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Selecting plants for an Upper Midwest landscape

Using the "Plant Elements of Design" database

multi-level, multi-color plant grouping by stairs leading to backyard deck

Please read all instructions for creating an account before linking to the Plant Elements of Design database.

Have you ever purchased a plant at a garden center thinking, "I know I can find a place for this hosta" or "That hydrangea is a little big, but I'll just keep it pruned back"?

Gardeners love to try new plants, and the long, cold winters in Zones 3 and 4 encourage Upper Midwestern enthusiasm to buy and try a variety of plants in our landscapes. Proper plant selection is critical to long-lived, healthy and sustainable landscapes, and understanding the planting site itself — its soil, light, moisture, exposure, and size — is crucial to choosing plants that will thrive.

The Plant Elements of Design selection program will help you find plants that match the conditions of your landscaping site.

Getting started: Create a user account

  1. Go to the Plant Elements site
  3. Enter your email address
  4. Create a password
  5. Click LOGON
  6. Respond to your account confirmation email sent from Plantselection

Questions? Contact

Searching for plants

pinecones on branch in snow

The ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) is among the many woody plants in the database.

The plant "elements of design" are the characteristics we look for when selecting plants for a particular landscape. The process of plant selection begins with knowing something about the site conditions — the amount of light the planting area receives, the type of soil, the hardiness zone — as well as the desired aesthetic characteristics of a plant such as its form, texture, flower color, and seasonal interest.

To begin using the database, start with the broadest categories by selecting woody plant (trees, shrubs, vines) or herbaceous plant (non-woody plants such as perennials, biennials, and annuals).

Start your search by choosing from the plant and site characteristics described on this page.

Most searches will bring back satisfying results by choosing plant type, soil type, light, height and width.

The more categories entered the more specific the results. If you search for a plant that is 4 to 5 feet wide, you will get many matches. If you search for a plant that is 4 to 5 feet wide, has spring seasonal interest, and is disease resistant, the number of matches will be reduced.

Plant Type includes choices such as "Evergreen Tree" or "Deciduous Shrub" for woody plants, and "Hardy Perennial" or "Fern" for herbaceous plants.

Plant Height, Plant Width: Height and width of woody plants are shown in feet. Measurements indicate the expected mature size of the plant when informally pruned. Height and width of herbaceous plants are shown in inches. The width indicated for herbaceous perennials refers to the width of a well-established plant, usually 3 to 4 years old. Widths may be used for spacing purposes during the design process.

Design use of plants defines the function of the plant in the landscape. The design uses of plants are: key plants, accent plants, specimen plants, species/cultivar group and mass plants.

Landscape use refers to the specific purpose of the plant in a landscape. Most plants are appropriate for a variety of different kinds of landscape purposes — edible, natural, pollinator-friendly, etc.

Light indicates the best light conditions for each plant. In general, "full sun" means at least six hours of sunlight each day; "part sun" needs 3 to 6 hours of sun; "part shade" needs 3 to 6 hours of shade; "full shade" is at least six hours of shade each day; deep shade is almost no sun.

Zone refers to the range of USDA hardiness zones in which a plant will survive or thrive. All perennial plants in this database are hardy to USDA zone 4 without protection, unless otherwise noted. Find your zone here: USDA Hardiness Map

Soil lists conditions optimal for plant performance or that a plant will tolerate. Most plants can survive in a wide range of soil conditions with proper care and maintenance. "Prefer" indicates a plant will perform best in a particular soil type. "Tolerates" indicates a plant will grow, but its performance may be somewhat reduced.

Narrow your search by adding other criteria

"Advanced Search" options:

Texture refers to the visual fineness or coarseness of the foliage and branches.

Form describes the overall shape of the plant, such as upright or spreading.

Seasonal interest refers to the season, such as spring or fall, when the plant may provide exceptional color or form.

bright orange fall leaves ona sugar maple

Fall color is a favorite characteristic of the sugar maple (Acer saccharum).

Flower color refers to color of blossoms at peak time for the plant. Some blooms fade or change color as they age. If the blossoms on a plant have more than one color or plant varieties have different colors, the plant will be listed under a search for either color.

Growth indicates how fast a plant grows relative to other plants of its type. Slow, medium and fast growth is indicated in this category.

Insects & Wildlife lists insects and animals that may attack a plant. Wildlife can damage plants and increase plant stress. Insects & Wildlife are noted only if the particular plant is highly susceptible or resistant to specific insects or prone to wildlife damage.

Diseases refers to pathogens that may affect a plant if conditions are right. Diseases are noted only if the particular plant is highly susceptible or resistant.

Seasonal interest specifics provide additional information about seasonal features such as flowers or fall foliage color. Type in key words separated by a comma such as red, fall, leaves.

feathery pink astilbe

Astilbe chinensis "Visions" thrives in full to part sun and tolerates dry soil conditions.

Searching by plant name

Users may search for a plant based on its name. For example, select "woody" and then enter "maple" in the common name section. Search will produce a list of all plants with "maple" as part of its common name. Searching by cultivar or scientific name will produce similar results. Since common names differ greatly and are often used indiscriminately, it is useful to know the scientific names when buying plants to be sure you buy the correct ones. Common plant names often have no scientific basis and can vary greatly.

Search results

The results from your search will be listed below the search window. "View search results" to see a list of plants that match your criteria. In the right column, select "View" to see plant specifics and images. Select "Print" to print as a data sheet.

Select "View Images" to browse the images of search results. Select a particular image to see the plant specifics. Download image files by selecting the box beside the caption. Images are downloaded as JPEGs. Multiple images are batched in ZIP files.

Users will not find every plant available in this database. Plants are included in this database based on the following:

  • At minimum, the plants are hardy in Zone 4.
  • The plants are commercially available.
  • The plants in this database have been determined to be good choices for most Minnesota landscapes meaning they are not included in the Minnesota DNR list of invasive species or noxious weeds, and they are overall good performers in most conditions.

Users who feel strongly that a plant should/should not be included can post their comments on our Plant Selection blog or email

Printing results

To print a plant data sheet: Select a plant in the box to the left of the plant name in the list; select Print. The plant data sheet contains all plant information and pictures of the plant. This is handy information to save as you develop your landscape.

To create a plant list or plant key: Select all the plants you want in a list. Select "Export Selected Plants" at the bottom of the list. You can continue to search for and add more plants. To export your list to a spreadsheet, select "Export List" at the top of the screen. The spreadsheet is in CSV comma-delimited format. This will allow you to open the file in any spreadsheet program (Excel, Lotus, etc.).

You can customize the spreadsheet as desired. Landscape designers can use the spreadsheet to create a plant key for a landscape design, for budgeting and for record keeping.

The information given in this publication is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by University of Minnesota Extension is implied.

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