Solid, reliable, usable plant data is what you should find in a landscaping plant guide. How much sun a plant needs and how tall it will grow is essential information. Buy a plant that needs lots of sun and plant it in the shade and you may very well have a dead plant in matter of weeks or months. Buy a tree that grows to a height of 50 feet and place it under a first floor balcony and you will have a problem in a few years. If it is true that you need a good plan to carry out a successful landscaping project, it is also true that you cannot create a good plan without precise and comprehensive information on the plants you want to have in your yard. And the place to look for this information is in a landscaping plant guide.
But what’s a landscaping plant guide? A book that contains information on a variety of plants, of course. And how many such books are there on the market? You can’t begin to imagine. Are they all good? They range from absolutely outstanding to not quite so good. Who should you ask for advice on good titles? Probably not a bookstore employee. Why not go to the best nursery you know, find a knowledgeable employee and ask about good landscaping plant guides? You can also call or email your local botanical garden. We have listed just a few titles at the bottom of this page.
Other sources of information on plants
But you can also find good, reliable information from a variety of other sources. The Internet is one of them. There are a few Web sites that are veritable mines of information. Government agencies and universities are usually good bets. And the good thing about Web sites is that the can be updated constantly, while printed landscaping plant guides slowly become outdated as new plant varieties come along. You can find a couple of Web site addresses at the bottom of this page.
Now let’s consider a basic source of information that’s readily available when you buy a plant: the tag attached to the plant’s container. We are far from the wealth of information available in landscaping plant guides or the Web, but this tag often includes essential plant information. The most important thing that must appear on the tag is the plant’s names, both common and scientific. Since many plants come in different varieties (the word cultivar is sometimes used), the name may include the name of a variety.
About cultivars and scientific names
False Spireas usually grow between three and six feet in height, depending on the variety. So if you want to use False Spireas to hide your foundations and come just below your windows, you should make sure that you pick the variety that grows to the correct height. If you want to be absolutely sure that the False Spirea that grows to about three feet, look for the name Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’. Complete scientific names, which you can find in good landscaping plant guides, ensure that you get the right plant.
Some plants have different names in different regions or countries. The Alnus glutinosa, for example can be referred to as the Common Alder, the Black Alder or the European Alder. With the scientific name, there can be no mistake. Woodruff is another example. It can be called Sweet Woodruff, and Wild Baby’s Breath, Master Of The Woods, Asperula odorata, but its true scientific name is Galium odoratum.
Knowing which variety you are dealing with is also important because different varieties sometimes have different needs in terms of sun, water, or soil. Some varieties may be more winter hardy than others. Some Rhododendron varieties, for instance, can withstand temperatures reaching to minus thirty, while others will be killed by such cold temperatures. For more on the subject of plant names, you can visit All my favorite flower names.
Basic plant information
The tags attached to the plants you buy are by no means landscaping plant guides, but some of them do provide important, basic plant information. Let’s have a look at a couple of tags and see what’s on them.
This first tag was attached to Wintergreen. It contains all the essential plant characteristics: common name, scientific name, needs in terms of sun and water, hardiness and mature size. It also contains information on the plant’s features, on its growth habit and bloom time, as well as instructions on how to plant it and care for it. Since this is not a specific cultivar, no cultivar name is indicated. This is no landscaping plant guide, but this tag deserves a perfect score. In many cases, you may not need any more information on this plant.
The next tag was attached to a Holly. It contains the following plant information: common name and variety, scientific name and variety, mature height. It includes no information on the plant’s sun, water, soil preferences as well as on its width and hardiness. It shows the plant’s berries, but fails to mention that this female plant will only bear fruits if a compatible male plant is planted next to it.
Plant tags are very convenient when they provide good, useful plant information, but what they absolutely must provide is the plant’s complete scientific name. This information is the key to finding the right information, be it in a landscaping plant guide or the Internet. It’s a good idea to keep these tags as a reference. Some people put them in their yard and flower beds. This is not something we recommend, since they usually don’t look very good and don’t stay in place very long. A large envelope is probably a better place.
About the Web and plant guides
Remember when you search the Web or consult a landscaping plant guide that it is often simpler to use full scientific names. Some landscaping plant guides will list plants alphabetically using common names, but all good books must give the scientific name of each plant.
Below is a list of all the details you can expect to find in a landscaping plant guide. Note that you can use this list to ask questions when you go to the nursery. If you can’t find the information and if the employees don’t look too sure, then beware. You might end up with a shrub that will die in a shady location, a tree that will grow too high under your windows, or flowers that never will bloom in your flower bed.
- Scientific name: The complete Latin name including the specific name of the variety (if any).
- Common names: The names under which the plant is commonly known. These may vary in different regions.
- Other varieties: Other varieties of the same plant.
- Description: General description of the plant’s features and qualities.
- Colors: The plant’s usual color and its fall color (if different).
- Height: The plant’s mature size.
- Width: The plant’s mature width.
- Rate of growth: The speed at which the plant will attain its mature size. Some will take a few years, while others will take decades.
- Shape/form: The general shape of the plant. Some trees may have a broad, round shape, for instance, while others have a more columnar shape. Some plants grow as shrubs, like most Hydrangeas, some become more like small trees, like Panicle Hydrangeas, and some grow on walls and fences, like Climbing Hydrangeas.
- Exposure: How much sun the plant needs to be healthy and grow well. This typically ranges from full sun (more than six hours of direct sunlight per day) to full shade (less than 2 hours of direct sunlight per day plus some indirect sunlight).
- Water: How humid or dry the soil needs to be for the plant to be healthy. This can range from soggy (constantly wet) to dry (almost never wet) and can include indications such as moist or well drained.
- Soil: How rich or poor the soil needs to be for the plant to be healthy. This can range from rich in organic matter to poor and can include indications such as sandy or acid.
- Invasiveness: Whether the plant is likely to invade the surrounding grounds.
- Flowers: Whether the plant bears flowers and information on those flowers (color, size, quantity).
- Flowering period: Time of the year during which the plant bears flowers.
- Fruits: Whether the plant bears fruits or berries and information on those fruits or berries (size, color, whether they are edible or poisonous to humans or animals).
- Fruiting period: Time of the year during which the plant bears fruits.
- Fragrance: Whether the plant or its flowers exude a good or bad fragrance.
- Attractive to wildlife: Whether or not the plant attracts birds, butterflies or other insects or animals.
- Pruning: Whether the plant can be pruned and if so when.
- Hardiness: How resistant the plant is to cold. This is often expressed using hardiness zone values. The system developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) includes values ranging from 0a (resistant to -65°F) to 12b (resistant to 55°F). These values are also used in a number of other countries.
- Winter protection: Whether the plant needs to be protected to resist harsh winter conditions. The closer a plant is to its limit hardiness zone, the more important it is to follow these instructions. If you buy a plant that can survive winters in zone 6 and you happen to live in zone 6, then you must follow these indications. If you live in zone 8, then you probably don’t have to. Note that some plants which are very resistant to harsh winter conditions may need winter protection for the first few years, while they develop their root system.
- Known problems: Information on special care the plant may need or known disease that are likely to affect the plant.
- Other: Any other relevant information on the plant. This is often where the plant’s special features are mentioned, such as ‘Incredibly fragrant flowers’ or ‘Good to Stabilize Slopes’.
A few landscaping plant guides
We have listed a few good landscaping plant guides below:
- Bensley, Philippa, Climbers and Wall Plants, Horticulture Publications, Boston, 2006, 160 p.
- Underwood Crocket, James, Evergreens, Time-Life Books, Chicago, 1971, 160 p.
- Rodd, Tony, The Plant Guide, Firefly Books, Buffalo, 2007, 992 p.
- Meyer, Jeff, The Tree Book, Scribner, New-York, 2004, 394 p.
- Toomer, Simon, Trees for the Small Garden, Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2005, 177 p.
- Church, Glyn, Trees and Shrubs for Fragrance, Firefly Books, Buffalo, 2002, 160 p.
On the Web
There are some awesome sites on the Web where you can find an incredible amount of quality information, such as the Web site of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Have you considered all the options available to you? If not, then have a look at our Landscaping plants page.