My style of gardening proceeds like an ongoing conversation between gardener and Nature. Here is how that conversation might go when choosing plants for a new garden.
If the gardener has enough experience to realize how important listening is to this conversation, the first step will be taking time to learn the site. Notice things such as soil moisture, water flow, sunlight exposure, wind exposure, and sand/clay/loam composition of the soil, some of which will change throughout the day or vary with the seasons. Also note which plants are already growing, and where. Think of this stream of information as Nature’s call-in radio show; you can find out more by asking questions.
Next, the gardener plants a wide range of plants. (Many gardeners skip that first step and start here, prolonging the conversation.) Varieties might be chosen based on aesthetic preferences as well as guesses about what might thrive in a particular location. I usually try two or three plants of each variety, and I plant them in different locations.
After the initial planting, Nature gets a turn to talk. It might respond in the following ways.
(1) A plant dies. This I often interpret as “Nyah, nyah, simple human.”
How to respond? Make an educated guess about why the plant failed, and make another guess about what might fare better there. If you really like the plant, you might try it somewhere else. If several plants die in the same location, I would think about adjusting conditions to make that site more able to support a wider variety of plants.
(2) A plant struggles. This could mean different things, from “Please put me out of my misery” to “I’m not sure I want to live here” to “Don’t rush me, I’m just settling in.”
It’s hard to make a decision without giving the plant time (and perhaps extra help) to adjust to its new location. If it’s a plant I’ve wanted to grow, I will try to distract myself elsewhere in the garden until the plant is clearly thriving or dying. When I can’t stand to see it limping along anymore, it must go.
(3) A plant produces new growth. Meaning, “Hooray, I’m home!”
You can then add more of the same to create drifts and echoes. You might also hunt down plants with similar needs and try them nearby. With experience, gardeners build lists of familiar plants that grow well in certain conditions and with certain companions.
This is just one of the processes of gardening, interactive and fairly slow, that leads a gardener down the path to creating a complex and satisfying landscape. Are you having this conversation with your garden?