Right Plant, Right Place
The key to plant selection is to place a plant that's adapted to your location, appropriate to the space available, and functions as you would desire it. In Horticulture we usually call this Right Plant, Right Place.
There are books, websites, and college classes all centered around placing a good plant in a good spot. Although this concept sounds obvious, a quick drive down any street in the Eastern Sierra will reveal hundreds of trees planted below power lines, cold climate trees in the desert, water-loving shrubs in droughty soils, and other obvious mistakes.
Plant selection has 3 primary considerations:
- What is the plant's function? (And how long do you need it to last?)
- Can the plant survive at that location?
- Is the plant appropriate for the location and use chosen?
Locally, we usually assume that if a plant is sold locally it will survive, so you could say we also think about the second criterion to some extent. That often works, but there are many examples of trees and shrubs in our yard that don't actually work all that well.
The final criterion is usually neglected and that is the source of many of our problems. Obviously trees under power lines are a great example, but trees like Siberian elms that get defoliated by insects every year and spread seeds everywhere is an example of a plant that grows well here that is not appropriate. And we certainly don't want invasive plants here!
This page has some information on considerations about appropriateness of various types of plants.
Plant Selection Resources
In North America most gardeners select plant material by using some sort of zone-based system. These zones primarily look at winter hardiness, but some also consider other climatic factors.
There are 2 main systems used in the western USA:
- Sunset Zones
- USDA Hardiness Zones
Sunset zones look at a combination of climate and hardiness to determine which plants can work. These are advantageous since the elevation and coastal influence vary considerably more in the West than the rest of the continent. (Note that zone numbers have changed since some old editions of the Western Garden Book. If you are using your book, go with the numbers you see in the book, not online.)
You can find your zone online here: https://www.sunsetwesterngardencollection.com/climate-zones
- Owens Valley: 10
- South of Olancha: 11
- Everywhere else: 1A
It is our opinion that 1A zone for locations other than Mammoth Lakes or June Lake is too conservative. We suggest using USDA hardiness zones for these areas.
USDA Hardiness Zones
USDA Hardiness Zones are based on the average annual minimum temperature for 30 years. This system is used extensively in the rest of the USA, and is the usual system used in garden catalogs. In the Owens Valley you can use either this system or Sunset's, but as mentioned, other locations may want to use USDA zones.
For most plants, USDA zones are reported as a range such as Zones 5-8. If you live within that range, it is expected that your plant is appropriate. It is not foolproof as is only accounts for summer conditions minimally.
For most locations in Inyo and Mono counties, the USDA system will serve you best.
This tree selector from Cal Poly is good to get ideas for plants. It will spit out many options from chosen criteria, but not all will be ideal below 5,000 ft. Enter your Sunset and/or your USDA zones to get a list of options. Read the descriptions on the site and consult other locations to confirm their suitability before spending any money. (Or contact our help line.)
RHS Hardiness Ratings
In the UK the Royal Horticultural Society has its own set of hardiness ratings. Curiously it goes numerically backward from the American system. If you run across plant information from the UK you will need to convert to this system.
Since they don't really encounter heat in the UK, the system is just focused on the minimum temperature a plant can tolerate.
Sometimes other considerations are important, such as resistance to feeding or tolerance of poor soils.
These links can help you find more information.
- White Flower Farm
- Rutgers Cooperative Extension
- Clemson Cooperative Extension
- Colorado State Extension (PDF): Preventing Deer Damage Fact Sheet
For information on plants native to our area, the Bristlecone chapter of the California Native Plant Society has extensive information. Native plants (appropriate to your location) are well adapted and usually have few pest problems.
There are some local resources to help with plant selection.
Products and outside web resources are provided as a convenience only. No endorsement is implied. UC is not responsible for their content.