How to choose plants for your garden

Is your garden north or south facing, or does it feature lots of room for beds and borders? Follow our advice on how to select the best plants to suit the space

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Choosing plants is one the most important steps in any new garden design – or a dramatic garden transformation. Which plants you choose for your garden will depend on many factors, from the orientation of your garden to its size and soil type, as well as your own preferences. From stylish container gardens grown on patios or balconies to romantic cottage gardens, every type of garden will benefit from a well executed planting scheme, and whatever your vision for your garden, there plants that can help you achieve the exact effect you want. In this guide, we cover all the practical points you will need to consider to get started on your planting scheme. 

Start by assessing your outdoor space

Start with a tape measure, piece of paper and a ruler and measure up the size of your garden. This is a really important first step to allow you to make decisions about scale, furniture, pots and areas for hard standing and lawn. Once you’re happy with your garden design and have a to-scale plan of where you want your beds and borders to be and at what size, you can then quantify these to enable you to place accurate orders when buying plants.

Lavender

(Image: © Thompson & Morgan)

Which type of soil do you have?

There are some simple things you can do just by looking around your plot. If rhododendron and camellia grow well in your neighbourhood, then the likelihood is that your soil is pH neutral to acidic, so look out for plants that have this information on the label. You can also buy simple pH test soil kits in most good garden centres, which are easy to operate and provide useful information to base your planting scheme around.

Loose soils that do not hold together in your hand are generally sandy, while those that clump together are clay. Once you know what your soil type is you can select plants with more knowledge and be confident that they’ll grow well. When designing a garden, always remember the mantra of ‘right plant, right place’. Spend time selecting your plants carefully; reading labels and thoroughly research plant/soil type suitability, and you will be rewarded.

Rhododendron-istock

If you can see rhododendron growing in neighbouring gardens, there’s a good chance your soil type will be perfect for the plants too

North-facing vs south-facing gardens

Work out the aspect of your plot and consider the following plants for your space:

North facing:

Hydrangea petiolaris, Sarcococca confusa, Mahonia vars, Liriope muscar, Hosta vars.

South facing:

Agapanthus Headbourne Hybrids, Allium vars, ornamental grasses, Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’, pelargoniums, lavender, and poppies.

West- or east-facing: 

These gardens can usually accommodate most plants, as they provide enough sunlight without getting as hot as south-facing gardens. So, get creative with a mixture of all the above.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp Photography)

Choosing plants for shady areas

There is light-dappled shade and pitch-dark shade – and every level of shade in between. Plants that do well in light shade are more common that you might think; hydrangea, viburnum, paeonia and even some roses. Plants for dense heavy shade are much more difficult and often not as exciting; aucuba, vinca, ferns and hosta are all worth considering – they’ll give the space plenty of greenery and substantial ‘body’, as some can be quite large.

Often shade goes hand in hand with dryness, as large trees take up lots of water and nutrients so shady areas can take longer to establish, so patience is vital.

Evergreen vinca spring carpet with blue flowers.

Great for areas that are heavily shaded for most of the day, vinca will add structure to your planting scheme throughout the year

Choosing plants for sunny – and hot – patios

Sun-loving plants outnumber shade-loving ones in garden centres as they tend to be those that have the most colour. The world is almost your oyster here if you’re lucky enough to have a garden that benefits from sun all day. Look out for lavandula, salvia, penstemon, roses, verbena and herbs, which all like sun.


(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

How to create a successful planting scheme

Always bear the rule ‘right plant, right place’ in mind; also, plant in bulk numbers for maximum impact. Group plants in threes or fives or if you have more room multiples of odd numbers to create broad swathes of colour. Don’t be afraid to fill gaps in beds with plants and flowers – the most beautiful beds, borders and pots are teaming with colour and interest.

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

Create year-round interest with evergreens

Gardens that look good in the winter will only look better in the summer. Think of green as a colour in its own right and embrace it as your winter backdrop. A high percentage of evergreen plants will provide a backbone for your scheme. Evergreens also will act as foils to summer colour and provide a feeling of a well-established plot. Plants such as cornus that have colourful winter stems are good too. When the warmer spring and summer months arrive, look to update beds, baskets, pots and troughs with seasonal flowers, and plant spring bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils in winter for a nice boost of colour in early spring.

topiary of the garden

Add structure, character and a focal point to your garden with box plants and topiary – have fun with shapes or go for a uniform, formal design with multiple versions

Choose visually appealing, low-maintenance plants

Topiary is remarkably low maintenance and box plants only really need clipping once or twice a year. Choose these as easy-to-care-for options that add visual drama and interesting focal points, that will also form a good sound backdrop to any planting scheme. Also, if you tend to forget to water your garden, choose plants that are comfortable without being watered too often – lavender and pelargoniums are a great choice, as well as shamrocks. If you are a beginner, you may choose to hold off growing roses, as they are notoriously high-maintenance. 

(Image: © Leigh Clapp)

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