Plant Selection – A Key Differentiator


One of the things that makes the owner/operator model we practice so reliable as a business is our excellent reputation. People talk about us and recommend us because we do things well and give good value.

What adds to that reputation, and is consistent with the best companies, is proper plant selection and placement.

So why don’t other companies get smarter with plant selection?

It’s a combination of reasons.

  • Generally, homeowners are not aware of the importance of plant selection. A new planting, no matter how poorly chosen, can look OK to them. Later on, when problems surface, they may even accept them as part of having a landscape. In fact, naive customers will sometimes hire the same company to replace, treat and maybe even renovate the planting.
  • Plant knowledge is not acquired over night – it takes time and yes, work. For many companies their effort is mostly on increasing production; counting on customers to not be so discerning.

This is where you can differentiate yourself by educating your customer about plant selection. Advise them as to what they should and should not expect. They’ll appreciate your guidance and trust your recommendations.

Plants Are Partners in Your Success

Let’s face it, all living things are complicated. Take people for instance. :-P  But when you understand what makes them tick, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.

And that’s the whole thing with plant selection. The more you understand about each plant, the more effective and sustainable your plantings will be.

The best way to learn about plants is by each experience you have selecting them. Yes, it’s smart to have the reference books handy (you’ll need them), but the actual process and thinking that goes into a particular project is where the “stay-in-your-head” learning is.

That’s why we’re going to look at situations like this.
rear house foundation

It Starts With Form and Function

When I first began designing landscapes and selecting plants I would look at situations and immediately try and determine specifically what plant goes where. I’d get all stressed out. My head would be spinning with all the different plant types.

A friend of mine in the trade and a plantsman of many years gave me some great advice. He said when looking to select the right plant for a location, don’t worry about specifics to start. First think about “form,” i.e. the general shape the plant should have in that space. For example, should it be low & spreading, mounded, upright & spreading, tall & narrow, etc.

Once you establish the general forms the plants should have, then you can think about what plants have those shapes naturally.

This was truly one of those “aha” moments.

But what helps you decide the “form” or shape a plant should have? In most cases it’s based on “function”. What is it, visually, you want the plant to do?

In the picture above is the barren foundation of a large home. And to add to the challenge are all the AC units lined up. I should also mention that future plans include a patio right next to this space.

Form and function always work together in design.

Some of the “functions” the new plantings should serve are:

  • To soften the building and help “bring it into better scale”.
  • To add weight to the corners and vertical lines of the home.
  • To screen the concrete foundation and AC units.

The forms or shapes that accomplish these functions guide you in selecting the right plant.  For example:

  • Arborvitae ‘Spiralis’ will grow tall without getting monstrously wide. Right away this taller plant helps reduce the scale of this big home.
  • Arborvitae ‘Emerald Green’ spaced 3′ C-C (center-on-center) forms a narrow, vertical screen to hide the foundation and AC units. It also serves as a year round backdrop for the azaleas and whatever other seasonal plantings you might choose in the foreground.
  • Azalea ‘Poukenense’ has a lower, mounded form that brings another tier or level to the planting. On a home this size this additional foreground planting adds depth, which helps again to reduce the scale of the building.

Plant Characteristics Help With Your Final Selection

This is the part of the process where you really need to know about the plants themselves. If you don’t have the knowledge and/or experience, a reference book will really help. Taking the time to work through this plant selection process is a deposit in your bank of knowledge.

The trick in this final stage of selection is to match the characteristics (aka preferences) of the plant to the conditions where it will be planted.

Start with the general conditions of the area. For example: This side of the house faces east. There are no nearby or overhanging trees, so for the most part it’s sun all morning. East is a nice exposure for plants that prefer sun or partial shade.

The grade around the home is pitched away from the foundation, and the soil is a sandy loam. It doesn’t get any better than that for general planting conditions.

So now you have a sense of the basic cultural preferences your plant selections should have. And you know the basic forms and shapes they should have too.

But plants are living, growing things. What are they going to look like in the future, and where should you plant them today?

Knowing a plant’s natural form and size is so important. This is one of the key factors to installing gardens that don’t become overcrowded, but get more beautiful as they grow.

So in this particular planting:

  • Arborvitae ‘Spiralis’ will grow to 25′ high and 8′ wide. It’s center is 6′ from the foundation.
  • Arborvitae ‘Emerald Green’ will grow to 10′ high and 3′ wide. It will easily be maintained at 7′ high by trimming just the tops. The sides can grow naturally and touch one another. Behind them are the AC units, and the ‘Emeralds’ will not encroach into that space.
  • Azalea ‘Poukenense’ (which is technically a Rhododendron) will grow to 3′ high and 5′ wide. They are spaced 4′ C-C and will touch to form a mass or grouping.

The Process Should Not Be Rushed

There’s no question that production is important. Systems and efficiencies are at the heart of any business and we will be touching on some of those in future articles. But production should never happen at the expense of quality.

Take your time with the plant selection process. You’ll just get better and better at it. Plus, your experience and knowledge base will grow and distinguish you more and more from the competition. And that’s what it’s all about.



In this lesson we touched a bit on landscape design. If design is not your thing or doesn’t interest you, don’t let it be an obstacle.

There are landscape businesses that don’t involve design, and there are ways to work around design if plantings and construction are your thing.

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