What do You Want to Know About a Plant?

All I wanted to know was if it was favored by bunnies…

As a garden communicator, when I write about a plant, I like to present as much information as possible,  at the same time making it readable.  Also, most times, I’ve had a good experience with a particular plant, bringing me joy and I want to share this experience and hopefully encourage the reader to plant one in hopes they experience  similar joy.  I don’t like to write about a plant I don’t have a personal experience with.

What I want to know about a plant may be different than what you want to know.  The variables per reader are vast.  Most gardeners will want to know about the plant’s USDA hardiness, sun requirements, soil type and the like. There are those plagued with deer who want to know if it’s deer resistance, with nearly every communicator qualifying the answer with, “But as you know,  deer will eat anything if hungry enough.”

I need to know the plants water needs.  I have a waterwise garden design, so I need to know if the plant of my desire will go into my oasis, transitional, or xeric zone.  From there, I can decide if I have room, or if I really want it, I’ll make room by trading up. I find it frustrating when I see a plant I want and have to go to several sources to get all the info about a plant I need.

When I’m gathering gardening info, I’ll gather even more information than I need personally, in the event I really like the plant and want to put it in a clients garden or if I want to write about it.  For example, I am plagued with bunnies.  I need to know if a plant is resistant to bunnies.  I don’t have deer.  However, I will want to know this information to file away for a client’s need or for a writing assignment.

The magazines (me included) are currently writing about the 2009 Perennial Plant of the Year, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ ornamental grass.   A timely endeavor.  I like it.  It looks good in the photos and I want it.  But with having made too many plant purchase mistakes to mention, and finding that zonal denial only benefits the nursery or garden center, I’m getting to where I need to be gaining more knowledge and killing less. If a plant is listed as a bunny favorite, I’ll stay clear of it.   No use building a buffet line for those marauding, munching, members of the cute critter club.

Here is what I want to know about a plant.  The list started out organized and ended up random as I continued to think of things I wanted to know:

Hardiness range. My garden, Helen’s Haven, is in Zone 7b.  I have to really, really like it if  is at the end of it’s zone.  Preferable, I like to have another zone  wrapped around it.  I no longer buy zone 8 plants; those days will be here soon enough if you listen to the global warming conversations, but for now, I’m sticking to my zone.

Water requirement. I will accept most conditions, dry, moist or wet.  I don’t have all the waterwise  zones covered, but I do have most of them  including, sunny oasis, sunny transition, sunny xeric,  shady transitional,  shady xeric and a tiny bit of shady oasis.   I need a plant’s watering need so I know where to plant it.

Sun/shade requirements. Absolutely need to know.  Boy oh boy, this simple concept can be so confusing.  A footnote could accompany just about any plant going something like this – give afternoon shade in hot climates, or give extra water if planted in sun…you get the point.

Height. We all gotta know.

Width. Ditto.

Good for containers. Very useful for those with limited space and those of us who like to use containers throughout the home and garden.

Drainage requirements. For the most part,  Helen’s Haven is well drained.  This is by design.  As I created my gardens, I amended the heavy clay with lots of organic matter.  However, there are parts of my oasis zone that receive a lot of extra water either by my neighbors lawn sprinklers or from fountain splash.  As such, these areas stay wet.

Soil structure. This usually goes hand-in-hand with drainage, but not entirely. There’s more to it when growing a living thing.  Every gardener needs to know their soil structure.  We are solid clay.  The kind I imagine potters use to throw pots – I sure would like to throw it about.  But, reality sets in and it does make good soil, if amended properly.

pH. Every plant has a  pH preference.  It is no coincidence here in the south that pines and azaleas are the most common combination.  Not only do the azaleas benefit from the dappled shade provided by the pines, they also benefit from the acid soil the pines provide.  The pH in Helen’s Haven tends to be acid; a common occurrence in the south, which is why our hydrangeas tend to be blue and if we want to change to the color to pink, we need to go through some hoops and amendments, too many for me, besides I like blue.

Does it reseed? This could be a good thing or a bad thing.   I also need to know more than if it is listed as a reseeding annual.  Poppies, Larkspar, Cleome, Monarda are all considered reseeding annuals.  But the the success of each will depend of many factors, including mulching.  I can mulch like crazy and my Cleome and Monarda are snug as a bug and perform beautifully.  If I treat my Poppies and Larkspar with mulch, they will not survive.

Hoes it spreads and  how fast?  Is it Invasive?   You have to look for code words to know.

  • Reseeds freely
  • Spreads by stolons
  • Plenty to share with your gardening friends
  • Oh, it’s easy to pull up if it gets out of hand
  • It’s worth it

Evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous. This is most important in design.  If I’m building a buffer hedge, I may well benefit from an evergreen hedge for year round privacy.  Or I may like the lightness a deciduous hedge offers in the season I’m not in need of as much privacy.

Seasonal interest. It’s good to know when a plant is the showiest.

Deer resistance. More and more people need to know this.  The deer population is growing at about the same rate  land is being claimed for new developments.  I don’t even want to consider how this gets balanced.  But my clients want to know what they can grow that the deer won’t eat.  I make suggestions and then of course I say, “But as you know,  deer will eat anything if hungry enough.”

Bunny resistance. This is my biggy.  I need to know.  I don’t recall reading this as clarification on a plant tag.  As such, I’m always doing extra research, usually with no success.  My success comes if I find it is still standing the next day.

    Origin. Some want to know if it’s native.  Others not.  I think in general it is good to know.  Sort of like all of us.  Our origins are conversation worthy.

    Maintenance. High, low, moderate or maintenance free.  All good to know.

    propagation. Handy to know in the event you only want to pay for this plant once.

    Pests. We need to know.  We re more likely going to choose a variety of plant that isn’t prone to pests, than one that is.

    As I lust over the 2009 Perennial Plant of the Year Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ ornamental grass, I decide to consult the current literature and see how many source reviews I needed to do to get all the information needed necessary to decide if this beauty will go into my garden.

    Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’

    Golden Japanese forest grass

    Hak-on-eh-KLO-ah MAK-rah

    Need to Know A B C D E F
    USDA Hardiness zones 5 – 9 5 – 9 6 – 9 5 – 6 need winter protection 5 – 9
    Water requirement Medium Moist Moist
    Sun/shade requirements Full sun to Partial shade Partial shade Sun or shade, woodland Full sun Partial to full shade is best.Full sun tends to scorch the leaves Partial shade in hot climes. More sun in cooler climes
    Height 1’ – 3’ 1 – 1.5’ 18” 12 – 18”
    Width 1’ – 3’ 24” 18 – 24”
    Good for containers Yes Yes
    Drainage requirements Well-drained soil Well-drained soil
    Soil Structure Humus-rich Average soil. Also says humus-rich Average Rich and loamy Humus rich
    Does it reseed?
    How it spreads and how fast.  Is it invasive? Spread by stolons, it is a slow grower By stolons, but slowly
    Evergreen, semi-evergreen or deciduous.
    Season Interest Summer, fall. Reddish tint in fall Shades of pink and red in the fall. All summer with shads of pink and red in the fall
    Deer resistance Yes
    Bunny resistance
    Origin Honshu Island, Japan
    Maintenance Can divide after many years. Little. Cut back in late winter or early spring.Slow grower so division after many years.
    Propagation Divide in spring By division or plugs
    Pest Few insect or disease problems

    The table above, represents 6 reputable reference I consulted to answer my questions about this plants performance. I have hidden their identify with letters.  But, just to give you an idea, one was a nursery, one an e-magazine, one a botanic garden, two were gardening magazines, one a professional organization.

    My, my this exercise thought me a lot.  Did it you?  I had other referenced I could have considered, but I had enough trouble importing this table as it was.  But it didn’t matter, the sources I referred to all varied as you can see above.

    Notice all the blank blocks?  Me too.  Who knew?

    Sadly, I still do not know if this plant is favored by bunnies.

    Helen Yoest is a garden writer and coach through her business Gardening with Confidence™

    Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenYoest and her facebook friend’s page, Helen Yoest or Gardening With Confidence™ Face Book Fan Page.

    Helen also serves on the board of advisors for the JC Raulston Arboretum


    1. Shelley Dillard said

      Great article! I teach a lot of gardeners here at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia and you have really organized this beautifully! I will recommend your blog to all my students!
      Shelley Dillard

    2. Really great article. Can we arrange for it to be on our blog as a visiting blogger? We’ve not done that before, but this is to good not to spread around. What do we do?
      Jeff Ball and Nancy Szerlag.

    3. Mike Lee said

      I’ve often been asked about plant toxicity and or potential allergens. People with children and pets express concern about ingesting fruits or plant parts.


    4. Lynn said

      Great post, Helen. You need to turn this into a book. A client of mine was saying she was looking for just this sort of inclusive reference. Thank you, once again, for the enlightenment.

    5. Deirdre said

      I can fill in one blank for you. The leaves die in the fall, but maintain a presence until they are removed.

      • Good to know. Is that all over or in our zone 7b gardens? I have some in a 6 inch pot and will see how it does. It’s not such a hot plant growing at the JC Raulston Arboretum. H.

        • Deirdre said

          Actually, I live in Seattle which is 7 b or 8 depending on where you are.

    6. TC Conner said

      Lots of great info in this post Ms. Helen. And you really outdid yourself with that graph. I’m envious of your ability to do that! I too was wanting to know more about Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’ because I was considering it for lining my short front walkway. I’ve not made any final plans yet though as there’s a slight delay with my garden coach’s input (Read: My wife don’t like the idea.)

      I also like to know most of the same info you listed, but rarely do. I’ve made the mistake (or not) of taking Felder Rushing’s advice and just “plant it green side up,” if the thing lives I’m happy, if it don’t, “it’s not like I’m married to it” (a Felderism) and I’ll get something different. Of course you being a landscape designer and having a business and whatnot, it’s more important that you have all the info at your fingertips for your clients sake.

      This was a great post Ms. Helen and a fun read. Nice job!

    7. Hey T.C. I think Felder is right for the most part. But in this economy, I need to be prudent for me and my clients. Especially, in your case where you are not trying just one. Trying one plant versus putting many in a design are two different issues, as you well know. When you plan to plant a mass of them, there is a much higher need to know. H.

    8. patientgardener said

      I have one of those growing here in the Midlands in the UK and it is quite good but I dont have bunny problems so I cant help you there – sorry

      • Hey Helen, the little trial piece I have has not been nibbled. However, I have it in a pot and there is plenty of other goodies for them to eat. H. P.S. How is it you have not bunny problem? Could that be the secret to the wonderful Cumberland Sausage?

    9. Very thought provoking. When I recommend plants on my blog, such as this, I’m trusting the reader to assume that the plant will survive in conditions similar to mine. I guess I should provide the details more frequently.
      What’s interesting is that I grow Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola,’ but my soil is definitely not “moist.” It’s so well-drained that it cracks in the summer and makes a horrible sucking noise when I hand water. Clearly, this plant doesn’t need moist soil, although it may prefer it. I am happy to report that it is not a bunny favorite, as I saw it growing uncovered and unmolested in Trudi Temple’s garden, where the rabbits run freely and antique wire baskets are used to protect vulnerable plants.

      • MDD, that’s what I’m talking about! Only 2 of the 6 mention moisture needs and moist is listed in each. It has been my experience, too, that it did fine in little water. So, don’t you think SELLING point? I do. Where I wanted to put it most was in my shade xeric garden. I thought it would brighten up the area nicely. However, based on the data, I have not. I think I will in 2010. Thanks for your feed back and good to know about the bunny situation…figures MDD would know!

    10. Great information, Helen I also want to know if a plant is poisonous — particularly if young children are in the garden. Happy New Year!

      • Right on, Susan. I think this needs to be added to the list and listed on tags. I’m convinced that only positive info is added – deer resistant, drought tolerant, native – for fear if a “negative” is listed, no one would buy it. I put “negative” in quotes, b/c what is negative today, may not be negative tomorrow. Right now in our area, if you put “Drought Tolerant” on the tag, it will be purchased…even though we had a record amount of rain this year.

    11. Helen, great topic!

      When I write about a plant, like you, I want to have personal experience with it. Otherwise, I put “garden inspiration” in my title to let my readers know that it’s something that I’ve seen, rather than something that I grow.

      I also try to check and cross-check the plant’s requirements before putting it in my blog. It’s amazing the contradictions that I come across, so I will often say “in my garden, this plant….”

      I tend to mention deer resistance for every plant in my garden as that’s my niche!

      HAPPY NEW YEAR! May 2010 be filled with peace, joy, happiness and lots of pretty plants! 🙂

    12. meghan said

      yep, i want to know ALL of it!! it just makes me too disappointed to see something i was so excited about wither up and die. the deer are also an issue here. i just saw one this morning. they nibbled my teeny tiny oakleaf hydrangeas the first year i planted them….down to the ground!! they’ve yet to fully recover, but they’re alive. last year they munched on my flowering quince and that’s supposed to not be one of their faves. and oh the bunnies….they have gobbled up more coneflowers than i’d care to remember, but in my neighbors yard, the coneflowers never get eaten!! happy new year! 🙂

      • Bummer on the bunny damage, Meghan! I can’t keep coneflowers, cosmos, and more. Somethings I don’t mind, but the pretty flowers bite!

    13. Janet said

      I try to write about what I know, makes writing so much easier. I have done a number of tree posts. I have learned more about each as I researched my information.
      Your list is really great. Gardeners, know thyselves.
      I too have tons of bunnies— they really do damage on new/young plants. Since my yard has little shade I can’t plant that lovely grass……though my new place in SC has lots of shade…maybe it will be in my new garden!

      • I agree Janet and I have thoroughly enjoyed your tree posts this year. What you created is the perfect way to learn. So while I say I rather write about something I’m familiar with, I only do so b/c I don’t have the time to study someone else data. I really kinda regret that, because I love to learn these things, but right now, alas, I just don’t have the time. So glad you are my resource!

    14. Jen, Durham NC said

      Seems like Resource ‘F’ was by far the most detailed. I am quite curious to know who they were!

    15. […] 2.  I’m gonna read plant labels and then I’m gonna factor 25% to whatever number they print. What do You Want to Know About a Plant? […]

    16. misti schaefer said

      What a great article! I have the opposite bunny problem. I have quite a large flower garden and caged bunnies. I am always looking for safe and healthy things to feed my bunnies while my veggies are not in season. I compost their droppings for my planting beds. Is there something you could suggest for me to grow during the winter in my zone 8.5 garden ? Thank you so much for all of the great info you have already given me!
      Misti Schaefer

    17. Wow very beautiful pictures. Glad to have found your this blog . Waiting for the next postings.

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