You've just moved into your first house. A job transfer takes you to a new part of the country. It's time to turn some of that grass into a garden. Whatever the reason, you are in the happy but slightly confusing position of being a stranger in your very own outdoors. Take advantage of free information sources to get well acquainted with your surroundings.
The Basics of Plant Identification
Scientific plant names usually come from Latin derivatives. Learning the language of plant terminology is enough to turn off neophyte gardeners, but there are free ways to overcome this obstacle. Major identification sites include pictures of plants wherever possible; few people interested in plants can rattle off all the technical terms to describe a plant. For basic terms, contact your county extension agency; a Clemson University Extension fact-sheet on trees is a great place to start if you're a beginner. If you want to go farther into plant terminology, consider checking books out of the library or downloading them as e-books to your computer.
Using Resources Effectively
Identifying an existing plant may require more than one observation. Plant guides will feature: height, flower size and color, leaf shape and arrangement, fruit or seed characteristics, and bloom season. Members of the mint family, for example, may have similar-looking leaves but display very different kinds of blooms; once plants are in flower, salvia, peppermint and catnip become distinct individuals. The more physical characteristics you can describe, the more efficient your identification.
Researching What You Want to Know
Both the information you have gathered and its use will determine the kind of information resource you use. There are days, for example, when what you really want is something yellow for the planters on your sunny deck. The most logical search tool is a nursery-based PlantSearch or similar database. Nursery searches let you start with color, height, degrees of sun and shade and work toward suitable choices for your area. The National Gardening Association maintains Plant Finder, a larger, similarly structured online site. On the other hand, wanting to know all about what your neighbor says is dogbane growing between your properties may lead you to the USDA PLANT Database Plant Guide from the United States Department of Agriculture. Plant information includes research on Native American cultivation and uses, along with information on modern uses and toxic qualities.
Modifying Your Planting Footprint
One way to enjoy plants while contributing to the health of your environment is to explore the wide range of information resources that promote restorative and native plantings. Specialized searches can include: wetland plants, native plants to attract butterflies, plants to control erosion, plants that do well in Hardiness Zone 9 (or any other zone), or low-maintenance plants for a vacation house. Native plant societies and regional environmental organizations can provide information on habitat restoration programs, plants, and opportunities to learn more.
Obtaining an Informed Ally
Especially in urban or suburban areas, one of the most underutilized free plant-identification sources is the USDA county extension service. County Extension agencies do not just serve farmers; the New York Bronx county extension office, for example, sits on Townsend Avenue, amid apartment and office buildings. An urban/suburban county extension agency may consult on community gardens, sponsor green markets, teach childhood nutrition and help immigrants adjust to new foods, along with providing the full resources of the Department of Agriculture for gardeners.