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Understand Your Conditions PDF Print E-mail

We’ve seen it happen time and time again: Enthusiastic gardeners arrive at the nursery or pull out their flower garden plant catalogue, fall in love with a plant, with high hopes tenderly place it in their garden and …

… watch it grow spindly, fail to flower, wither and die.

This happens because they’ve failed to pick the right flower garden plant for their conditions. Look at your yard. You probably have areas of:

  • sun and shade
  • sheltered and open spaces
  • moist and dry patches

We have a lot in common with plants. We’re all unique and prefer different living situations.

Whether you have a blank canvas or are redoing a former creation on your property, the following is a list of site issues you’ll need to consider for your planting plan.


There are two aspects of your soil that should be considered when planning your garden:

  • Moisture and Drainage
  • Fertility and pH balance

Before you buy seeds or transplants, or accept a cutting from a friend, you need to know what type of soil the flower garden plant prefers. If your soil doesn’t match up to the plant’s needs, either add what is necessary to your soil, choose another plant, or build a raised garden bed.

Here is a list of the types of soil drainage and their definitions:

  • ‘Well drained’ soil means that when you pour water over your soil, it disappears at a fairly good rate. The best rate is one inch per hour. This soil has a proper balance of clay, sand and organic matter and you can grow a wide variety of plants in it.
  • ‘Sharply drained’ soil dries out faster and will need to have water -retaining compost added unless you’re using drought-tolerant plants. Sandy soil is a type that drains sharply.
  • ‘Poorly drained’ soil, like the clay in our area, lose water at a rate of less than 1 inch per hour; this means that you’ll need raised planting beds, because the flower garden plant roots will drown (unless they are bog-loving plants). The potters here in North Carolina love all the clay soil, but it’s a headache for the gardeners.

Dig down 3 to 4 inches into your soil. If it feels moist but not wet there most of the time, you probably have 'well drained' soil. Soils that stay constantly wet and never dry out are moist soils, and those that dry out quickly are considered dry soils.

The pH of soil is how acid or alkaline it is.

The pH of your soil is important because it determines how much food, or nutrients, your flower garden plant roots will get.

Areas with plentiful rainfall, as in the East and Pacific Northwest, generally have acidic soils.

Less rainy areas like the West, have mainly alkaline soils.

If you want a flower garden plant that requires a type of soil that you don't have, or you don't know your soil's pH, don't chance it. Check with your county Cooperative Extension Service for the soil survey in your area or have your soil tested.

Unfortunately, you can't do much about your soil's pH without some effort. But if your wish list reminds you that your grandmother had a trellis covered with clematis (which prefers neutral to alkaline soil), and you are yearning to recreate that image around your garden gate, it's well worth the work.

If your soil is too acidic, you can raise its pH gradually by adding lime every year.

If it's too alkaline, lower the pH by adding organic matter or sulfur.

There are plants that survive in nearly every type of soil. Whether you're fond of them is another matter. If you're not, then prepare yourself to put effort and some of your budget into your soil...

...because your soil can make or break your garden.

If you're not sure yet how important your garden will be to you, start with smaller planting beds and work up gradually.

The two ways you can have the most impact on improving your soil's fertility and water retention are with:

Fertilizer - organic matter, or compost. New gardeners might first try buying bags of peat moss or dry cow manure, then work up to having a compost pile. It probably won't take you long to realize the benefits of making your own compost. It's a great way to reuse your yard clippings.

Fall is the best time to fertilize.

Mulch - plastic, rotted cow manure, pine needles, straw, grass cuttings, peat moss, and pulverized pine bark are a few of the most popular. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages so check with the supplier before choosing one.


The US Dept. of Agriculture has developed a map that divides the country into eleven 'hardiness zones' each of which experiences a different degree of coldness in winter. Then each of these zones has been divided in half to reflect the fact that one part of the zone has temperatures slightly cooler than the other.

The climate of California and the West is so complicated they have used more than 20 zones to determine best planting conditions.

Choose plants that grow in your zone or, in most cases, a zone of a higher number. All plant books and catalogues will show the zone for each plant. The plants at your local garden center most likely are hardy in your locale.

If you go on vacation in the mountains and bring a forest fern back to your yard, don't be surprised if it doesn't make it!

On the other hand, it's not uncommon to find several microclimates on a single property. Watch various sections of your garden for pockets of different temperatures. Lower areas can be cooler than higher ones.


Here is a list of the light conditions that plants can require:

Full sun plants need to go in areas that have at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day

Part sun or semi-shade plants will thrive where direct sunlight alternates with periods of shade, or where sunlight is filtered through something like a trellis overhead or tree branches.

Full shade plants want subdued light; under dense trees or in shadows cast by structures.

You'll need to watch how the sunlight hits your property at various times of the year, because as the sun changes position in the sky, the light received in different areas of your property will change.


If you live in an area that is prone to periods of drought, you can use irrigation but it will be less expensive and more environmentally friendly to garden with plants that are happy with less water.

Where lack of rainfall is a concern, local water utilities or county extension offices will have lists of drought-tolerant plants.

If you are planting in or near a marsh or alongside a stream or pond, you'll want to make sure you use plants that can tolerate more water.

Now that you understand the practical considerations for healthy plants, let's go on to one of the most fun aspects of planning your garden...