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Before You Start

Before you start choosing plants from the database you need to consider a number of issues relating to plants and design.

The rules of planting are simple: grow plants that are suited to your conditions: consider your climate, soil and local conditions. The importance of careful selection and placement of plants cannot be stressed enough. The number of plants available can initially seems bewildering, however, many will be inappropriate due, for example, to climate, scale, growth rate, or incompatible soil type. The choice is further reduced when you consider your own preferences for colour, shape, texture and of course a plants edibility and medicinal qualities.

Choosing unsuitable plants creates more work and often dead plants. For example, Mediterranean plants should be avoided if you live in a humid coastal climate and If you live in a dry inland zone avoid rainforest plants. The PFAF database will help you choose plants based on your local conditions and your preferences. Microclimates in your garden may allow you to grow plants that are not normally suited to the general conditions. See later in this article for more information.

The good news is that the PFAF database and website can guide you to making the right planting decisions. It can also help you to choose unusual or rare plants that you may have not considered before. Before you start it is good to know your site and to have considered what types of plants you should be searching for with your local conditions. More information on a gardens conditions are looked at in the next section along with how the PFAF's database and website can be used to match plants to place.

Site Orientation
Knowing the aspect of your garden, whether it faces north, south, east or west, will affect your design and plant choice. The sun at different times of the day can alter the areas of shade in a garden. The shade will differ in the winter as the sun is lower in the sky. In the temperate zone of the United Kingdom in general if the garden is:

North facing = dark, cold, damp
South facing = hot, dry, bright
East facing = sun in the morning, cold afternoons
West facing = cold mornings, hot afternoons

In the Properties section of the database search page you can choose to search for plants that thrive well in the correct sun/shade conditions


Winds can be highly destructive. Find the direction of the prevailing wind. Plant accordingly.

You can also choose to select plants that can withstand certain wind conditions:



Many plants will not survive frost and will die in the winter. Choose hardy plants if the temperature can drop below zero unless planting is for short term only, for example, vegetable annuals. Some half-hardy plants can survive in microclimates or if you give them protection over the winter. Microclimates i.e site specific sun, shade, wind orientation/degree of shelter/exposure allow for areas in the same garden to have a variety of growing conditions. Microclimates are not a problem if the correct plant is chosen for the condition. Microclimates can also be made by combining various structures, trees and large shrubs with aspect and prevailing winds. A garden wall will retain heat but can also dry out the soil at its base.




Consider the prevailing wind for example:

South west = wet, warm (physical and salt scorched damage)
North east = dry, cold, (cold scorched and physiological damage)

If you have a shady site plants that strive in low light levels will be more successful. For a sunny site choose plants that like sun - simple really! It is essential to place a plant in an area that satisfies its light requirements. If you have a wet area choose bog plants. This will limit your plant choice but the plants will thrive and you won't have to replace them when they die later.



Planting success is partly dependent on your soil. Important aspects include texture, structure, drainage and water-holding capacity, pH (acidity and alkalinity), and fertility. There are many good gardening books that cover simple techniques for testing soils

pH level
Checking your soil pH is always a good choice. Some plants grow well in acid soil, some in alkaline. An alkaline loving plant may die quickly if planted in an acidic soil. Test kits are available from garden centres and are cheap and easy to use.

The pH of a soil is measured on a scale between 1 and 14. The majority of plants prefer neutral soils of about 7. Azaleas, camellias, gardenias and rhododendrons are acid lovers preferring pH 5 to 5.5

pH scale 0 = acid, 14 = alkaline, 6.5 = neutral
pH7 = 10 x more alkaline than ph6
pH8 = 100x more alkaline than ph6
pH9 = 1000x more alkaline than ph6 etc




The texture of a soil is vital. Clay is usually extremely fertile as it holds nutrients well. However it excludes air and can become easily waterlogged. Sandy soil does not hold nutrients well but are well drained. Choose your plants for your conditions.
To determine the exact type of soil you have is a scientific process however you can get a good idea from a simple test at home.

  1. take half a cup of your soil
  2. add a little water and mix until there are no lumps
  3. drain excess moisture and form the soil into a ball in the palm of your hand
    clay = the soil will hold its shape. It is hard sticky and elastic, fine and smooth textured
    loam = the soil holds its shape but will easily break apart
    sandy loan = will fall apart easily and contains gritty grains when rubbed between the fingers
    loam sand = sandy easily broken


Determine species, see what you have and what is growing well. Count your blessings.

Decide on the type of habit the plant will have. Do you want a tree, an annual, a bulb, a perennial?





Talk to neighbours who garden successfully for ideas.

Can you wait or do you need immediate impact? Annuals are a good way to 'fill the gaps' while a garden is becoming established.



Choose the right plant for the position. A bad choice can mean 30 years of unnecessary pruning. Many plant species have smaller cultivars or varieties. Take into account its full hight and width that it will grow to (many books will give you a figure after 10 years this is NOT the ultimate height).




Height/canopies. trees etc that cast shade. Choosing a decideous tree will allow light into the garden/house during the winter when the leaves fall.


Plant roots can also affect structures damaging walls and floors

Age. trees will die silver birch = 80 years, oak 250 years, yew 1000 years. eucalyptus wind damage, shed branches


Go for what you like and what you want. The database properties section allows you to choose plants that for example, flower in the spring or lose their leaves in the winter (this is good if you want to get more light at that time of the year)





You can also choose plants by their use:












If you are unclear on any of the terms used the 'Help with these terms' link at the bottom explains what all the terms mean.

Right Plant Right Place
Choose plants that need less water/care Use native plants they have evolved well to deal with your local conditions and provide the right habitat for local wildlife. As a general rule indigenous natives can bring the most benefit and least harm to your local environment.




Now available: PLANTS FOR YOUR FOOD FOREST: 500 Plants for Temperate Food Forests and Permaculture Gardens.

An important new book from PFAF. It focuses on the attributes of plants suitable for food forests, what each can contribute to a food forest ecosystem, including carbon sequestration, and the kinds of foods they yield. The book suggests that community and small-scale food forests can provide a real alternative to intensive industrialised agriculture, and help to combat the many inter-related environmental crises that threaten the very future of life on Earth.

Read More



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