Choosing plants


Part of a sunny border at the end of June, including long-established and new plants, all very attractive to pollinators. From left to right: yellow sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), purple beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), white dotted mint (Monarda punctata), orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), more sundrops and butterflyweed, and white new jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), plus grasses and taller perennials that will bloom later in the season.

I have a mental checklist that I use to choose plants for my garden. It goes like this:

1. Is it pretty? If I like the plant’s looks, I go on to:

2. Is it native to this area? There are many definitions of “native plant.” I mean, according to good authorities, was it growing here, in northern New Jersey, before European settlement? If it most likely was, the next question is:

3. Is it a pure species? I greatly prefer species to hybrids or cultivars or varieties. Species are fertile, and I want to be able to collect seeds. Species were designed by nature, not by plant growers or scientists, so they are likely to produce flowers in colors that pollinators can recognize and that are not so big the stems can’t support them. If I can find a pure species, the next question is:

4. Is it adapted to the specific site? No matter how pretty or how native, there’s no point in planting something that can’t survive in the specific soil, water, and light conditions; there’s no point in planting a large tree in a small bed or groundcover where you need a shrub or a wetland plant in dry soil. If it is adapted to the site, I ask:

5. It is useful to wildlife? I plant for the birds and the butterflies and the myriad pollinators too small to notice or to name. I check reference books and field guides to find out what the critters want to eat. Chokecherry yes, redbud no. Space is limited, and one is useful to a wider variety of species than the other. If it’s a good wildlife plant, I ask:

6. Is it common in the area? There are few plants more useful to a wider range of animal species than oaks, but there are already lots of oaks (there are also lots of redbuds, because people plant them as front-lawn specimens). So I’ll plant something else, equally useful, that used to be common but is now missing–like serviceberry and elderberry. Once I decide on that rarer plant, I need to ask:

7. Can I find a commercial source? This is usually the problem. I choose plants for clients for a living, so I’ve developed a fairly wide range of sources, but I often wind up substituting a different species after a fruitless search. Sometimes the plant I want finally appears on the market, sometimes it never does. I would like a local source but will settle for a midwestern one. If I can find a source, the final question is:

8. How was the plant grown? I want healthy plants, and I particularly want plants that were grown in a nursery, not collected from the wild. I would prefer to inspect the plants myself, but I’ll settle for mail order from a reputable grower if absolutely necessary.


Chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa) at the end of July. The birds devour them the second they are fully ripe.


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