How to Choose the Right Shrub

Choosing what to plant in your garden can be hard. Especially when you consider that there are over 320 shrubs in the Proven Winners ColorChoice program alone! When starting a plant search, follow these easy steps to find plants that match your goals and the conditions for your garden.

A screenshot of the top of the website, detailing the search area that shows where you can just jump to a feature or do an in depth search of your own.

To get started on our website, click the Search Plants header. From there you can either start a search from scratch with the All Plants option or you can choose from a group of plants that are already narrowed down. From there, follow each step below and get a list of plants that will suit your space!

Hardiness Zone

Screenshot of the zone dropdown selection menu on the plant search feature where you can select plants that grow in your zone.

Your USDA hardiness zone, also known as growing zone, determines which plants will reliably survive winter in your garden or landscape. Shrubs and perennials must be hardy or heat tolerant in your zone to continue thriving year after year! To find out your growing zone, enter your zip code here.

If you live in Canada, find your USDA zone equivalent here.

Sun Exposure

Screenshot of the sun exposure selection options in the plant search, where you can select full sun, part sun, or shade.

Sun exposure can be difficult to pin down. To simplify it, we use three categories:

  • Full sun is 6 or more hours of direct exposure to sunlight.
  • Full to part sun is 4-6 hours of direct exposure or all day dappled light.
  • Full shade is less than 4 hours of direct exposure to the sun or a partial day of dappled light.
This only applies to the growing season. Think of your space during the summer, this is when plants do the bulk of their growing and when trees have foliage that may shade your garden space. 
There is a caveat about sun exposure for gardeners who live in hot climates, USDA zone 8 and above. If you find a full sun plant you love, but its zone range starts on the low end (ex. zones 5-9), the plant will need shade in the early afternoon to thrive. These plants are more sensitive to the intensity of sun exposure and duration of heat. Plants that can withstand full sun in your garden will have zone ranges that start on the high end (ex. zones 8-11).

Soil Conditions

Screenshot of the features selection menu under the plant search feature, showing that out of the ordinary soil types are listed in the features section.
Screenshot of the features selection menu under the plant search feature, showing that out of the ordinary soil pHs are listed in the features section.

There are three main types of soil:

  • Sandy soil is light in color and made mostly of sand and bits of rock. Water drains through very quickly and it is loose to the touch. 
  • Clay soil is dense and made from super tiny particles. Water drains through slowly and it can be hard and heavy to dig in.
  • Loamy soil is a combination of sand, silt, and organic material (mostly broken down plants). It holds moisture well but isn’t soggy and is easy to dig in.

There are plants for every soil type. You can grow almost anything without trouble if you have loamy soil (or a mix of soil types like sandy loam or loamy clay). If you have dense clay, look for plants that tolerate soggy conditions. If you have very sandy soil, look for drought-tolerant plants. 

Check out this website for a DIY method to finding your soil type.

Just like there are three main types of soil texture, there are three pHs:

  • Alkaline soil has a pH of 7.5 and above.

  • Neutral soil has a pH between 6.5 and 7.5.

  • Acidic soil has a pH of 6.5 and below.

Most plants will grow well in neutral soils and soils that are close to the end of that number range (ex. like 7.6 and 6.4). However, if your soil is extremely alkaline or acidic, filter for plants that will do well in that soil. And if you plan to amend your soil to change its pH, follow the package directions of amendment to the letter. Overapplying or attempting to changing pH rapidly can really harm your plants and the insects living in the soil.

Mature Plant Size

Screenshot of the size selections you can make in the plant search feature, where you can find a plant that is any combination of mid-size, narrow, and wide for width and short, medium, and tall for height.

A garden bed has space restrictions. So, depending on the size of the bed, you’ll choose plants accordingly. Take the mature width and height of plants seriously. It is tempting to cram a bunch of plants in a space because it is immediately satisfying, but this may eventually cause trouble when they grow to their ultimate size. Branches could rub against each other, low air circulation can encourage fungal diseases, they could lose their naturally beautiful habits and become funky looking, and so on. 

Now, if you’re looking for a particular plant role, you can choose the size that makes sense. Learn more about plant roles (like specimens, ground cover, etc.) and their approximate sizes here

If you’re on a general fact finding mission, skip this step and see what pops up. Gardens are made with many different plant sizes, so it’s helpful to see what catches your eye from a big list of plants and go from there. 

Plant Features

Screenshot of the feature dropdown menu in the plant search feature where you can choose from a range of criteria, like cut flowers, disease resistance, drought tolerance, etc.

This is where you’ll find out if your garden has a theme. Does your area have trouble with deer or drought? Would you like to harvest cut flowers from your plants or use the space as a sensory retreat? 

Color Scheme

Screenshot of the color section part of the search feature where you can choose flower colors and foliage colors.

Many people agree that a garden with three colors (or fewer) looks the most cohesive. In practice, this is a very tough number to stick to. It’s up to you to decide if you’ll have a color scheme or a single color for your flowers (or foliage). Do remember, however, that flowers on plants come and go, so don’t be afraid to mix and match colors based on different bloom times. You’ll find an option to filter plants for bloom time in our search as well. 

After you’ve completed each step, you’ll end up with a list of plants! From there, see which ones you’re drawn to and make a list. If you’d like inspiration on how to combine them in a garden layout, check out our DIY landscape guide, Gardening Simplified, or see seven individual garden plans that each have a theme or restriction (shade, salty soil, etc.). If you want to enjoy your garden year-round, check out this article on how to create a four-season space of your own.

Written by
Kristina Howley

Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.


Get The Latest Updates

Love plants? So do we!

Subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter for inspiration, information, and ideas to make your garden or landscape more beautiful and easier to care for.

Related Posts


Scholarship Application

*Completing this form does not guarantee a scholarship. A staff member will confirm scholarship availability directly. Receipts must be submitted within 10 weeks from the conclusion of the event.
Gardening Simplified magazine
[everest_form id="4997"]