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:

  1. Use a ‘Job Description’ to create a short-list of suitable applicants
  2. Get to know your growing conditions, and
  3. 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:

  1. Responsibilities

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?

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

Image of Green Manure

From this job description, here are the selection criteria.

Essential Criteria

  1. Grow quickly
  2. Produce a dense ground cover
  3. Grow heaps of biomass
  4. Fix nitrogen in their roots

Desirable Criteria

  1. Seeds cheap and easy to obtain
  2. Plants are deep-rooted
  3. Plants have running growth form
  4. 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.Image showing cover of GrowMap - a publication from Learning from Nature

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.

illustration of easy to grow plant


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.


[1] Wendy Seabrook, 2019, GrowMap. Publ Learning from Nature.

Image Green Manure © UnconventionalEmma

    2 replies to "How to Choose Plants that Work- 3 Simple Steps"

    • Ely Summerfield

      Thanks Wendy, that’s a clever methodical way to find the right species. I guess with your criteria in mind you simply have to research on the web?
      Have you heard of Syntropic Agroforestry? I met a man at the Laura dance festival who sees it as the cutting edge of Permaculture, where it goes an extra step in integration where the actual farmer is an element of the system. I am very keen to learn more, but it’s main feature seems to be pruning heavily to massively build up organic matter. https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://m.youtube.com/watch%3Fv%3DgSPNRu4ZPvE&ved=0ahUKEwj2h4nTou_UAhXIgLwKHRcmCpAQwqsBCDowAQ&usg=AFQjCNFRsfOk81etCfoBlJYLVDmXx0Asdw

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Hi, Ely. Thanks! Yes you are right you can search on the web and elsewhere for species. And with your Selection Criteria you’ll save time by being more targeted.

        RE Syntropic Agroforestry – it’s encompasses some key ecological practices, like adding layers of vegetation to increase leaf area – nature’s solar panels. Prunning, cut and drop (a permaculture technique), and holistic grazing are all methods to feed our soil organisms with organic material. In cutting and dropping, we are mimicking the role of browsing animals. Without the faeces of course!
        Integrating the farmer as an element in the system makes sense however you are growing. We are animals and need energy and nutrients, just like other plants and animals. It’s the first Ecological Practice I teach in my courses – Recognise that humans are an integral part of the eco-system you manage.

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