Now is the time to begin thinking about what plants you want to add to your garden this spring. Or there may be plants that need to be replaced. The real question is how and what to choose. In previous explorations of nurseries and plant sales, you may have seen the Plant Select logo on some of the offerings and wondered, “What does that mean?”
According to Amy Lentz, CSU Extension Educator in Weld County, Colorado, Plant Select is a cooperative program administered by Colorado State University and Denver Botanic Gardens. The nonprofit initiative has over 200 partners, including horticulturists, retailers, landscapers, and seed producers. Their goal is “to seek out, identify and distribute the very best plants for landscapes and gardens in the intermountain region of the high plains,” a wide-ranging region that includes northern Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.
The motivation for starting this collaboration was to find plants native to these states and adapted plants from other similar ecosystems that would thrive in this region. Plants must meet eight main criteria during trials. They need to show that they can thrive with less water, endure a broad range of conditions (soil, sun, etc.), be distinctive, be tough when faced with climate stresses, resist insects and diseases, be beautiful, support habitat, and be noninvasive. Plants are named based on the regions they are from, and royalties from their sale is the primary source of income for the testing program.
David Salman, owner of Waterwise Gardening LLC, in Santa Fe, has made seven introductions to the Plant Select collections. His primary role within the group has been as a breeder. Once he determines a plant’s merit, it goes to the test garden in Denver for further observation. Says Salman, “The real value of the Plant Select designation is not so much for seeking out a specific plant as it is for the confidence it gives that the ones you do find in a nursery will perform especially well in your Santa Fe garden.”
He believes all the Plant Select criteria are important, although he does suggest that the term “aggressive” might be preferable to “invasive.” A vigorous Plant Select plant in an irrigated garden bed may crowd out other plants, but it’s not going to jump into dry areas or compete with native plants in other parts of your landscape.
While there have been perhaps hundreds of Plant Select introductions over the years, some are no longer available. And of those that are, you will not find all of them in one place. Nurseries order from multiple sources using their own criteria for space and observations of customer preference. So how do you find them at your nursery? Look for the plant labels or other promotional materials that include the Plant Select logo.
Plant Select does not focus solely on native plants from the Intermountain West. Some plants that meet their standards hail from similar environments, such as Central Asia, southern South America, and South Africa. Although I am a big proponent of planting natives, I’m not a purist. I can’t imagine not having Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary or oregano in my garden. Certain non-natives are very well suited to our climate and soils, to say nothing of drought and cold. If there is a native equivalent to a desirable plant, I’ll choose the native. But my kitchen has a voice in some of my choices. After that, assurances of success and beauty is a welcome factor when deciding to try something new.
Durable Plants for the Garden (2009), a Plant Select guide, is still available in paperback or used. Salman says their most recent book, Pretty Tough Plants: 135 Resilient, Water-Smart Choices for a Beautiful Garden (2017), is an excellent resource, as is the Plant Select website (plantselect.org), which offers a wealth of information, including some downloadable design templates, videos, and “plant stories.”
Laurie McGrath is an Emeritus Master Gardener and has volunteered with the NMSU Extension in Santa Fe County for over 20 years. She is a founding member of the Santa Fe Native Plant Project (SNaPP).