When we fall hard for a plant, we focus all of our desire on it. We vow to give it all it ever needs, even if we know it’s unsuited to our soil, our exposure, or our climate in general. We act unreasonably, but reason isn’t a part of the falling in love process.

We get the plant and we coddle it.  We acidify a few square feet of soil around it; we water every day into pure sand; we mix amendments in secret recipes and think we have the answer.  And, for a while it may do fine; but when we happen to see the same plant in its favored habitat it’s a bit of a shock to realize how poorly our little specimen is really doing.  A plant that is surviving is not necessarily thriving.

spider's web fatsia

Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ is surprisingly hardy to Z6b IF you’ve got it sheltered, shaded, and moist. If you don’t, it’s dead. Or looks like it should be.  I also call this cultivar “Spider Mite” and I’ll let you guess why. It’s a thin line between ‘striking’ and ‘strike out’.

So, what if we simply planted for the conditions we have?

Heresy!  Well at least to the rabid plant hounds out there who have confused love with acquisition. But I’ll say what other reasonable visitors to your garden might not be saying until they leave your garden and start to really dish the dirt in the comfort of air conditioning and privacy: However rarified, your plant doesn’t look it’s best.

Moreover, the subset of people who care that you just got a rare sedum to make it through another winter in deep shade is probably about 27. Nationwide. You most likely know 14 of them.

Figuring out what our conditions are and matching them carefully to the wealth of flora available to that climate not only increases our chances of success with the plants upon which we spent precious time and money, but it gives us a better understanding and appreciation of our gardens – allowing us to spend less time maintaining them and more time enjoying them.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help our plants to do well with better soil or slight environmental changes – it just means that we start with plants that match our overall conditions of soil, moisture, and exposure. Here are five ways to move towards that goal.

1. Look for the obvious

Your existing garden is already giving you hints. It’s time to pay attention.  For instance, if you notice that the Rodgersia in one part of your shade garden has gone bonkers, but it’s struggling in another area, and you’re not favoring the first with a hose, there’s a reason for it. You may have an underlying wet area that you should capitalize on with more moisture lovers like Ligularia.  Perhaps you have a gutter regularly overflowing into a bed and the situation is artificial and somewhat temporary.

Meanwhile it’s time to replace the struggling Rodgersia with dry shade tolerant plant like Rohdea instead.  No one needs to water all summer long.

Mahonia 'Marvel'

Figuring out what works and what doesn’t is almost always trial and error. It took two places in my garden to find a place where Mahonia ‘Marvel’ would thrive and flower well.

2. Change your perspective

Let go of what you think you have to have and embrace new possibilities.  If “garden” means a cool English spring and gentle summer to you, but you are gardening in what I like to term ‘MidAtlantic Jumanji,’ it’s time to start looking at good regional gardens to see how they cope with a fast, hot spring and a muggier summer. There are incredible plant combinations for every environment. Who needs Melianthus when you can have 12-foot hardy bananas?

3. Go native

Growing native plants has become extremely popular in recent years for good reason – plants native to your area are not only specifically adapted to your climate, but are intricately connected with the life cycles of native fauna.  A caveat however. Well, two.  Just because it’s a North American native doesn’t mean that it’s right for your particular micro-environment.  Research the plant’s preferred habitat as carefully as you would research exotic plants.

Caveat Number Two: In a changing climate, some of our regional natives aren’t keeping up.  You can wring your hands and treat your plants like a museum curator, or you can be flexible in your definition of native.

hydrangea quercifolia

Here’s one that keeps up brilliantly — Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’ – in fact, most of the H. quercifolia‘s available, I have yet to find one I dislike and I grow six. One of my favorite North American natives, and extremely adaptable to many garden conditions. Some light is necessary for good flower formation however.

4. Research native habitats

Understanding the native habitat of a plant can help you unlock its perfect growing ‘code.’  For instance: Calla lilies originate in the late winter/spring marshlands of South Africa.  They love that moisture.  But in the late summer and fall, those marshlands often dry up.  Consequently, some will respond with a period of dormancy.  Keeping them drier as your more temperate season cools might extend the life of the hardiest species in your garden.

5. Remedy construction destruction

New construction brings with it the challenge of reestablishing everything from soil structure to a general sense of place, but other factors such as moisture levels and exposure are easy to figure out from the beginning.  Work toward creating a new topsoil layer as you match new plantings to existing site conditions in soils that have been abused to breaking point.  If you’re not quite sure what those are, observe the remaining natural areas within your housing community to give you clues as to what was there before the bulldozers came.

Some factors in a garden are easily changed, but for others, you may be hitting your head (and your plant’s) against a brick wall. It’s so much easier, attractive, and friendlier to the planet if you capitalize on the strengths of your natural environment.