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Extension Bulletin E-2941 New November 2005

A Guide for the Selection and Use

of Plants in the Landscape
Robert E. Schutzki
Department of Horticulture
Michigan State University

Without a doubt, plants are by the individual, the site, or in some

the foundation of our outdoor cases the local availability of plants.
environment. The diversity of Viewing plant selection as a process
plant species and the multitude of may at first seem cumbersome, but
cultivars, hybrids and varieties make in time the process can make it easier
for creative and appealing landscape to make decisions and provide more
compositions. There are a number choices than first thought.
of reasons for choosing plants for the
landscape. We may be attracted to Function or purpose defines the
their ornamental appeal or call upon reason for using a plant. Looking
them to serve a specific function or good certainly justifies a selection,
purpose in the landscape, such as but the value of a plant may go far
providing a screen, blocking unwanted beyond aesthetic appeal. Function
views, or stabilizing a soil bank. guides the selection of a plant type,
Others may be selected because of such as tree, shrub, or perennial for a
their ability to adapt to poor soils or specific space. Plants are packaged in
simply for the ease of subsequent care. many ways their aesthetic qualities
are as diverse as the species we have to
Generally, when horticulturists are choose from. Plant aesthetic qualities
asked about plants, include the overall
responding is not as habit or shape of
simple as blurting the plant and its
out a few names. foliage, flowers,
Plant selection is an fruit, and bark.
organized process The combinations
that examines of plant forms,
several factors: foliage, flowers,
function, aesthetics, fruit and bark can
site adaptability result in creative,
and management. artistic displays.
The priority placed
on each category Once we have
varies with the identified the Plant selection
individual. The potential aesthetic is an organized
freedom to choose qualities, the next process.
from a wide variety question is to
of plants depends determine whether
on the flexibility or or not the plant will
restrictions imposed truly perform in

the soil and environmental conditions overall appeal of the landscape.

on your property. A helpful adage is Horticultural practices such as
Dont fight the site. If you test or pruning, fertilization, irrigation
challenge Mother Nature and pick a and pest management need to be
plant that does not match your site considered in making our final
conditions, there is a good chance plant choices.
that it will fail. Factors related to
site adaptability such as the plants This guide outlines an approach to
cold hardiness and tolerance for site selecting plants and identifies specific
conditions such as soil type, exposure information that will be useful in
and light levels will define whether making appropriate choices.
your aesthetic selections will perform
to your expectations.

The final consideration in plant Function

selection is management. Landscape
management or maintenance guides Function refers to the purpose that
the development of plants in the the plant serves in the landscape. The
landscape. After initial establishment, shade of a tree canopy, the filtered
accent plants start to show off screen from a hedge, or the erosion
their qualities, plant masses begin control of a ground cover addresses
to integrate, and border plantings the specific objectives of the planting.
achieve their intended shape. It is the Plants serve three major functions
feasibility and quality of maintenance in our landscapes: architectural,
that ensures the long-term aesthetic engineering and environmental.
appeal of any plant and certainly Individually or in concert, plants are
highlights its contribution to the the foundation of the landscape and
reinforce the intended use of our
outdoor space, whether the use is
active or passive. We can liken the
development of our landscape to the
development of rooms in our homes
each room is shaped for its intended
use and is accessorized accordingly.

Plants serve an architectural function

by defining the floors, walls and
ceilings of our outdoor rooms.
Floors direct our movement into and
around the rooms. They are defined
by colors and textures of turf, ground
Plants serve an covers, creeping perennials and other
architectural interesting materials. Several ground
function by cover plants have been promoted
defining the for their ability to withstand foot
floors, walls and
traffic. These in combination with
ceilings of our
outdoor rooms. more traditional turf have certainly
changed our definition of living
carpets. Walls establish boundaries Plants serve an
and set the mood in our outdoor engineering
space. They can allow or limit function by:
visual and physical access. The influencing how
characteristics of a wall are defined we walk through
by height, depth and density. In the landscape;
combination these dimensions can blocking
provide an open, filtered or enclosed objectionable
feeling. Screens of evergreen trees, views on or off
clusters of multistemmed trees, the property;
masses of intermediate shrubs and establishing
low masses of herbaceous perennials buffers between
all contribute to the characteristics of divergent
a wall and its influence on the mood activities; and
or feeling the room projects. Ceilings minimizing
are usually formed by our canopy drainage or
trees and are characterized by their erosion issues.
height and density. The branching Bordering a
height of a tree can contribute to sidewalk with
the openness or intimacy of a room. small shrubs
Density influences light, whether may help direct A border of
it is blocked, filtered, dappled or people along the walk. Screens hostas helps
bright. The location of the canopy between patios and utility areas direct people
can also contribute to changes in the separate leisure from work space. along the path.
atmosphere of the room through the Ground cover shrubs can hold soil
day or season. Deciduous trees offer on a slope or prevent excessive
a wide array of seasonal characteristics erosion during seasonal rains. The
that contribute to the artistic appeal engineering role of plants tends to
of our ceilings. be more utilitarian in addressing site
issues or irregularities but nonetheless
Plants can also serve an architectural contributes significantly to the overall
function by highlighting or masking success of the plantings.
architectural features
of a house or building. When we speak of
Framing with plants an environmental
can emphasize role for plants, our
features or downplay attention focuses
an unwanted view. on their influence
Plants also serve a on microclimates
very important role in within the landscape.
shaping the rooms in Microclimate refers
our landscape. Their to temperature, wind
form provides the and light in a relatively
structural framework, small area. Plants can Framing an
and their foliage, modify microclimates arbor with roses
flowers and branches in our landscapes and highlights an
provide the wallpaper thus contribute to
and decorative appeal. human comfort. The

Canopy trees
intercept the
direct rays
of the sun,
Aesthetics or curb appeal tends to
providing a be the most notable quality of a
shade pattern. landscape. The success or failure of a
landscape is often judged on the visual
quality of the plants.

Aesthetics starts with the plant type

and the size of the designated planting
area. All plants will take up space,
some more so than others. To ensure
the integrity of the planting we must
plan accordingly and identify the
amount of space we want or will allow
the plants to cover. The size of the
available space influences the type of
plant we select. Each plant type sparks
an image, some large, some small.
Windbreaks Shade tree implies large canopy;
are designed
to intercept
evergreen tree usually suggests
and deflect dense foliage and a conical shape; an
prevailing winds ornamental/flowering tree could be
and reduce wind a small, delicate threadleaf Japanese
speed in the maple or a wide-spreading crabapple.
protected area. Shrubs offer a diverse array of sizes
from dwarf barberries to massive
viburnums. Ornamental grasses and
positive contribution of plants to perennials offer seasonal changes in
energy conservation has been well color and texture as well as in size.
documented. Plants can reduce heat Ground cover implies a carpet-like
loss in the winter and minimize heat growth habit.
gain in the summer. Windbreaks
are designed to intercept and deflect
prevailing winds and reduce wind
speed in the protected area. Plants
along a foundation can form an
insulating layer between the building
and the outside wind. Plants
This landscape provide benefits in the summer by
composition has intercepting direct and reflected rays
several layers of the sun. Canopy trees intercept the
of plants, each direct rays, providing a shade pattern,
contributing to
while shrubs can intercept reflected
the aesthetic
appeal of its own rays from pavement and the sides of
layer and to that buildings.
above or below.

Site Adaptability

Kurt Stepnitz, MSU

Site adaptability is the relationship
between the needs of the plant and
the environmental and soil conditions
on the property and/or the designated
planting area. It ultimately determines
whether a plant will perform to
expectations. If the plant is unable to
establish and resume vigorous growth
after planting, it is not likely to exhibit

Kurt Stepnitz, MSU

the aesthetic qualities that led to
its selection. Dont fight the site
Looking first at plant type allows us either let the site conditions guide
to match the plant with the space and selection or be prepared to modify the
leads us to consider shape. Shape adds site (soils, drainage, microclimate) to
another dimension to the ornamental accommodate the plant introductions.
quality of a plant composition. It also
aids in characterizing the relationship Soil type influences aeration, water
between or among plants in the retention, drainage and nutrient-
composition. Selecting for shape holding capacity. Sandy soils are
will give us plants for overhead, noted for their drainage and low
underneath as well as side by side. nutrient-holding capacity. Loams
Many of our landscape compositions are often considered the best soils
have several layers of plants, each for plant growth and development
contributing to the aesthetic appeal of because of their adequate aeration,
its own layer and that above or below. drainage and nutrient levels. Clays
are suspect for poor aeration and
Flowers, foliage, fruit and stems/ drainage problems. Knowing
branches/bark add to the aesthetic your soil type and its benefits and
appeal of our landscape by providing liabilities will aid in identifying the
color and texture. The impact, right plant for your site.
duration and seasonality of these
characteristics vary. Spring flower Soil pH is another soil parameter
colors, the textural qualities of the influencing plant growth. Soil
foliage, fall color and winter displays pH regulates the availability of
of fruit, branches and barks contribute micronutrients in the soil. For
to the four-season appeal of the example, iron is relatively unavailable
landscape. in soils with high pH (above 7.0).
Acid-loving plants find it difficult
to extract iron in adequate amounts Color and texture
from flowers,
from high pH soils. The result is
foliage, fruit and
a deficiency called iron chlorosis. stems/branches/
Chelated iron applications are bark add to the
necessary to correct the problem. aesthetic appeal
Knowing your soil pH will help you of our landscape.
avoid pH sensitive plants.
Light exposure refers to the
amount of light available in the
designated planting area. Knowing
daily light patterns and their changes
with the season again help tailor
selections. Available light can also
change with the maturity of the
planting. As plants grow, what
once was considered full sun can
now be classified as partial shade.
It may be necessary to change plants
in a composition as time influences
light levels.

Compass orientation refers to

Hardiness refers to the plants ability exposure to the north, east, south
to withstand cold temperatures. USDA and west. Orientation may subject
hardiness zones are based on the plants to prevailing winds or seasonal
average minimum cold temperature. sun patterns that may have a negative
It is critical to base your plant selection influence on their development.
on its ability to withstand the lowest Prevailing winds in the winter come
expected temperature. Michigan lies from the north-northwest. The wind
within zones 3, 4, 5 and 6. Zone 6 is direction shifts in the summer to
the warmest zone with plants expected south-southwest. As a rule, broadleaf
to withstand temperatures between 0 evergreens should not be placed in
degrees and -10 degrees F. Zone 6 is a north-northwest exposures unless
narrow band in southwestern they are protected from the direct
Michigan along Lake Michigan and in influence of the wind. Winter sun
southeastern Michigan along Lake patterns can also be a problem for
Erie. Most of Michigans Lower broadleaf evergreens and thin-barked
Peninsula lies within zone 5 with an trees. The sun is in the southern
island of zone 4 in the upper Lower portion of the sky in winter. Late
Peninsula. Zones 3 and 4 cover most afternoon sun warms plants in
of the Upper Peninsula. southwest exposures. Late afternoon

Daily and
variations in
light exposure.

Management Prevailing winds

come from the
Maintenance practices within the in the winter,
landscape contribute to its overall while in the
appeal. The visual quality of the summer the
landscape can fall short if horticultural wind direction
practice does not fall in line with shifts to south-
plant needs. We must be realistic in southwest.
determining the level of maintenance
that we are willing to administer
and adjust our plant selection
accordingly. There is no such thing as
a maintenance-free landscape, but low-
maintenance landscapes are possible.

Pruning can be minimal if plants

are picked to fit their allotted
space. Pruning may be necessary
to minimize encroachment of one
plant into anothers space. If a formal
hedge is an integral part of the
design, intensive pruning becomes
more of a priority. Sanitation is a
necessary part of plant management.
Leaves, fruit and stems are normal
warming followed by the abrupt plant litter. Some plants litter more
temperature change when the sun frequently than others; some produce
sets causes frost cracks (splitting bark larger amounts of litter than others.
on trunks). Exposure to drying sun Sanitation can be limited to the
and wind can cause sunscald and fall or a constant chore throughout
dessication of broadleaf evergreens. the growing season. Supplemental
irrigation can be a weekly
Other environmental considerations requirement in some landscapes.
that influence plant performance Some plants require more water at
include sensitivity to air pollution, regular intervals. Understanding the
exposure to and tolerance of deicing water requirements of certain plants
salt, and tolerance to light reflected will ensure long-term aesthetic
off pavements and buildings. quality.

Once established, most landscape

plants do not need regular
fertilization. Micronutrient
deficiencies may require special
treatments but in most cases this is
not a major consideration in selection.
Pest management, however, is
another case. In plant selection we
need to consider the susceptibility to the site, and the management
and/or tolerance to major insects required to ensure establishment
and diseases. Major problems are and subsequent performance. The
those that reduce plant quality and process may be simple or complex,
must be controlled on a regular basis. depending on your priorities,
Plant selection can focus on resistant flexibility, and restrictions. In any
species or cultivars to avoid the need event, following the process, giving
for preventative or curative control thought to the criteria and filtering
applications. One pest that has to through the possible selections will
be considered in plant selection reward you with an aesthetically
is deer. We must either focus on pleasing and functional landscape
deer-resistant plants or provide the composition.
necessary protection from feeding.
Use the accompanying plant selection
Plant selection follows an organized checklist to assist in working with
process. The criteria used in the your plant professionals in identifying
process integrate function, aesthetic the most appropriate choices for your
preferences, adaptability of a species landscape.

Photos by Robert Schutzki, except as noted;

illustrations and design by Marlene Cameron;
landscape rendering on page 1 by K. Langley, on page 8 by M. Mee-Wilson.

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