crape myrtles behind the fountain at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond VA

The fastest way to learn new plants

I moved to Virginia from Arizona in the summer of 2005. After a couple of weeks of job hunting, I got hired as a landscape designer and hit the ground running. The only hitch was that the plant material was a little unfamiliar to me. To be successful (and stay employed) I had to figure out the fastest way to learn new plants.

Fredericksburg landscape design secret garden

Learn new plants the old school way

First I had to come up with a list of plants that I felt I should learn. I grew up in Rhode Island and ran a landscape business in Ohio, so a lot of the plants here were familiar, but I also knew they’d behave differently in a different USDA climate zone. The first thing I did was look for books that recommended plants for our area. I settled on The Mid-Atlantic Gardener’s Guide (affiliate link) as my starting point.

I then busted out the index cards. That’s right, we’re talking about flash cards! I’d love to make some fancy ones and sell them to you, but MJ will kill me if I add yet another project to the mix. These worked great. On each card, I wrote the following:

  • Common name
  • Botanical name
  • Is it a tree, shrub, or perennial?
  • Key features – flowers, berries, foliage, etc
  • Size at maturity

Each day, I focused on one plant. Memorize it, drill it, know it. We used the botanical names on our drawings so I had to learn those quickly. By doing a plant a day, in a week I learned 7 new plants. In a month, 30. And so on, and so forth.

crape myrtles behind the fountain at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, Richmond VA

It didn’t take me long to work my way through the book. My employer had a nursery on the property, so I started learning the plants we kept in stock. Then I went to a retail garden center and started picking plants that interested me. It didn’t take a crazy amount of time before I had a respectable plant palette from which to draw.

The beauty of this approach is that once you know the genus and species of a plant, the individual cultivars become easy to pick up. Ilex is always holly. Ilex verticillata is winterberry holly. Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ has these characteristics, ‘Sprite’ has those, but you still have a decent idea in your mind of what they look like. Understanding botanical names is like cracking a code and if you’re a plant geek, it’s worth learning them.

Have you found a better way to quickly learn plants? Let us know in the comments!

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