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Eye on Ag: Plant selection and spacing

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Before coming to work for North Carolina Cooperative Extension I worked in the retail nursery industry. I enjoyed helping customers pick out that perfect plant for that perfect spot, although the process was sometimes tedious.

After asking them how much sun the area got, what time of day the area received the most sun, is the area protected during the winter, and how much space do you have for the plant to grow, I am sure the customer felt like they were being quizzed rather than shopping for their perfect plant.

Although the answers to all these questions are important to the performance of your plant for years to come, the question I will address in this article is “How much space do you have for the plant to grow?”

It is difficult to imagine a 3-5-year-old plant in a 3-7 gallon container ever reaching the height and spread that it is projected to reach. As a result, many times the plant is located in a space that fits its size when purchased, with no regard to its potential size at maturity. Before buying a plant, measure the space you have for it to occupy at its maturity and choose a plant that will fit within that space. Do not forget to look up when determining plant space. You do not want the utility company to prune, or worse, remove plants for you.

It is wise to research a plant’s potential size beyond the tag specifications. Tags often generalize plant sizes and can give 100-200 percent margins of error. Use reliable sources such as university or “edu” websites, reputable nurseries and plant reference books/publications by researchers when gathering information about plants. A more enjoyable way to research plant sizes is to visit an arboretum or public garden to see plants that have been planted for a number of years and measure how big they have grown.

If you buy a new construction or any property that has an existing landscape, the plants often have spacing issues already. In order to prevent overgrown landscapes in this situation find out what plants are in the landscape, including cultivars. It is often not sufficient to know that a plant is a crape myrtle because size can vary greatly depending on the cultivar of the crape myrtle.

For example, “Victor” is a crape myrtle cultivar that matures at a height of 5-6 feet whereas the cultivar “Natchez” matures at a height of 35-40 feet. Other plant species can also vary in size depending on the cultivar. You may need to decide which plants to keep and which plants to remove if they are not going to fit in the space allotted for them at maturity. Remove or transplant plants that you know are going to outgrow their space sooner rather than later. This will save you time and money when they are too large for you to remove and you need to hire a professional.

The most famous last words of someone who really likes a plant that will not fit in the space they have for it is “I will keep it pruned.” This statement may be true and you may keep the plant pruned, but at what cost to the overall look and health of the plant? Generally, you should not need to prune a plant, for size control, more often than once every five years. Consider pruning when you purchase your plant — not when your plant needs to be cut halfway back because it outgrew the space. Avoid the financial and emotional loss of that perfect specimen plant that must be removed because it grew too large.

I hope these suggestions of choosing the perfect plant for your landscape will be helpful the next time you need a plant for that special location or just need to fill a space in your landscape. Until next time.

Johnny Coley is an N.C. Cooperative Extension agent serving Granville and Person counties.