I can’t remember the number of times people have asked me for lists of plants. I don’t blame them. Even with resources on the internet, it can take hours of research before we are ready to choose plants that will grow well and do the jobs allocated to them.
Whatever project you’ve got planned – growing a commercial crop of salad greens, root crops, fruit trees, trees for cattle fodder, or using ecological support plants to tackle resource issues, it makes sense to choose plants that work.
Here are 3 simple steps to picking the best candidates for the job:
- Use a ‘Job Description’ to create a short-list of suitable applicants
- Get to know your growing conditions, and
- Select candidates that will do well in your growing conditions.
You’ll save time and avoid expensive mistakes!
Step 1 – Job Description
Put together a job description using the following criteria:
What job(s) do you want your plants to do? For example, provide salad greens even when the weather gets tough or ecological services like fixing nitrogen and nectar for pollinating insects?
- Useful skills
What additional skills would be helpful? For example, plants that readily self-seed or grow nasty prickles to keep out the neighbour’s cats?
- What do you not want your plants to do?
Initially, we only thought about using nitrogen-fixing plants to grow living mulch under our fruit trees. This was a mistake as one of the legumes was more trouble than it was worth. It climbed all over the trees! We shouldn’t have been surprised. LabLab (Dolichos Bean) is vigorous, with a strong preference for upward mobility!
Had we done a job description, inability to climb would have topped the selection criteria. Any plant with a preference for climbing is not suitable for growing with young fruit trees or anywhere there’s a potential climbing frame!
Example Job Description for a Green Manure Crop
The job of green manure is to protect and feed the soil ecosystem, and keep out undesirable plants. Therefore, green manure plants need to quickly grow heaps of biomass and a thick ground cover. Although not essential, additional useful skills could include being deep-rooted to improve the soil structure and bring up nutrients.
From this job description, here are the selection criteria.
- Grow quickly
- Produce a dense ground cover
- Grow heaps of biomass
- Fix nitrogen in their roots
- Seeds cheap and easy to obtain
- Plants are deep-rooted
- Plants have running growth form
- Plants all reach maturity at approximately the same time
Would you have thought of the last two criteria?
Growing plants that spread over the ground, we need less seed. When I used millet, it reached maturity long before the other plants, set seed and grew prolifically amongst my next crop of veggies.
Step 2 – Get to know your Growing Conditions
How well do you know your growing conditions?
Understanding your conditions and choosing plants that do well in these conditions is your roadmap to growing plants that look after themselves.
Yet, it’s not something we commonly do. Many people worry about not having the skills and time, but you don’t need to dive deep, get tied up in knots, and spend days recording stuff! It’s unnecessary, and if you’re anything like me – you have too many other things to do…
there are many resources available to help you get to know your growing conditions. But we think they are overly complicated and take too long to do!
That’s why we developed the GrowMap – a rapid site assessment technique.
Step 3 -Choose Plants that will grow well in your conditions
For the shortlisted candidates, check which ones will thrive in your conditions. Most species are reasonably fussy about where they live. If your conditions (soil, shade, drainage, etc.) don’t meet the needs of the plants you select, 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 – directories covering topics from tropical forages, pasture grasses, and legumes, to cultivars of food crops. You can even search some online plant directories specifying your climate and other growing conditions.
 Wendy Seabrook, 2019, GrowMap. Publ Learning from Nature.
Image Green Manure © UnconventionalEmma