When “right plant right place” goes wrong…


A garden that accommodates change

The catchy phrase “right plant, right place” has gone viral in the gardening world, and it makes me groan. If these words referred only to choosing a plant suited to the site, soil  and regional climate, I’m good with it, but it also seems to imply more. It is often taken to mean that a carefully planned garden gets to an ideal state of maturity, where you live happily ever after.  

This idea that plants thoughtfully sited never become the “wrong plant” is misleading.  Go figure, plants have this crazy tendency to keep growing, or perform differently than predicted. As friends of mine often say, “plants can’t read labels.” Anyone who has gardened a number of years has been made painfully aware that plant tags lie, and they lie about many things, but especially about size.

Dwarf viburnum

I’ve heard lame statements from a few nurseries, such as “Well, sure, you have to prune it to keep it that size.” Shoot, I could prune a willow oak to stay four feet tall if I wanted to keep after it. Or, “That’s an average height for the number of years the average homeowner stays in a house.” Yet I read that the average number of years a person stays in a house is thirteen, and some of these plants have grown twice the height stated on the label in three, four or five years, so nope.

Also, are we saying that it’s just too bad for those people who are in the house after we’re gone? The unselfish side of me does not wish overgrown plants on the new stewards of this landscape, and the egotistical side of me stings to think of the disparaging remarks made by those new owners concerning the stupid decisions of the previous gardener (me).

Limbed-up boxwood

…and how dare we not be “average”? I’m working hard on my health so I can be that cantankerous old lady that hasn’t the good sense to move to assisted living. I hope I die in this landscape, a quick death, say 30 years hence. I can see it now, tripping over a hoe at a high-speed hobble and taking a header into the corner of my concrete block raised beds. I hope the vultures find my body and scatter it over the valley before any human beings take note of my absence.  

Of course, I’ve been around long enough to be wary of advertised plant sizes, but inexperienced gardeners are likely to be duped by plants labelled “dwarf” or “compact”. It is true they may have a tighter habit, or get too large at a slower pace, but get too large is what they do, all of them, eventually. I’ve stared up at dwarf yaupons taller than I by half. I’ve seen many a dwarf Burford holly limbed up to form lovely small trees 15 to 20 feet tall!

Paper bark maple shading a porch

Sometimes these overgrown plants are so awesome (or difficult to move) that a gardener elects to make accommodations for the unexpected amplitude. Has it thrown shade over a once sunny site? Move those sun-loving plants to a more favorable site and substitute with shade-lovers. Is it crowding a walk or blocking a window? Remove lower growth until it arches over the walk or the window.

This oakleaf hydrangea grew tall enough to form an arbor

There are a few woody plants that actually stay the forecast height. These are plants that reach the predicted vertical span and then begin to grow sideways. Some of them have a single trunk that sprays radially into horizontal growth. ‘Crimson Fire’ Burgundy loropetalum and Japanese plum yew ‘Prostrata’ are examples. Others set out on their horizontal journey via rhizomes or stolons. Sweetbox, Sarcacocca hookeriana var. humilis comes to mind for shady areas. A few nandinas also do this, such as ‘Pink Blush’ and ‘Lemon Lime’, which are fruitless so will not reseed. Spreading slowly from root zones can eventually become its own problem, so site accordingly, preferably contained by surrounding walks or patio, or once again, you are looking at a plant that has “gone wrong”.

I have one last beef about the “right plant, right place” mantra. I have grown to dislike the entire concept of a garden that sticks to a plan. Our needs change, our visions shift as we are exposed to inspiring and creative ideas. It’s not just okay to change our minds. It’s desirable. If my landscape ever got to a “perfect” composition and froze there, I would soon find it just as boring as a silk flower arrangement.

We change our minds frequently when it comes to our homes. We change our flooring or wall color, or add exciting fabrics. We knock down walls to combine rooms. We expand doorways, enlarge windows and change furniture. Consider how you’ve changed your own look through the years to accommodate new styles,  changing body,  and needs for comfort and self-expression. Why are we not as free-thinking and open to change when we talk gardening?

Looking back, I found I was intimidated when I first began to study garden design. I was told not to put a plant in the ground until I had a plan committed to paper. I heard with dismay I was not to ever buy a plant until I knew where it would go in the landscape. Sure, I’ve grown smart enough to know that certain plants require that “right place” to survive, but cultural needs aside, there are likely to be many plants that can flourish in that place as I continue the grand experiment of gardening. It is likely there will be many “right plants” in that place over the years.  

A beautiful changing garden

I remember the relief when I finally ran across a quote that spoke to my heart and set me free of the anxiety imposed by the idea that I had to get it right the first time. Maybe a reader can help me out on the author of this liberating concept, but it ran something like “Every great garden has been in the wheelbarrow three times.”

That turned me loose, because it’s factual. Gardens are ephemeral works of art, and change is part of the charm. Right or wrong, plant or place, I’ve given myself permission to get out there and garden by the seat of my dirty pants.

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Carol Reese

Carol Reese is an Extension Horticulture Specialist housed at the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Jackson. She is a nationally-known speaker, blending equal parts gardening knowledge, natural lore, and quirky humor.

Carol is the gardening and nature columnist for several newspapers, as well as a contributor to several gardening magazines. She was the Q&A columnist for Horticulture Magazine for several years.

Her B.S. and M.S. in Horticulture are from Mississippi State University, and she could also add her Ph.D. if she “had ever written that damn dissertation!” While there, she taught classes in Plant Materials, and co-taught Landscape Design for non-LA majors alongside a “real” landscape architect.

She attributes her love of horticulture to being raised on a farm by generations of plant nuts, including a grandfather who dynamited his garden spot each spring to “break up his hard pan”. Carol’s very personal appreciation of natural lore is at least partially a result of her near daily rambles through the wild areas near her home with her motley collection of mutts, also known as the strong-willed breed of “Amalgamations.”



  1. “Every great garden has been in the wheelbarrow three times.” Let this be my epitaph. That sizes up our garden. Rose wonders why I am constantly rearranging plants like deck chairs. Thank you, Carol.

  2. Its always been my understanding of this phrase (one which I admittedly think is good advice that I first heard from the esteemed Beth Chatto, followed quickly by Monty Don) is simply a catchy phrase to help new or unsure gardeners make choices that won’t immediately fail them- nothing more! No implication of happily ever after, no promise of a static garden or one free from failures. Yes, change and evolution (and learning from mistakes) is great for those of us well invested and who enjoy the process of gardens, but for novices, failure (especially immediate failure) can be enough to turn them away from gardening- if a simple phrase like this helps folks have enough success to be excited for future changes in the garden, then its a great phrase by me.

  3. Thank you for this jolt. I feel so much better about my decision to let friends in the country adopt a beautiful Japanese maple that has grown beautifully in a container on my balcony but has become abusive. Its best-looking branches slap me in the face every time I edge by. I can spend the winter feeling less guilty as i dream about her replacement.

  4. I think the article misses the point of the concept of Right Plant, Right Place – which is fundamentally about plant origins and understanding the specific growing conditions of the many microclimates in one’s own garden. Matching those things, or coming close, allows a plant to thrive with less coddling on the gardener’s part – this particularly makes a huge difference to beginners. It’s NOT about finding the ‘perfect plant’ that will never outgrow it’s space or eventually bore the owner to tears, or indeed never be moved.

  5. I’ve never been fond of right plant right place, actually wrong plant wrong place might be more useful. I have a horticulture degree, but I an very willful about buying plants and putting them wherever I like. And when I don’t like, they get moved like a piece of furniture. Sometimes several times, and occasionally to a new person or to the compost. Experiment is good, just don’t plant running bamboo in the rose bed.
    bonnie in provence (who has a boxwood tree about 15 feet tall)

  6. Ha ha!! You have written so elequently what I only say in my head. Birds and squirrels have planted my landscape and I just edit. Do publish when you’ll be speaking in SC again, my dirty friends need a good day of laughter. We old gardeners never die, just spade away… hopefully as you described.

  7. Right plant, right place, plant and forget! Is that your message?
    I have Japanese hollies planted more than 50 years ago, that I maintain at circa 30 inches.
    I have Rhododendrons that I maintain at four feet.
    If I had a dwarf viburnum I could maintain it at 2-3 feet.
    Okay, I’ve made mistakes. My biggest one is planting too closely, but then I would only havehalf theplants.

  8. Don’t you just love the idea that before someone (maybe Beth Chatto, maybe someone earlier than that) said ‘right plant right place’ people were all putting in plants totally randomly?
    As if….

    • You’d be surprised what you hear when you are working Master Gardener hotlines or even helping a family member or friend who isn’t a gardener but wants a pretty space— my mom has more than once planted things (that she loved and wanted to grow) on her patio that were doomed from the get-go because the conditions weren’t right!
      I think many of us (judging by the comments so far) forget that this sort of advice isn’t really for experienced gardener but rather for newbies and those confused by what they want to plant vs what will grow/thrive in that space, and those that have struggled in the past. Just because the advice no longer applies to oneself doesn’t mean its bad advice for someone else.

  9. Seeing the different readings of “right plant, right place” is enlightening. I have always applied it to understanding the ultimate size and shape of trees and large shrubs. There it is critical, as planting a willow oak under a power line on a street means it is doomed to be butchered or removed. Knowing the ultimate size of a tree such as an American beech means you can plan different gardens around it as it grows, since you most likely won’t see its ultimate size. I have always seen perennials as more mutable and anticipate moving them as the garden changes as trees and shrubs mature and conditions change.

  10. “I was told not to put a plant in the ground until I had a plan committed to paper.”

    I first dug up the narrow turf along the end of our suburban house and set a path of cobblestones. I then looked at it, and realized that my eyes zipped along that straight line and slammed into the back fence. Looked good on paper, but it was better with its winding second version.
    Then I realized that I was amending the pure sand with so much compost that it would be piled up against the house and the neighbor’s fence. So I changed again and started making raised beds, which did add interest and help controlling certain ground covers. I then planted a dogwood which had been poorly sited (twice before!) and it’s doing well. This was all in the first ten feet of the garden.
    Ten years later the garden has replaced the 80% of lawn intended to be gardened, and my wife is making “suggestions”. Granted, they’re good ones, but as they say, with age comes wisdom, and also sore backs. As soon as I dig those five post holes for the espalier frame for our new dwarf (YMMV) fruit trees, I’ll be done with the hardscape. That first ten feet? I just redid it *again* so my mother-in-law can navigate it in her wheelchair.

  11. What is this thing you write of – plan committed to paper? The only garden plans I have committed to paper is the location of buildings, fences, utilities (above & below ground), etc. I’ve been known to wander about plant in one hand, shovel in the other. Sometimes with the same plant every 2-3 years.

    As to the original topic, I guess I always thought of “right plant, right place” as more a caution to pay attention to what the plant needs for light, water & soil to survive. Or what it loves when the labels say “can be vigorous…” As to size, I keep hearing the old woman from Princess Bride when reading labels. Tiger Eye cut leaf sumac WILL grow to 12-15 feet tall and wide, and WILL sucker, contrary to what the label says. Liar! Liar!

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