Plants Don’t Read Our Tags

Spring planting is upon us. We’re filling up our containers and landscapes as quickly as we can. We’re falling in love with some spectacular plants, immediately forgetting the name of them, how big they grow, or if they need full sun or part shade, but oh well, we rush home and find places for them in the garden. The key phrase is “find a place.” Let’s face it. We’re plant junkies and the impulse plants we buy are in charge of our gardens. Five years later, we’re standing in a jungle trying to bring order to chaos. Is there a better way? Yes.

What is that better way? It’s called the right plant, right spot. What’s does that mean? It’s a catchy, little phrase, that interpreted, means, think long term. Ask yourself a few key questions.

  1. Where are the blank spaces in my garden?

  2. What is the sunlight/shade there? (Do a sun map).

  3. What size do I need? Do I need height? Or would I rather stay low? What width do I need?

  4. Do I need green or color?

  5. Are there trees nearby? Look up, what will that space look like in 5 years? More shade? Less shade because trees are coming down?

  6. Do I mind pruning?

  7. How much maintenance am I willing to do a week?

Here’s the rub: Plants don’t read the plant tags and your perfect plan may not be perfect. Plants often grow beyond their noted maturity size, or conversely, they never grow at all.

So then, why bother with the right plant, right spot stuff if plants will do what they want anyway? Because mostly, plants are going to perform in the way we expect them, too. And, as you plan your landscape, making sure the plant will perform in your spot both culturally (the right amount of sunlight or shade, the right amount of drainage or moisture, etc.) and in size will ultimately save you dollars.

Are Plant Tags Accurate?

The stated size on the plant tag is an average size or maintenance size estimated by growers and nurserymen. Plants don’t quit growing once they hit that average size. The ‘Little Gem’ Magnolia that says it reaches 20′ x 15′ can get 30′ if it lives long enough, and has the right conditions. When stating sizes, different tags read different ways. Some will give you the maturity of the plant at 10 years (Islei Nursery, out of Oregon, where we get a lot of our conifers does this). Some will give you an average size determined by trialing plants. What’s a gardener to do? 

Create a space in the garden for impulse buys. Mine is called impulse hill. That way, you can buy those plants in spring that you can’t live without and you already have a place for them.

This ninebark shrub gets 5’-8' x 4’-6' and in this spot has all the room it needs for its arching branches to cascade over the barbed wire fence. And, the color combination with the juniper is lovely. This plant shouldn’t be shoved between two plants in the front foundation, give it plenty of room to show-off.

This ninebark shrub gets 5’-8′ x 4’-6′ and in this spot has all the room it needs for its arching branches to cascade over the barbed wire fence. And, the color combination with the juniper is lovely. This plant shouldn’t be shoved between two plants in the front foundation, give it plenty of room to show-off.

Remember: Stated plant sizes are guidelines for the mature height and width of a living, breathing, organic plant, not a measurement for a kitchen cabinet. The sizes give you proportion (columnar, cone, square), and hopefully, a pretty good range for a ten year period. Plan for that, and add a few feet around that plant when planting. You can always fill in with groundcovers or perennials. (Read here for ideas.)

Rule of thumb: Give plants room to spread out. That American beautyberry? It’s going to look stunning in fall, with it’s purple-magenta berries, given plenty of room to send those branches out (tag says 5′-8′ x 5′-8′, but as we all know, that’s a big 5’-8′). It won’t look stunning crammed between two Nellie Steven’s hollies that get 20′ x 10′, and are planted 4′ apart. None of us want to start culling five years after planting.  

For more on right plant, right spot, read this Proven Winner’s article: click here.

Puppy Plants and St. Bernards

Before plunking down some change on landscape shrubs, do some scouting around. Does a neighbor have that same plant? How does it look at year five? Some plants I call puppy plants. They look adorable in their pots. Globosa Nana Cryptomeria is one of those plants. In it’s white nursery pot at 18” high, it is down right cute. In your landscape at over four feet tall and wide, it looks more like a St. Bernard, big and heavy, and drooling all over the other plants. Gone is the frilly, little plant that stole your heart and in it’s place is a huge, prickly plant that makes a statement in the right spot—but crammed between two Otto Luyken Cherry Laurels is not that spot when it reaches maturity. It looks adorable now, but what about five years later?

Understanding how plants mature and how they will ultimately look in the landscape is critical to the lonegevity of the garden. Plants grow and change which means the landscape is changing, too. Looking ahead five to ten years is helpful when choosing your plants.

The Longer You Live in a Landscape the Shadier It Gets

Take a picture of your garden now. Take a picture of it in three years. Then again in five. See the difference? Those dogwoods and sugar maples you planted are now shading your full sun perennial beds. When you hear yourself saying things like, “My azaleas just don’t bloom like they used too,” look up. Maybe all that’s needed is fertilizer or rejuvenation pruning to invigorate old azaleas, but often, what was once a sunny spot, is now a shady one. 

Shade loving toad lilies are worth every inch of shade a garden can give them. These orchid-like blooms are small but showy in the garden and bloom late fall.

Trees have grown, neighbors have added onto their homes, a lot can change and  because we live with the daily changes we don’t notice it so much. Sometimes, trees fall, creating more sun, but mostly our homes get shadier. Take heart, there are plenty of shade plants to create shade gardens, and gardening in the shade? Way more fun than the hot sun. 

Here’s the good thing: Finding yourself in the shade is an opportunity to learn new plants and start new gardens. Check out these shade-loving perennials.

Remember: Gardens aren’t static. They evolve and change. That’s part of what makes them so interesting to us. As gardeners, we adapt with our gardens, not the other way around.

Ligularia. Proof that you can have flowers in the shade, and butterflies, too. They love this big, tropical looking plant with it’s yellow blooms.

Rule of thumb: If you’ve lived in a house for 15+ years, chances are good, you’ve gone from full sun to part shade or full shade. Take stock. Can some trees be limbed up to allow for more sunlight? Is it time for trees to come down? Are some shrubs in need of replacing because they no longer get enough sunlight to bloom? Have an arborist routinely check the health of your trees and determine if any culling is necessary. Put that on your spring or fall clean-up list to ensure trees don’t fall on your house or your neighbor’s. Have a garden coach suggest some new plantings that can replace old shrubs that no longer perform. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes–even your own–is necessary.

Perennials Live Forever, Right?

Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee’ this summer bloomer is a standout with its char trues leaves ad purple blooms. Its hard to beat in the smmer, and does best with division every 3-5 years.

No, perennials don’t live forever. As we all know, nothing does. Some perennials are called short-lived perennials. They live 3-5 years (lupines, delphiniums), others are longer-lived, up to 15 years (ballon flower), and then decades (peonies). And, as noted above, conditions can change which will impact the lifespan. The best way to keep your perennials thriving year-to-year is to divide them every 3-6 years, and spread them around. When you see perennials bleeding out in the middle, or getting thinner, it’s time to divide. This applies to grasses, as well. Due to the sheer volume of perennials, a good book on perennials is an excellent resource for gardeners to have handy. (Although, they’re getting harder and harder to find since many use the internet for that purpose. Still, nothing beats a good book, so if you know of a good one, please comment below. I’d suggest The American Horticulture Society Encyclopedia of Perennials.)

Here’s the how-to: Divide and propagate. That creates more perennials for the borders and keeps your perennials thriving. For step-by-step instructions, click here

Helenium ‘Mardi Gras’ is a late summer blooming perennial that blooms well into fall. Divide it in spring, every 3-5 years.

Remember: Some perennials reseed easily and can be transplanted to where you want them. Black eyed Susans, foxgloves, echinaceas, salvia and sedums are are a few. 

Rule of thumb: For spring blooming perennials, divide and transplant in the fall. For summer and fall blooming perennials divide and transplant in spring. 

For our some of our favorite full sun perennials: click here

These tips come from our daily conversations with customers. As we listen, we hear comments like, that plant tag is wrong! Or, why do azaleas quit blooming? We’ll post more tips as we go through the season, but please, post your own trial-learned tips below. We’d love to learn from you. Questions are welcome, too. We’ll do our best to answer them. 

Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach and blog writer.

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upsate South Carolina, and Tennessee.