Design or redesign a landscape

Choose salt-tolerant plants

Part of a broader process

Selecting salt-tolerant species of plants for a particular landscape is somewhat more complicated than it might at first seem. In many cases, you cannot simply pick the requisite number of plants from a list of salt-tolerant species. Instead, you'll need to choose species based on multiple criteria.

Selecting plants according to these criteria should be viewed as one element of a comprehensive, multi-step design process. The main plant-related steps in that process are shown in Figure 1.

The first step is to determine the needs of the site's potential users and of the site itself — drainage improvements, soil improvements, and so forth. Use the information acquired from surveying the users and studying the site for Step 2: preparing a list of criteria for selecting plants.

The criteria can be categorized as either aesthetic, or biological, or functional. The following tables provide some examples.

Some typical aesthetic criteria

  • Size of plant
  • Form and texture of plant
  • Color of foliage
  • Deciduous versus evergreen
  • Predictability of growth characteristics and form
  • Seasonality, size, texture, and color of any flowers
  • Attractiveness to birds or butterflies

Typical biological criteria for selecting plant species

  • How well-suited is the species to the local climate?
  • How tolerant is the species to salt in the soil...
  • …Or to deposition of salt on its leaves?
  • Can the species tolerate low levels of oxygen in soil (often a result of excess water)?
  • Tolerant of atmospheric pollution?
  • Tolerant of low soil moisture? (drought tolerance)
  • How susceptible is the species to diseases and pests?

Some typical functional criteria

  • For shade trees, little or no fruit (nor dropping of fruit) is a requirement
  • For all trees, having minimal leaf litter usually is desirable
  • Lack of objectionable odor is another requirement
  • Is it likely the plant's roots will disrupt paving?
  • Is the plant likely to suffer damage from wind?
  • Non-poisonous, non-allergenic

With the list of criteria in hand, you begin Step 3: creating a conceptual design of your site's planting areas according to aesthetic criteria. Once that conceptual design has been reviewed and approved, there's a fourth step: refining the design according to biological and functional criteria. Eventually, you arrive at a final design and a list of species.

One or more of the computer-based programs for selecting plants that have become widely available recently may be helpful in creating an initial list of potential species for your landscape. These programs on CD-ROMs query the user about specific criteria and then search their databases for appropriate plants. One such program is Interactive Guide to Your Yard and Garden, produced by Sunset New Media. Another is Southern Trees, which covers 887 trees and shrubs grown in the United States.

At the core of this process is a careful consideration of the numerous factors related to plants and their interactions with the environment, salt tolerance among them. Adopting such a comprehensive approach helps to ensure that plants are well matched to the landscape's soil and to the local and regional climate. Focusing solely on salt tolerance without considering climate and other factors may lead to the selection of plants that need extra care, if not eventual replacement.

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