Wouldn’t it be wonderful to choose plants that you know will be 100% suitable for the job?
Whether you are growing salad greens, root crops, fruit trees, or using plants to provide ecological services,[i] – it makes sense to choose plants that thrive in your growing conditions and get the job done.
We do this by:
- Getting to know our growing conditions using the GrowMap
- Choosing plants that meet all the selection criteria in our job description!
- Checking that these ‘short-listed’ plants will thrive our growing conditions
How to choose plants
Whatever project you’ve got planned, it is usually not hard to find lists of plants. However, this is not the best way to select plants. It’s equivalent to selecting a person for a job before you’ve sat down and sorted out what skills are needed!
Writing a job description is the best way. It doesn’t take long, and you’ll come up with selection criteria making a big difference to the success of your project.
Think through the following:
What job(s) do you need the plants to do? For example, do they need to produce an income, or provide ecological services like fixing nitrogen and food for pollinators?
2. Useful skills
Would additional skills be helpful? For example, easy to grow and deep-rooted?
3. What you don’t want them to do
When we first grew living mulch under our fruit trees, our only thought was to grow nitrogen-fixing plants. This was a mistake as one of the plants we used was more trouble than it was worth. It wanted to climb all over the trees! We shouldn’t have been surprised. LabLab (Dolichos Bean) is a vigorous legume, with a strong preference to being upwardly mobile rather than crawling across the ground! With a job description,‘ inability to climb’ would have topped our selection criteria. Any plant with a partiality for climbing is not a suitable candidate for growing with young fruit trees, or anywhere there’s a climbing frame!
4. Will the plant do well in your growing conditions?
Most species are reasonably fussy about where they live. For the candidates you have short-listed, find out which ones will thrive in your conditions. If your growing conditions (soil, shade, drainage, etc.), don’t meet the needs of the species you have selected, they won’t grow well and you won’t get the job done.
Finding information on the preferred growing conditions for plants isn’t hard. Neighbours, local farming and seed saving groups, seed merchants, and agricultural advisory services usually have a lot of experience to share. There is also plenty of excellent information on the Internet – websites on livestock breeds, directories of plants covering topics from tropical forages, pasture grasses, legumes, to cultivars of food crops. You can even search some online plant directories specifying your climatic and other environmental conditions.
Example Job Description for Green Manure Crop
The job of green manure plants is to protect and improve soil, and reduce the growth of undesirable plants. They therefore, need to grow fast, produce masses of plant biomass to increase organic matter levels in the soil and rapidly produce a thick ground cover. With a dense cover of green manure plants, undesirable plants (weeds) find it difficult to germinate and grow in the low light levels underneath the green manure crops.
Additional, though not essential skills, could be to grow deep roots to till the soil and pull up nutrients and produce flowers attracting beneficial insects.
Lacy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) is a popular green manure species, native to the arid southwest region of the USA and Mexico.
From this job description, I put together the following selection criteria:
- Grow quickly
- Produce a dense ground cover
- Grow heaps of biomass
- Able to fix nitrogen
- Seeds easy to obtain and cheap
- Grow less than a specific height
- Grow deep roots
- Running growth form
- Set seed about the same time
Would you have thought of the last two criteria? Using running plants saves money because we need less seed to get a good ground cover. I didn’t think about the need for my plants to set seed about the same time when I grew my first green manure crop. The millet seeded early and I had it coming up amongst my next crop of veggies.
Now you know how to choose the best plants for the job!
[i] Using ecological approaches to regenerative farming and gardening we rely less on fertilisers, pest controls and other ‘trademarked’ products, and more on the ecological services provided by our plants, livestock, and the other natural resources to improve our soil and other growing conditions.