Cool Green Gardens

Let Mr. Spock Choose Your Plants


Close your eyes. (Bad move – now you can’t read this. Change of plans…OPEN your eyes. Drat! What if you don’t see that I just typed “open your eyes”?)

Sorry, let’s start over. Imagine that you’re looking out the breakfast nook window when an 18-wheel tractor-trailer jumps the curb, it’s back-up beeper piercing the  early morning calm. Air brakes hiss and the engine revs. The bed tilts skyward. As the tailgate creaks, a river of ping-pong balls floods your front yard.

“What the…?!?”

You spring from the breakfast table as the truck pulls away. Tying your robe, you and your bunny slippers shuffle outside to inspect this curious cargo.

miscanthusWords are printed on each shiny orb: Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ reads one, Cotoneaster dammeri, Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Silver Mound’, on and on, each sphere bearing the name of a different plant that grows in your region.

I don’t know about you, but that’s what it seems like when I start a new design project for a client – the realm of all possibilities. My Sunset Western Garden Book boasts “Over 8,000 Plants”.

That’s a smidge too much variety for the average residential lot. So how on Earth does an adventurous but rational gardener winnow all those tempting choices down to a manageable palette?

The Logic of Logic

Simple. Pop an old episode of Star Trek into the Blu-ray and unleash your uber-logical Mr. Spock. Shut down the “oh-but-it’s-so-cute-with-its-sexy-maroon-leaf-bordered-with-a-darling-crinkly-chartreuse-leaf-margin” lobe of your brain. Delay your aesthetic gratification.

If being called a Trekkie by the cool kids is too much to bear, use this logical four-step process to sort through all those plants and create a palette that rewards you with a beautiful, functional, sustainable garden.

Step 1 – Plant With Purpose:  Analyze your property and consider whether any of the plants in that pile can help you. Perhaps you need shade to make the yard more comfortable, or want to block an eyesore. Plants can also make effective barriers and reduce erosion on hillsides. Make a quick sketch of your property and jot down situations where plants might lend a hand (or branch).

Step 2 – Size Matters:  Next, sort the plants into four categories: trees, tall (higher than eye level), medium (knee-high to eye-level), and low (ground level to knee-high). Right now, I don’t care if they have purple polka dot leaves, plaid flowers or if they play Werewolves of London on a kazoo – I just want to know how big they get so I can put them to work.

If your patio would be more comfy without the sun beating down, sort through the sea of ping-pong balls and create a separate pile of just trees.

If you’re desperate to block the sight of a billboard for drive-thru dental services, make another pile of large shrubs, or vines you can train on a trellis. A dense waist-high boxwood hedge will steer the neighbor’s incontinent wiener dog away, and deep-rooting ground covers might do a good job of stabilizing a slope.

Step 3 – If It Won’t Thrive, It Takes A Dive:
  A truly sustainable garden means using plants that really want to be in your garden – plants that won’t just get by, but will thrive with little or no care from you. (Who has time to keep a wimpy little, mealybug-ridden perennial on life-support?) There are dozens of plants that would just love to come running all waggy-tail and lick your face when you pull in the driveway.

Now comes the time when you have to be ruthless, choosing only the plants that match the growing conditions where you want to plant them. You’ll need to do your homework and learn more about each plant you’re considering. Fine Gardening has a great database of plants in their on-line Plant Guide. Take it for a spin.

A convenient way to know which plants will do best in your yard is to look at what’s kicking butt in your neighborhood. What could be easier than observing which plants work nearby and which don’t?

Step 4 – Make It Drop-Dead Gorgeous:  By now, you’ve likely rejected a few thousand ping-pong balls that didn’t make the cut. The fun begins when you don your artist’s beret and get creative. My advice is to pull out all your back issues of Fine Gardening magazine, thumb through the pages and pick out the pictures you drooled on – they’ll be slightly discolored and easy to find.

Consider the style of the garden that attracts you, and whether it makes sense with your home. Notice how the designer exploits the color of the flowers, but also considers the more permanent attributes like the plant’s overall form, foliage color, and seasonal traits like bark and fruit. Then plagiarize!

By applying a bit of Vulcan logic to plant selection, you really can have it all – a garden that enhances outdoor living, helps you avoid the drudgery and real-dollar cost of excessive maintenance, is gentle on the planet, and looks like a million bucks.

Yo! Scotty! Beaming time…

View Comments


  1. MichelleGervais 11/12/2010

    Very logical Billy. And that's a compliment, coming from a Star Trek fan...but I am NOT a Trekkie!

  2. potagerlady 11/15/2010

    Ha ha! Funny as WELL as informative...Good job!

  3. DebraLee 11/15/2010

    I like the way you break what is often an overwhelming process down into logical steps, Billy. You know what I find most challenging? Trying to plant living bouquets. It's one thing to combine plants that promise a great color combinations, and another to know what blooms at the same time. Also, over the years, I've made mistakes like planting pastel coral bearded iris next to a shocking red climbing 'Altissimo' rose---both beautiful in their own right but awful together. Every year I swear I'll move the irises, but come fall, I can't find them!

  4. jeachapman 11/15/2010

    If somebody drooped 8,000 plants in front yard - well I'd just plant the all. Not good with weeding out plants. Great ideas for how to get it done, though.

  5. ArlenaSchott 11/15/2010

    Billy wonderful article and Yes I could sort through the plants after listing to the defining BeepBeep of the back up signal of the Dump Trucks..
    Very good information. Green Blessings Arlena

  6. CristinaGardens 11/15/2010

    Really like your process of choosing plants. I would, however, have tossed out the plants that wouldn't thrive in my garden first...then continue on with the process of function, size and beauty.

  7. user-7006899 11/15/2010

    This is a good start but you still end up with a very large pile of plants that could "theoretically" work in any of the locations and it seems like only trial and error work past that point, if you are not a professional with a lot of experience with the plants in question, in the type of area in question.

    Unfortunately, my neighborhood does not offer a lot of great examples and some of the plants that are doing well are so old, I would never be able to find the same variety commercially now.

    So I guess I have sort of a semi-educated trial and error process going on...

  8. GardenPaddler 11/16/2010

    I like starting with what might be viable for my area and then pulling out all the natives to focus on first, maybe some cultivars of that and then I'd look at what ever I can form into round popsicle forms! (The last is just for you Billy)

  9. BillyGoodnick 11/16/2010

    Your humble author here: Thanks for all the feedback.
    Cristina: The steps I outlined for winnowing down a massive list of plant choices is offered as an antidote to the classic "OMG! I have to take this home" process, which is generally followed by the "where the hell am I gonna put this?" methodology. The order of the steps can be interchanged, but I've found this order to work best if the design is starting with a blank slate. Too many folks overlook the "form follows function" adage and miss out on the double bonus of plants actually doing something besides looking lovely.
    Michelle: I guess it's possible to enjoy Star Trek and not be the T-word. Didn't mean to imply
    Potagerlady: If I can't make it a fun read, I move to another subject. Gotta put a smile on readers' faces AND offer a few tools for the toolbelt.
    DebraLee: Always a pleasure to see feedback from a garden world super-star (and dear friend and mentor). Personally, I think I'd be fine with coral pink and hot red - kind of a border-town mash-up appropriate for southern SoCal. Send me a pic.
    Jeovanna: You might have to annex your neighbor's yard or build a garden loft.
    Arlena: always happy to see you here. Thanks for popping in.
    Liz77: You're correct - there's more to it than I can squeeze into a blog post and my 3 decades of design give me a leg up. But that's when artful plagiarizing come in. Also, if you do 70% of the heavy lifting and get the initial sorting done, consider hiring a pro designer to help get you to the finish line. Might not be more than a few hours of paid time to get the results you want. I love those kinds of jobs and it really helps the recipient.
    GardenPaddler: Thanks for the popsicle reference. Even better in hot summer gardens.

  10. ThankGod4Gardening 11/16/2010

    My husband swears he saw that truck with 8,000 plants pull away from our house! We went from barren flat grass to a rolling mini park in about 3 years. And with that came a lot of planting and tossing as I learned. Your list would have come in very handy. Love your attitude and your logic. I have vowed to focus on keeping gardening fun and so I some adjustments I made when sorting through my truckload. With that in mind here's a couple things I've learned along the way...

    1) I hated, hated, hated...did I say hated?!!! weeding my vegetable garden, but I loved the fresh vegetables. I dreaded it because it always seemed like work. I noticed I didn't have the same feelings about spending time in my flowers. So my solution...I planted my vegetables in with my full sun loving flowers. The plants didn't care!

    2) When I find an area that doesn't seems to be getting the attention it needs from me, I try adding a reason to go there by adding a new favorite plant to watch, a seating area or even a bird feeder. And if that doesn't work, I’m not afraid to bulldoze it...returning it to grass or rock is always an option and it beats that feeling of being overwhelmed—I've learned it's okay to recognize when we need to cut back.

    Note for Liz77 - A great way to find new plants...When I see a yard with something I like in it, I’m not afraid to talk with the owner about what it is or how they did it...gardeners generally love to talk about gardens. I've made many fun friends that way—and sometimes they've offered to share plants or have told me where to get them, and I've done the same.

    Also a note for DebraLee on Irises - if you have children...don't get frustrated when they misbehave, enjoy it... sentence them to yard duty!!! Ground them until they moving those Irises for you (it's hard to hurt an Iris!). It worked great for me! And it's a good excuse to spend time together. (If you don't have children the right age you can borrow some--parents are always willing to loan misbehaving children!)

  11. naturejunky 11/17/2010

    I would be in seventh heaven if i got that many plants in my yard!!!! I would not care where they go but I would separate them by height then sun tolerance. Sometimes I feel like I have planted that many in the 10 years I have lived in this house. Love my garden... My license plate cover says " I love my garden I can play in the dirt" .. my family knows if the phone rings at my house and I dont answer I am out in the yard.. Happy gardening all... cant wait until spring to start all over again.

  12. Bren_BGgarden 11/18/2010

    Most garden centers in my neck of the woods forget to mention the 'sustainable garden' rule : meaning if it isn't a native growers it most likely won't thrive. Love your creative way of sharing the facts on landscape design.

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