top of page


An Introduction to Plants and Their Habits

The plants you choose determines your garden's survival. Different plant species grow best in different kinds of conditions. Some like wet, clay soil and some like dry, rocky soil. The sun helps some plants thrive while others prefer the shade. It's important to know what plants like, as well as how they can help you achieve the garden of your dreams.

If the Plant Fits

All plants have their preferred growing conditions and environmental needs. Over time, each plant species has adapted to survive, reproduce, and cohabitate with its surrounding environment. Use this to your advantage by picking from the plants that are adapted to the conditions of your yard. Read to learn how your yard helps determine what plants to choose and where to put them.

Hardiness Zones

"Hardiness" is a rating of the coldest temperatures a plan can endure. The US Hardiness Zones map divides the country based on the average annual low temperature. Pennsylvania is between zones 6 and 7. On many plant websites, the hardiness zone is often listed among the other plant characteristics. Knowing which hardiness zone you live in can help you choose plants that will survive and thrive in your yard.

Below is a 2015 hardiness zone map courtesy of the Arbor Day Foundation. 

(C) 2015 by the Arbor Day Foundation (R)

Sun, Shade, and Soil

Once you've determined your hardiness zone, you can start looking more specifically at the environmental conditions of your own yard. Like hardiness zones, understanding existing light, soil, and water conditions around your yard can narrow down the plant selection and help you choose the right plant for the right place.

Plants adapt to the environments they live in to maximize available sunlight and nutrients. Species growing in a community together develop different leaf shapes, root lengths, and nutrient requirements to decrease competition for resources. That's why you can't just put a plant wherever you want.

Look at Pennsylvania's state flower:

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia if you prefer Latin). In its natural habitat, this shrub grows in the forest understory. As the name suggests, it is often found on mountain slopes where the soil is sandy, acidic, and well draining.

We can now analyze why this plant grows best in these conditions (and why it wouldn't in others).

  • As an understory species, it is adapted to shadier conditions. So planting it in a sunny spot would expose it to too much light.

  • It grows on sandy, rocky slopes that have good drainage (meaning water does not sit in the soil for a long time). So, planting it in a poorly-drained area with clay soil may cause root rot and can prevent the plant from getting the water and nutrients it needs, as its roots are not adapted to deal with these conditions.


Fritz Florh Reynolds,

Ecological Value

It's not enough for a plant to be able to survive in an environment. For your garden to be ecologically successful, the plants you choose must become part of the local energy web. If native bees can use the pollen, caterpillars can grab a snack, butterflies can lay their eggs, and hummingbirds can slurp out some nectar, then that plant is part of the ecology of your home. That's really the whole point of using natives. They have developed relationships with other plants and animals in the area and thus support the continued existence of life.

STEP 2: Analyze Your Yard

Take your map outside on a clipboard and walk around your property. Are there damp areas? Areas that seem particularly shady or sunny all the time? Make note of that on your map by circling and labeling these different areas.


Dig up the soil, does if feel dry? Is it sandy and gritty, or more dense and sticky like clay? Or somewhere in between? Squeeze some through your hand and try to form a ribbon. A soil that stays in a ribbon has a high clay content.


If you know there are places around your property where water tends to pool or flow through when it rains, go ahead and identify those on your map too.

Because different areas of your yard may be exposed to the sun at different times of the day, you would ideally want to make a map at 8:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 6:00 PM. 

In general, look for these things when making your map:

  • Shady and sunny spots

  • The overall sun exposure of your yard

  • Wet and dry spots

  • The overall wetness of the soil


If you want to go that extra mile, zoom out a bit on your map and see what kinds of habitats are around you. With a little bit of research, you can find what might be growing in those areas and  incorporate some of the local plant communities in your yard!


A deep knowledge of local flora and fauna is certainly helpful in planning your native yard, but it's certainly not necessary. A basic understanding of your yard's conditions can be enough to put you on the right track.

Get Sketchy!

Step one on the road to planting a brighter yard is to observe the existing conditions of your yard. This simple activity will help get you acquainted with your yard which will, in turn, make it easier to choose the right plants and create a long-lasting garden. Remember that the conditions may vary across the property. The corner with the shady tree will support different plants than the sunny, exposed area next to the house.

STEP 1: Map Existing Conditions

Make a very rough sketch of the shape of your yard or print it off of Google Maps in satellite view. Take a note of which way points north.


Use a black marker to identify the property lines and existing structures like patios, fences, and buildings. Use a green marker to identify existing vegetation.

STEP 3: Learn More About the Soil

You can tell a lot about your yard conditions from observation, but to get an idea of what your soil pH is, you'll have to invest in a simple pH soil test kit. Knowing if your soil is acidic, basic, or neutral is helpful in plant selection because some plants do best in more acidic or basic soil. To get additional soil information, you can also go to Web Soils Survey and create a soils map of your property.


You can also do a percolation test to gain a better understanding of how your soil drains. To test how your yard drains, dig a hole one foot deep and one foot wide. Place a measuring stick in the hole to make sure it’s a foot deep. Fill up the hole with water once or twice to saturate the soil. Then fill it up again and watch how fast the water level drops. If it disappears quickly, within 5 or 10 minutes, you probably have sandy or loamy soil that drains well. If it takes over a day, your soil probably has lots of clay.

The More You Know,

The Better They Grow

In this section, you will read about some of the features of plants that can help make a design thrive. Understanding these basic plant characteristics will be useful in the next section, which discusses basic planting design concepts.

Seeding Up Appearances

 Plants are living organisms that grow and change, so its important to understand some basic characteristics and features so you garden is planned for the present and the future. Later on, you will read a little more in depth about how this informs your design.

Height and Spread

Plants grow. And designing a garden without knowing how plants grow can lead to over-grown and under-grown areas.

Growth Habit

The growth habit of a plant refers to its shape and how it spreads and propagates. A plant may be vase-shaped, stiff and upright, or spreading.

Bloom Time

For a garden that blooms from spring to fall, it's important to look at bloom time. 

Bloom Appearance

Flower heads have different shapes and textures. Some are daisy-like, spiky, or flat-topped clusters of many little flowers.

Seasonal Interest

There are lots of other interesting plant features besides the blooms. Many stems and leaves turn interesting colors in the fall and winter.

You can see some of the characteristics of the cardinal flower identified in the above drawing

Fancy Features

Environmental Tolerance

Drought, erosion, heavy shade, pollution, and constantly saturated soil can be barriers to success for many plants. Luckily there are plants out there that survive and even thrive in these conditions.

Pest Resistance

Some plants are resistant to garden eaters like rabbits and deer. It usually has to do with biochemical makeup of the leaf. But don't worry if you see a few bites taken out of your garden. It means it's part of the local ecosystem!

Black walnut Tolerance

Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) produce a substance called juglans that prevents many plants from growing close to the tree. If you struggle to find plants that can grow next your black walnut, try looking for species with this natural tolerance.

Erosion Control

A garden full of deep-rooting perennials can help battle erosion, even on slopes.

Growing for You

Rain Water Infiltration
Deep-rooting native perennials and shrubs improve water infiltration by slowing down runoff and mixing up the soil so it is less compact and water can more easily soak into the ground.
A vegetative screen from the neighbor's unsightly patch of turf doesn't need to be a row of arborvitate. Native evergreen hedges create a privacy screen while also supporting your fellow critters.
Wildlife Value
It's all about the birds and the bees. And the turtles, frogs, toads, salamanders, butterflies, and countless other critters that make homes in your garden. Native plants are great for attracting wildlife to your yard.

Pollinator gardens are a classic example of planting a yard with wildlife value.

Plants are beautiful! And more importantly, native plants are beautiful. The diversity of textures, colors, and blooms in a native garden creates a symphony of life right in your front yard.
Edible landscapes combine aesthetics and function into one delicious landscape. There are many native edible fruit and nut species that grow in the mid-Atlantic region.

What do want your garden to do? Plants offer many different functions for your new yard, including color, pollen and nectar for insects, habitat for local critters, privacy screening, and erosion control.


Think about the goals of your garden. When do you want it to bloom? Would you like to see color throughout all seasons? Plants have a lot to offer and give you the ability to tailor your garden to what you want. Make it your own! However, your amazing future garden won't be able to do everything that you want. Start with a few top priorities to keep from getting overwhelmed when it's time to start planning.

Write down in a notebook what your top priorities are for your garden's function. Focus on one to three main goals. Keep these in mind as you move forward into the plant-choosing and designing phase.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

 A Note on Nativeness 

What makes a plant native? That is a dangerous bear to poke in the various plant-related fields. For the sake of everyone's sanity and because this is just an undergraduate thesis, what is 'native' will be based on the definition proposed by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy in their book, The Living Landscape. This quote is verbatim because I could not say it any better.

A plant or animal that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient enough to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community.

What's Next?!

Hooray! You now know a little bit about plants and their mysterious ways. With these new thoughts in mind and your sketches in hand, you're ready to tackle basic planting design!
bottom of page