Know your yard – basics for plant shopping


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Shrubs and grasses




Nothing draws wildlife like a yard planted to suit their needs. Whether you’re going to develop a backyard woodland, prairie, wetland or savanna the basics are the same: add plants that provide food, shelter and nesting places. Don’t go shopping, though, before you have a plan and know the answers to the following:


Will the plant, tree or flower provide something useful for wildlife?

Sun and shade

On a sunny day, evaluate what parts of your property stay in the sun, in the shade or get some of both. Full sun is six to eight hours of sun. Part shade is two to six hours of sun. Full shade is less than two hours of sun.

Soil moisture and type

Some plants like it dryish or can even tolerate drought conditions, once they’re established. Others need various levels of moisture, from slightly wet to boggy. There are species that are fairly tolerant and others that are exacting about their soil and moisture requirements.

Do you know whether the soil in your yard is loamy, sandy, clay or rocky? Loam is best kind for most plants and you can make poor soil more loamy by adding compost, peat moss, and other organic matter. If you aren’t sure what you have, send a small soil sample to your state or local cooperative extension office. For a nominal fee, they’ll test it and make recommendations for any needed amendments.

Activity level

Some plants are very fragile and a playful dog or children can easily leave them in tatters. Plan to put delicate species where they’ll be protected.

Seasonal variety 

Include a variety of plants that flower or fruit at different times, so there’s at least some food available nearly year-round.

Hardiness zones

The US Department of Agriculture categorizes plants into hardiness zones of 5-degree increments.They range from Zone 1, which borders Canada and has the coldest temperatures, to the border of Mexico, Zone 11, the warmest. Two additional zones, 12 and 13 apply to Hawaii and Puerto Rico only, but can be used as a guide for house plants in any zone.

Colorful USDA hardiness zone scale showing zones 1a through 13b.

USDA Hardiness Zone scale. (© Oleksandr Khoma / Shutterstock)

Each zone is based on the lowest temperature that can be expected each year and serves as a guide to selecting suitable plants for your locale. They’re only a guide, however, as microclimates exist that allow seemingly unsuitable plants to survive. Microclimates are formed by hills, valleys, pavement, and other influences that affect such things as airflow, extremes of heat and cold, and sunlight. Your local county extension service can be invaluable regarding any microclimate you might live in and which plants will or will not do well there.

You’ll find a hardiness zone printed on most plants’ identification tag, such as “Zones 5–8.” Sometimes tags don’t express a range and, instead, will say something like “to Zone 5.” This means the plant is hardy in Zone 5 and all the warmer zones below it.

Native plants 

Use native plants. They’re hardier than most cultivars, more pest-resistent, and require less water and fertilizer. They’re also preferred by wildlife.

You can easily recognize a cultivar because it will have an extra word or two in its name. For instance, the Latin name for the Purple Coneflower is Echinacea purpurea. Cultivars of this species (and there are many) will have a third part to their name, such as Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ or ‘White Swan,’ which is denoted within single quotation marks.

Planting on a budget

Discount stores, hardware stores and others now often carry a large stock of plants at lower prices, sometimes even native varieties. Farmers’ markets usually have sellers who offer native plants you can’t find anywhere else locally. If necessary, you might consider substituting plants on your wish list with similar, but lower-priced, varieties. Look for sales. Shop online. Join an online garden group that shares plants or cuttings. Look for local groups that do the same thing.

More reading:

How to improve clay soil   
Native plants for clay soil    
Guidelines for collecting seeds