Cathie Lavis is a professor of horticulture at Kansas State University. Her expertise includes landscaping, arboriculture, irrigation, and landscape contracting. She provides insight for homeowners and gardeners on plant care, selection, and more.
I think one of the prime challenges for the beginning gardener is selecting the right plant for the right location. Unfortunately, many people assume if the plants are being sold in their area they will do fine. In fact, the one plant I see sold every season here in Kansas is azaleas. They are beautiful in bloom, but they require specific growing conditions, few of which are found around here. For example, azaleas must have an acid soil. Most of them thrive best at a soil pH between 5.0 and 5.5 and the typical soil pH in Eastern Kansas is 7.5-8.5, far too alkaline to support azaleas. Keep in mind your lawn’s growing conditions when you’re looking to purchase plants.
Good gardeners have learned to become good matchmakers. That is, they consider rainfall, winter and summer temperatures, light exposures and the soil conditions before making a decision. Winter temperatures are a critical consideration for perennials, trees, shrubs and even bulbs. By referring to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map http://www.growit.com/zones/, you can learn what USDA hardiness zone you are in and then seek out the plants that can grow best within your area. For example, a garden peony is a Zone 4 plant and will survive winter temperatures as low as 30-40 degrees. On the other side of the spectrum, I cannot leave my gardenia outside all winter because it’s a subtropical plant from Africa and cannot survive the cold temperatures. Just knowing where a plant originated tells you what conditions it can survive.
Another critical factor to consider is how well a plant will perform during the summer months. This applies to all plants, even annuals and bulbs. The American Horticultural Society (AHS) Heat Zone Map and plant rating that takes the guesswork out of selecting heat and drought tolerant plants. The AHS Heat Zone Map parallels the USDA Hardiness Zone Map in that it has 12 different zones. Each zone represents a range of summer heat (http://www.ahs.org/publications/heat_zone_map.htm).
Aided with both the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map and the AHS Heat Zone Map you are better equipped to select plants that will perform best in your climate.