How To Choose the Right Plants for Your Garden: A Step-by-Step Guide

Even a newbie gardener knows that for plants to thrive, they need good soil, sunlight, and water. But that’s not all there is to a recipe for success in the garden: You also need to make sure the plants you choose will actually be happy in your yard.

While this sounds simple enough, things turn complicated the second you head to the nursery and find yourself completely overwhelmed by the selection. Big, beautiful flowering shrubs, promising saplings, and even those showy annuals all start vying for your attention.

So how do you choose the best plants for your garden? We’ve got you covered right here.

Choose pest-proof plants

If you have pests like deer or groundhogs to contend with, then the plants you choose should reflect that. You should be conscious of what the pests consider to be the most appetizing, and what they’re more likely to ignore.

“Pests are part of the gardening life cycle and one you’ll need to work with,” says Clive Harris, founder of DIY Garden. “Hungry wildlife, such as squirrels, deer, and birds, can decimate a garden—and unless you want to net everything, simply choosing plants that they don’t enjoy will prevent damage.”

For smaller pests such as aphids and snails, avoid plants with soft green growth. Reliable “anti-aphid and anti-snail” plants include evergreens; the pests dislike alliums, marigolds, catnip, and rosemary, too.

Of course, no one expects you to have a garden that’s 100% free of pests. But to protect your more delicious flora (like roses), try using fragrant pest-proof plants as a natural border. And keep in mind that not all pests are destructive; some critters are even good for your garden!

Find plants that thrive in your hardiness zone

The USDA divides the country into zones based on their average annual minimum winter temperature, which shows which plants are most likely to thrive there.

Chances are your local nursery or farmer can help you pick the right plants for your zone, but it’s good to understand for yourself as well. You can see a map here.

Knowing your hardiness zone is a must for new gardeners and expert green thumbs alike,” says Elle Meager, founder and CEO of Outdoor Happens. “If you don’t understand your average regional temperatures, then choosing the plants likely to flourish in your yard becomes guesswork, at best. Your hardiness zone is the best reference to research which plants are most likely to thrive.”

Be aware of annuals vs. perennials vs. biennials

Some plants come back year after year, while others don’t. Before you purchase a plant, make sure you understand its life cycle—that way you won’t be disappointed when your $20 annual doesn’t make a second appearance next spring.

“When you plant up your garden, choose evergreens as the backbone—they will be green all year-round,” says Harris. “Then choose your perennials, which are the plants that die down over winter and reemerge in spring. Biennials are plants that begin to grow in the current year, but reach flowering maturity the following year, such as wallflowers and sweet Williams.

“And finally, the annuals: These flower for one season only, so be sure to use them as extra decoration, not structure,” adds Harris.

Pick plants based on sunlight

Some people have incredibly sunny gardens, while others may be forced to do most of their planting under trees. The good news is that there’s an abundance of beautiful plants that like both sun and shade. The tricky part is ensuring that you buy the right plants for your sunlight situation.

“Before you buy a single thing, observe how the sun hits your garden,” says Harris. “If it gets hardly any, you should choose leafy greenery—think ferns, ivy, gunnera— and create an Amazon-style paradise. If you get lots of sun for the majority of your day, choose sun-loving plants such as roses, lavender, salvia, verbena, and prairie grasses.”

When in doubt, copy your neighbors

If your neighbors have an amazing garden, there’s no shame in copying their work in your own space. After all, if the plants are happy in their yard, there’s no real reason they shouldn’t be happy in yours (assuming you’re doing everything you can to keep your plants thriving).

“I love this idea for a few reasons, and I’d even go a step further,” says Meager. “Introduce yourself to your neighbor and ask about their experience with their thriving garden—compliment it immediately. If they seem appreciative, ask them for tips. Also, ask if they started their plants from seed or purchased from a local nursery.

“These types of conversations are the best way to grow as a gardener—and you’ll probably learn a ton about horticulture in your region, while also uncovering a bountiful boon for your own garden,” adds Meager.


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