Different plants, different habits Compatibility: Take into consideration such requirements as sunlight, fertilization and water before you put vegetables or flowers together in your yard.

November 17, 1996|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I am sometimes asked to define phrases that are pitched about with abandon by garden writers, but which can puzzle the ordinary reader. For example, what exactly is meant by the "plants of similar habit" which we are often admonished to plant together?

Plants of similar habit are those that need the same sort of treatment in the garden or yard. This is important because, while one plant may require much care and attention, fertilizing, staking, watering, spraying and weeding, another may actually suffer from such an abundance of pampering.

To discover whether your plants have similar habits you must be quite nosy about their likes and dislikes.

For instance, do they like to drink a lot? Are they prone to run the neighborhood at the first opportunity? Do they need a lot of fertilizer and rich soil or are they "lean eaters"? Are they sun worshipers or shade lovers? What kind of family background do they have? (You can see this is pretty personal stuff!)

Luckily, most good catalogs provide some of this information. Seed packets sometimes tell you more, but I find they are usually too brief to be really useful, and like horoscopes, often seem confusingly general in their application. Gardening books and plant encyclopedias, of course, will have more detailed information.

Some like it wet

Water requirements are of prime importance. Neighboring plants should need similar amounts of water. It becomes very aggravating for the gardener if one plant gets along fine in a drought with a deluge once a month (purple coneflower), while the one next to it needs constantly moist soil, but doesn't like getting its head wet (foxglove). The second will always require special treatment and a great many extra trips with the watering can.

Often, when preferences for water are wildly dissimilar, one or the other plant is apt to suffer more than thirst in the others' ideal environment.

Lavender, for example, does best in a fairly gritty, well-drained soil. In face, soil that is on the dry side, and not too rich in nutrients, is actually preferable. This is because lavender is a plant of the French Provencal region and is adapted to seasonal patterns of drought, wind, and short fierce winters in stony terrain. Too much water will not cause luxuriant growth, but root rot.

Snakeroot, cimicifuga racemosa, on the other hand, likes to stand with its feet in damp, even marshy, soil, constantly moist and rich in leaf mold. This replicates its native home in the bogs and seasonal flood plains of the forest edge.

Aggressive types

Another aspect to consider is the distinction between aggressive and nonaggressive plants. Let us be blunt: Many plants are space hogs. They will steal all the ground, water and nutrients they can.

With these, you must be very careful. It is fine to put them with others of their own temperment, and in fact I have a tendency to let such plants just fight it out among themselves. The code words in catalogs for these plants are: "vigorous," "spreads rapidly," "multiplies easily." Iris, mint, English ivy, hermerocallis fulva (the common roadside day lily) and lilies of the valley are good examples.

If you would have the gentler sorts of flowers, it is kinder to plant them in containers or separate beds where their requirements can be easily looked after without giving more invasive plants an unfair advantage. Roses are a case in point, as are pansies and snapdragons.

Sun and shade needs are two of the most critical divisions in habit. Most flowering plants require at least six full hours of direct sun per day if they are not to become tall and leggy and their flowers sparse and disappointing. Almost all popular annuals need "full sun," and most of the better-known perennials and flowering shrubs do, too.

Conversely, hostas, which are among the premier shade lovers, fare poorly in the sun. They can become sunburned and wither in a setting black-eyed Susans would revel in. It is far better to keep them with other shade lovers.

The many kinds of ferns, foxglove, impatiens or ground covers like vinca minor all make fine companions for hostas, as do the hybrid day lilies, which do nicely in dappled shade.

Fertilizer is another consideration. Some plants depend on a regular regimen of feeding and well-enriched, loamy soil to produce the showy blooms they are famous for. Cannas, dahlias, peonies and most annuals benefit from this high-octane treatment.

Lean feeders

Wildflowers, herbs and grasses are altogether different, however, especially once established. The best soil for these is a lean one. Well-drained ground, somewhat on the coarse or gravely side, rather than rich, damp loam, is what they need. With too much fertilizer they tend to slump over, or run all to root and leaf growth and not to flower production. Remember that the wild field and prairie are their natural home, in which they grow to perfection -- not the breeder's meticulously cultivated plot or the sheltered gardens of the gentry or cottager.

Plants should also have similar needs as far as being cultivated. Some don't mind having their roots disturbed by regular weeding, while others with shallow roots, such as azaleas and blueberries, are easily damaged. In the vegetable patch, for example, onions benefit from close cultivation to get rid of weeds, whereas tomatoes are better simply mulched, since many soil-borne diseases can be introduced by injuring their roots with a hoe or garden fork.

Finally, plants will do best if you think not only about the conditions that make up your garden, but how much time and space you can honestly expect to provide. Compatibility with the gardener's habits is important, too, perhaps most of all.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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