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Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Horticulture, (515) 294-5075,
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,

Yard and Garden Column for the Week Beginning March 19, 2004

With So Many Choices How Do I Decide?

By Anne Marie VanDerZanden
Extension Horticulture Specialist
Iowa State University

For some gardeners, the feeling of warm weather is followed by thoughts of standing in the nursery, overwhelmed with the plant choices before them. On some level I enjoy this feeling, but realize not everyone does. Knowing how to start the selection process can help you narrow down the plants you need to most fully consider. I suggest looking at three main characteristics of the plant: form, texture and color.

Form is the most important consideration because a plant’s form is present in the garden all year. Of course herbaceous perennials are the exception because they die back to the ground in the winter, but their form is still an important characteristic to consider. Plant form is described as the outline of the plant as a result of its three-dimensional mass. Typical plant forms include rounded, ‘Anthony Waterer’ spirea; oval, ‘Greenspire’ linden; columnar, ‘Columnar European’ hornbeam; and pyramidal, ‘Emerald’ arborvitae.

Landscapes with a variety of plant forms are attractive, but too much variety in a small space can be chaotic. The plant forms are going to make up the bones‚ of the garden and they create the background for the rest of the composition. Be sure to select a plant based on its natural form, not the form you achieve by constantly pruning it.

Texture is defined as the relationship of the foliage and twig size to the remainder of the plant. Just because a plant is large, doesn’t mean it has a coarse texture. For example, a white pine can be 50 feet tall and 40 feet wide but it has a fine texture because the needles are narrow. In contrast, a Panicle hydrangea is only 10 feet tall and wide at maturity, but is considered coarse textured because of the large leaves and flowers in relation to the overall size of the plant.

Thankfully a large number of plants fit into that middle category of medium texture. Just as with form it is important to incorporate a variety of textures in the landscape, but it is important to ease the transition from coarse to fine textured plants by planting medium textured plants between them. Too much contrast between textures can also be overwhelming to the eye.

Unlike form, texture is dynamic and can change depending on where you are in relation to the plant. Light patterns can also influence texture by creating a contrast of light and shadow. And finally, the characteristics of a leaf such as color, waxiness and hairiness can affect texture.

Although color is an important characteristic, it should not be the primary consideration when choosing a plant. Color is the most fleeting element in the landscape, and unlike the form of a plant, is not always present in the garden year round. Select flowering plants based on when they will provide color and for how long. By carefully selecting shrubs and perennials, you can have some color in your garden almost year round.

Of course in addition to when and how long the flowers are present, you also need to consider the actual color. Flower colors can be grouped as those with warm tones (orange, red, yellow) or cool tones (green, blue, purple). Selecting plants with the same tone creates a harmonious planting combination. For a sunny spot, a warm tone combination that will provide color throughout the spring and summer could be forsythia, corydalis, annual marigolds and salvias, ‘Goldstrum’ rudbeckia and chrysanthemums. A cool tone combination for shade might include lungworts, ‘Purple Palace’ coral bells, hairy toad lilies and violets.

Although the flowers are pretty, don’t over look plants with colorful bark, fall color or fruit. One of my favorite groups of plants is the viburnums. Not only do most of the species have good form and interesting texture, they also provide a variety of flowering times, flower color, fruit color and fall color.
On your next trip to the nursery, make it easy on yourself, and whoever you are with, remember to start with form, texture and color. It will at least help you start narrowing down your choices.


ml: isugarden

Editors: Two color photos, suitable for publication, are available at right. Click on each thumbnail photo to go to the fullsized photo. The top picture's fullsize photo is 336K and the bottom picture's fullsize photo is 232K.

Caption: maple form

Caption: texture

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