11 Aug HOW TO CHOOSE THE PERFECT PLANTS (& KEEP THEM ALIVE!)
How do you choose the perfect plant? I mean, apart from liking the way it looks, how do you go about finding out what it needs and why, and if it can survive where you plan to put it? It’s easy to buy one, they’re everywhere – online, in nurseries, at the supermarket – and they always look lush and green and… well, happy. That said, I’ve got plenty of friends who say they’re ‘bad with plants’ or that they’re not green fingered and ‘kill every plant they get’, so often it can feel like you’re losing a battle with Mother Nature.
I’m pretty good with greenery, but when we finally started populating our little roof terrace I was conscious of the fact that in fact I didn’t know much about gardening and that all our shrubs would have to live in pots. So this summer I decided to do some intensive research, and what I discovered is that even if you’re really not that green fingered, you can keep a plant alive and actually help it thrive.
As long as you follow a few simple rules…
First of all, know what you’re getting.
All plants have two names; a ‘common name’ (or sometimes many), which you’ll probably already know them by, like honeysuckle, cherry tree, or money plant, and also a scientific name (or binomial nomenclature, which is a formal classifying name made of two or more Latin or Greek words, if we’re getting technical). Quite often, you’ll know the plant from the first part of their scientific name, so it’s not that difficult to recognise, like in the case of hydrangeas or wisterias. But also quite often, finding out the full scientific name of a plant is the only real way to distinguish one specimen from another.
For example, take honeysuckle. It’s a common British climber and I really love it – it smells amazing and reminds me of lazy summer afternoons. Its scientific name invariably starts with Lonicera, but it’s really the second part of the name that tells you which specific honeysuckle you are buying. That is, what colour the flowers will be, whether they’ll be scented, or whether the plant will loose its leaves in winter – Lonicera Henryi for instance has very small flowers which don’t smell that much, but keeps its leaves all year round. Meanwhile, Lonicera Japonica has very scented flowers but constantly changes its foliage, so even if you want it to look the same throughout the whole year, it’ll keep loosing its leaves.
A binomial name can also be followed by a third word. This will indicate the variety, or cultivar, of the species you want. Again with the honeysuckle, the Lonicera periclymenum ‘Belgica’ has light yellowish/fuchsia flowers, while the Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’ will cover your wall with golden flowers – but both cultivars are incredibly fragrant.
Check the hardiness zone.
It’s happened to me a few times. I fell totally in love with a plant, only to find out that it doesn’t grow well in our climate. There’s not an awful lot you can do if a plant is equipped to deal with the heat and scorching sun of a Greek island, and you plant it in the wet, greyish weather of a northern city. It obviously won’t be happy.
South, West, North, and East facing and sun exposure.
Regardless of hardiness, there are some plants who prefer growing in the shade, some others who prefer basking in direct sunlight. Some plants grow better facing North (milder sun), and some are happier facing East or South.
Type of soil.
Soil type and pH is another essential element to consider if you want to keep your plant life happy. At best, soil type will affect the colour of your flowers, but in some cases, planting in the wrong soil type – think too acid or alkaline – is actually like feeding lumps of sugar to a diabetic – i.e. a potential death sentence.
Pot or non pot.
A very straightforward piece of information. You can choose to ignore the advice, but some plants just struggle to live in pots – they simply won’t grow or flower.
Evergreen, semi-evergreen, and deciduous.
Not every plant is destined to keep its foliage all year round (i.e. evergreen, as the name indicates). Some plants are deciduous, which means they loose their leaves when the climate gets colder, and some plants are semi-evergreen, that is they constantly replace their foliage. An important fact to consider if, let’s say, you want the plant to cover a wall throughout the year or if you want something very low maintenance. Just remember that if an evergreen looses its leaves, it won’t grow them back where it’s lost them, it’ll grow them somewhere else.
If you have a pet, do check online if a plant is poisonous before you buy it.
And when you’re buying online…
…don’t be fooled by the colour of beautiful flowers on a screen! A google image search is a sensible way to get an idea of colour variation and, as above, this will also depend on soil type and positioning.
Photography: Dee Ramadan