Choosing and using ornamental plants



The fun part in gardening, after all the backbreaking soil preparation, is choosing the appropriate plants for your garden. There’s a wide variety of ornamental plants to choose from and you will only be limited by your budget, garden design or theme, and of course, space.

I enjoy going to garden centers or stalls to browse at the many different plants and trees on sale. But just like regular shopping for clothes and other stuff, you have to be careful not to buy on impulse. It’s also like food shopping: don’t buy hungry—in this case, don’t buy without a garden plan.

This means asking yourself questions like what do you want your garden to look like? What will be its use? How much sun will it get? Also, quite important is ask, do you have time to take care of all those plants (low- versus high-maintenance)? Answers to these will be very important in knowing which plants to buy or grow.

For gardeners who are just starting out, santan and rosal are the easiest flowers to grow and maintain PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR

Before lifting that trowel, take out your gardening books to get a basic background on garden design and Philippine ornamental plants. For the latter, I rely on A Pictorial Cyclopedia of Philippine Ornamental Plants (second edition) by Dr. Domingo Madulid, a scientist with the Botany Division of the National Museum. It’s an impressive pictorial book of locally available plants, organized by family, but there’s a useful index in the back of the common local and English names.

For general gardening information, I scour Book Sale, the second-hand bookstore. You will find here books that are written for an American or British audience, but they will still be useful, especially the sections on garden planning, design, construction, and other do-it-yourself works.

In choosing and using plants, veteran gardeners advise awareness of scale, form, shape and color

In choosing and using plants, veteran gardeners advise awareness of scale, form, shape and color

Information on care and maintenance of plants from the foreign books will only be useful in a general sense, but over time (and gardening experience), you will be able to tell which gardening tips and advise are useful for the Philippine setting.

In choosing and using plants, veteran gardeners advise awareness of the following: scale, form, shape and color.

Scale means looking at the plants and considering how they will complement your house, which should serve as your anchor structure; the form and shapes of plants, meanwhile, will determine their placement and positioning in the garden; and color is a boon for the eyes, a welcome break from the monotony of greens.

A standard styling for plants is to group them together in a selected spot in the garden. You will see this in most commercial landscaped areas. There will be two or three medium-sized shrubs or small trees, and just a drop down but still part of the group, will be the softer shrubs that are usually trimmed to keep them small.

Bright yellow candle blooms

Bright yellow candle blooms

The most popular plants nowadays for this kind of arrangement are Eugenia oleina tree (syzygium myrtifolium), which has shiny red and green leaves; Bottle brush, with delicate yellow leaves that remind you of a droopy pine; and Durante erecta, which has small lavender flowers and little globes of orange-colored fruit.

For the smaller plants for your groupings, you can use Fokkien tea, Mayana plant (this comes in various colors), Hurusawa, Cuphea or false heather, and any other low shrubs or semi-woody plants.

For my grouping, I wanted to have a ficus tree but the plant seller didn’t have any and offered me instead the Eugenia, which seems to be the in vogue plant nowadays because of its adaptability. Its striking colors will remind you of autumn leaves, and if you shape it like a cone, it can look like a Christmas tree.

For smaller plants, use low shrubs or semi-woody plants like the Cuphea or false heather

For smaller plants, use low shrubs or semi-woody plants like the Cuphea or false heather

When buying this plant, though, watch it in the initial stage, as it is prone to disease. Many plants of this kind are reportedly grown in hothouses in Bulacan, and when they come out of their sheltered condition, they are immediately susceptible to pests of various kinds. Be ready with your organic spray, fertilizer, and regular watering of the roots (not the leaves). In time the plant will be strong and vigorous and more pest-resistant.

Like Eugenia, the Bottlebrush plant can grow to become a medium-sized tree if you let it grow unabated. However, these two plants are better grown as topiaries or as hedges. They take very well to regular trimming into various geometric shapes.

Flowers are also an important part of any garden. They will provide a key point of interest if planted together in one area, or you can surround a tree with flowers as an accent.

For gardeners who are just starting out, the easiest flowers to grow and maintain are santan, lantana, gumamela, rosal, margarita, plumbago (forget me nots), and marigolds. There are also shrubs that produce amazing flowers such as the candle plant.

Orchids are best left to the enthusiast. If you love them and are willing to invest a lot of care into them, they will reward you with beautiful blooms. Otherwise, if you are just starting out, it is best to go with the low maintenance plants and flowers.

The easiest, hardiest, and most versatile ornamental plant in my book is the bougainvillea. These are grown widely in the Philippine as an ornamental shrub or tree, and are much loved for their profusion of papery flowers especially in the summertime. You can choose from a wide range of flower colors from pink to magenta to orange, and even yellow and white.

Bougainvillea has a tendency for overgrowth however, and they may look unkempt especially during the months without flowers. The rainy season is the best time to trim these thorny vines, and to begin training them to become either a canopy or a flower display.


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