Plants are just like every other living thing, specific plants need specific conditions in order to thrive. You would not put a bear in the desert and expect it to survive (in fact, we would call it animal cruelty) yet people are often putting plants in adverse conditions and are then surprised when they don’t do well. A plant will not thrive just because you think it is pretty. Just because I think badgers are cool does not mean I should own one. It takes research and planning in order to design a landscape that fits your needs. There are two main questions that you need to ask when looking into a particular variety of plant: Will it survive here? And if it does, Will it cause a problem here?
There are four main categories I look at in order to answer the question of if it will survive here.
As of 2018 southeast Idaho is in zones 4b to 6b on the USDA plant hardiness zone map. This means that depending on area, we can experience lows from -25 to -5. If your desired plant cannot handle the lowest temperatures your area can get than I wouldn’t expect to live past the next harsh winter.
- Soil Type
This can refer to pH as well as how much clay/ sand/ loam/ rock makeup your soil profile. If you have a plant (like Honeylocust) that do not like to have “wet feet” planting them in a high clay soil will be a recipe for disaster. The same is true for a plant that loves acidity, like the blueberry or one that likes it a bit more alkaline: lilies, poppies and daisies to name a few.
Planting a sun loving plant in the shade and vice versa is a shockingly common mistake that I have even seen made by professional landscapers. One such plant that is often misused is the hosta and the sweet potato vine. Hostas will not survive the hot summer heat if you plant them out front and center whereas the sweet potato vine will not bush out to their full potential if you place them in the shade.
Not all plants have the same watering needs. There can actually be extreme difference between two plants and if you mistakenly place them right next to each other you are in a lose lose situation. If you make the one happy you will probably kill the other…
The key to answering the question of, “Will it cause a problem if I put it in this spot” is to know the stats of that plant. Aka how wide, how tall, what kind of root system, does it have fruit etc.…
- Height/ Width
I have seen too many spruce trees planted a bare 5 feet apart or right next to a house. While that sounds reasonable at first, if you know that they will grow 20-30 feet wide at maturity you could easily have calculated that they need to have at least three times that amount of growth space. They will look great for the first 20 years but after that their branches will start to push together or into the sides of your house.
How tall or wide doesn’t only apply to large trees. It can be an issue when you plant a large shrub directly under a window or near a walkway. If you don’t want to have to be constantly pruning your shrubs back then it is better to find something else.
- Fruiting Plants
Think about the crabapple tree planted right next to your neighbor’s front door or along their sidewalks? While you might envy them the beauty of their tree while it is flowering you can be grateful it isn’t yours when it is dropping fruit all over those same sidewalks. Not only can these stain light colored carpet they can accumulate to being a trip hazard for which you might be held liable. A good place for crabapples is where they can be admired far away from anywhere you will be walking.
- Root System
If a large spruce or poplar is planted right next to a driveway or sidewalk their root systems will eventually cause the sidewalk to buckle and crack. Once again causing a potential liability to the owner. Then to make matters worse, if they attempt to correct the issue by cutting the root systems they risk injuring the tree to the point of needing to take it out anyway.
When you go to a nursery the main goal is to not waste your time or money. Your landscape should bring you joy and a sense of accomplishment. There are many plants that can be used and by doing a little research you can find the ones that will work for you now and in the future. If you are curious as to your general soil type without wanting to send a sample to a lab I have linked the USDA’s overall soil survey for the state of Idaho below. Happy planting!