Plant Shopping 101: How To Buy the Best Plants for Your Garden

The Gardenist

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It's a beautiful spring weekend, and the lure of the garden center and its beautiful displays is nearly impossible to resist. If you are planning to spruce up your garden with the addition of some new plants, it is helpful to be savvy about nursery navigation — not only will you save yourself money and time, but your odds of failure will go down dramatically.

Here is my advice for successful plant buying:

Have a list. I wholeheartedly recommend walking through a garden center for the sheer joy of it, but don’t buy unless you have researched your choice and know where it will succeed in your garden. If you were going to make a nice dinner you would have the recipe in mind and know its ingredients; the garden is the same. Know what you need before you go.

Don’t buy onesies and twosies. Unless your garden is truly tiny or you are shopping for large trees and shrubs, even the smallest plot will benefit from repetition and the coherence it brings. If you must make an impulse buy (we are talking annuals and perennials here), don't make it something you will regret later by buying only one. You will get it home, put it in the ground, it will be perfect, and I can almost guarantee that when you return for a few more, they will be gone. You will be forced to wait until you can split the plant or take cuttings before you can enjoy the rhythm of a garden with good repetition.

Be careful with substituting. Have confidence in your first design decision and if you can't find your original choice, either seek it out somewhere else or wait until you can research the suggested sub thoroughly. Often a substitute won’t meet your exact requirements. A great garden center with highly knowledgeable employees can help, but you should feel that they are sending you home with the right thing — not just something.

Ask questions. There are no dumb questions when it comes to buying plants (or anything, really).

Give the plants a good physical. Check them out from top to bottom. Do they have lots of leafy stems? They should. Make sure you don’t see any suspicious pests or signs of disease (yellowing leaves for example). Large weeds growing in the pot with your plant is a sign of neglect. Take a look underneath. Are there large amounts of roots coming through the drainage holes? Just a few are okay; they imply the plant has a healthy root system. But massive amounts suggest the plant is root-bound and probably not a good choice.

Carefully consider plant size. Often in larger nurseries there are multiple sizes of the same plant. The bigger the pot, the more you pay. When making this choice, consider your budget first. Buy the largest you can afford, but I think it better to get more of a smaller variety than just a few sizable versions. They will all grow together nicely in time, and often smaller plants (particularly trees and shrubs) will establish more quickly than their larger counterparts. I like to strategically pick a couple things to go big on (for instant gratification), but save on everything else. It is also important to examine plants side by side. Sometimes a plant in a small container might actually be the same size as the variety in a bigger, more expensive pot, due to different planting times. Make sure you get your money’s worth.

Don’t choose a plant that is in full bloom. Look for its friend that is a little less showy. So long as you can confirm the color, it is better to buy a plant that has fewer flowers than more. You might even want to nip off blooms when planting, so the plant puts its energy into establishing itself.

(Image credits: Leonora Enking under CC BY-SA 2.0)