Beginner Gardener: The right plant for the right place

By Dana Cook
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

young plant in palm of hand.
Choosing plants that will thrive in your garden conditions will ensure that gardening remains a pleasurable hobby instead of a chore. – Pixabay/Goran Horvat
Dana Cook
Dana Cook – WSU Master Gardener. – Provided photo/WSU Master Gardeners

My dad asked me for ground cover advice for a corner of his partial sunny, soggy clay Alabama yard. Knowing that it is tolerant of less-than-ideal soil conditions, I suggested periwinkle (Vinca minor). But first, I advised, we need to check if this trailing evergreen is suitable in Alabama. Consulting the local extension office, we learned that a similar plant, Vinca major, is invasive in this area. So, we looked at other options.

If gardening had one instructive motto, it would be “Right Plant, Right Place.” This simple saying sums up the art and science of gardening.

The fundamental concept of putting the right plant in the right place means choosing a plant that will thrive in its new home. You, as the property owner, get to choose the tenants that live in your green space.

New gardeners often make the mistake of choosing plants based solely on the aesthetics … “Oh! Look at this pretty, small mint plant,” newbies say. (Experienced gardeners are chuckling.)

On the list of factors to consider when choosing plants, aesthetics is not even in the Top 3. Sun, soil and space are the first considerations in deciding what plants to add to your new garden.

For example, understanding that your garden space allows for plants that need partial shade, well-draining soil and minimal watering will guide your plant choices. I say this because when you walk into that garden center or nursery, all the plant colors and textures will entice you to do things like plop a dogwood tree in your south-facing, full-sun, bone-dry yard. Don’t do it.

Of course, you can force plants to survive in less-than-ideal conditions by providing extra water, fertilizer or other labor-intensive tasks. But in the end, your plant will not be happy and frankly neither will you when instead of enjoying the bliss of your garden, you become a working slave to just to keep the darn thing alive.

A step-by-step approach to plant choice looks like this:

Know the water availability for the garden space. You’ll enjoy lugging heavy watering cans for only so long.

Know the soil type — sandy, clay, loam.

Know the hours of sun/shade.

Know the space you have available. Is it better suited for one big plant or a menagerie of small ones?

With that set of plant-selection guidelines, you can now go to plant nirvana and look at plants that will thrive in the conditions you have. Like puppies, baby plants are irresistible. But will you love it when it grows up? And will your adult plant still love its space when other plant neighbors have moved in?

And finally, consider the environmental impact of your plant choices. Native plants that do not require lots of water or fertilizer and play a role in the life cycle of our local insect friends are the best environmental choices. Like my dad and I did for his Alabama yard, check to ensure the plant is not invasive in our location.

Choosing plants is the most fun part of gardening. But do so with a methodical approach. If you are lucky enough to have a larger garden space, consider adding a few plants each year to allow the first ones to settle into their new home.

A WSU Chelan Douglas Master Gardener column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. To learn more, visit or call (509) 667-6540.