It pays to research your garden before visiting the plant nursery.

It pays to research your garden before visiting the plant nursery. Credit: Getty Images/Westend61

When it comes to choosing plants we'll actually be able to maintain, most of us are making the same mistake: We pick out the plants we want before we consider the conditions in our backyard. But if we're not sure what type of soil we have or how much sunlight the space gets, those plants might not have a chance of surviving.

Here are a few general rules to to consider before heading to the nursery.

Check the soil

Take a look at your soil. After a heavy rain (or if you leave a sprinkler running), does it dry out after a couple of days or stay wet for a while? Plants that like it on the dry side (like lavender) sulk when their roots stay wet. Plants that don't like it dry will look wilted and fade if they don't get to drink enough. Knowing what the soil does is one piece of the puzzle — the other is having a realistic sense of how much you want to water.

Enriching the soil before planting can help plants thrive. Look for a high-performance organic option. The right premium potting soil can double your yield of flowers, vegetables and herbs, compared to unfed plants. If you're not sure which potting soil is best for the plants you have in mind, check with your local greenhouse.

Consider the sunlight

Check whether the plant will survive in your hardiness zone, then consider the sunlight your yard, patio or deck receives. Is the spot sunny all day long, or just in the afternoon? Does it get morning light, but then is in full shade the rest of the day? Once you've observed the sunlight, choose plants that thrive in full sun, partial shade or full shade.

If you accidentally place plants in the wrong spot, keeping them healthy will be an uphill battle. Putting shade-dwelling plants in a hot, sunny spot results in yellowing leaves that have brown, crispy edges. Placing sun-lovers beneath a tree prevents them from blooming. It also makes them grow tall and leggy and more vulnerable to disease and pests.

Assess the space

Before buying, pay attention to the plants' mature size and know how much space you have to fill. What looks like the perfect plant now might become a burden if it grows too big and you have to prune it back every month just to use the sidewalk or see out your windows.

Be realistic about time

Some plants need more maintenance than others, so be honest about how much time you're willing to spend taking care of them. For example, varieties like purple coneflower need deadheading to keep producing new flowers and to prevent an overabundance of seedlings. They grow fine without this kind of biweekly maintenance, but they don't look as good and create more work later on when you have to pull dozens of baby plants that threaten to crowd out other plants.

Do your research

The number of plants available at your local garden center can be dizzying. It can help to go with a list. If you don't have time to do extensive research on the plants you want ahead of time, at least jot down the traits that are important to you. For example, you could list something like purple-flowering perennials that attract butterflies and have fragrant flowers.

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