Deciduous trees also provide the garden with much-needed colour in the autumn. However, evergreen trees do provide interest during the gloomy winter months. I find
I tend to plant more evergreen than deciduous trees in my schemes but I would have to say that getting the right balance is the key.
Consider drought tolerance and water availability
Drought tolerance is a major consideration in Australia and it’s not going to go away. Along with occasional extreme floods, climate scientists tell us we can expect periods of drought. We need to be careful to include more and more drought-tolerant plants and trees in our gardens. You might be surprised by the hardiness of some of the plants I’ve chosen for this book – the oak trees, for instance, which are extremely hardy.
If you do decide to include some moisture-loving plants in your scheme, be sure that you have an ample water source, such as a very generous-sized rainwater tank and/or a greywater system.
Make your nursery work for you
Time and time again when travelling to a different location to design and install a garden I have found the knowledge of local nursery staff invaluable. They are always very in tune with local conditions and usually have a vast database of plants that will grow well in that area.
One word of advice: challenge your local nursery. You don’t need to settle for the hybrids that are pumped out by the wholesale nurseries. The more you read in books such as this and in magazines, the more you are able to ask your nursery to source different and more interesting plants for you.
Paul Bangay’s Guide to Plants (expanded 10th anniversary edition) is available to purchase here now. RRP $59.99