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woman shopping at a garden nursery

When going to the nursery to start or replenish your garden, shop strategically! Here are some pointers on how to use a gardener’s eye when buying new plants.

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We get so excited about gardening in spring that we go to the nursery and over-buy, sort of like being hungry when grocery shopping. We’re hungry for the new gardening season! We look forward to a future full of colorful flowers, delicious vegetables and aromatic herbs, and we overdo it.

We fill up the car with beauty and lusciousness, only to get home to find out some of our plants are pot bound, have bugs or diseases, or aren’t right for the yard. I always tell people to eat before going to the supermarket so they don’t overspend on food that will get wasted. I also tell people to know what they want at the nursery and to take the time to look plants over carefully.

Here are some tips for bringing home the perfect garden. It’s much easier to buy good plants suited for your yard than try to correct problems all season long.

Growing conditions

First of all, know the growing conditions in your yard. Is it sunny? Shady? Wet? Dry? Rocky? On a slope?

What is the soil like? Do you live in a windy area? Are there microclimates in your yard? Do you live near the ocean or other body of salt water?

There are plants for any condition your yard can dish out. Native plants are best for your soil and climate with little work needed on your part. There are also plants that were introduced to your area, and they thrive. Neither needs much maintenance. Cultivated varieties (cultivars) may need more effort to prep and maintain the soil.

Once you know your conditions, you can choose the best plants for your yard. When creating a design, take into consideration height, texture, color, shape and size. You don’t want to put a 10” border annual in front of a blank 2-story wall!

Shopping at the right place

So now that you have a good idea of what you want and need, it’s time to go shopping – at a professional nursery!

Nurseries, garden centers, and botanical gardens deal only in plants. They hire real gardeners, who are botanists, arborists, landscapers, and serious home gardeners. These folks know plants. They can answer your questions about growth, soil, insects, watering, disease, fertilizer, and the weather. They have academic and hands-on knowledge, and you can be assured the nursery stock is well cared for.

garden center expert and customer

Employees of a big box store or even the hardware store are just that – employees. It’s a job for them. They don’t have the vast gardening knowledge you will find at a plant nursery. Plants wilt or have diseases or bugs, and it goes unnoticed. Also, high school kids get summer jobs at these locations. Without passion for plants, they can’t be much help to you.

Choose your plants

As you walk into a nursery, everything looks beautiful! Flowers are blooming, trees are green, and shrubs are lush. It all looks perfect! But look again, and look closely.

Find the plants you want (you figured that out already, remember?), and check for strong and sturdy stems. They hold up the plant. If plants are spindly due to too little light or crowding, they will be weak, and lean or break, and never really recover. Plants should be bushy and full.

garden nursery plants and sun

All the leaves should be green. The older leaves on the bottom do turn yellow with age, and that’s normal. If upper leaves are not a healthy green, something is wrong. The plant could be potbound, past its time to be planted. This stresses the plant setting it back in its growth.

Yellow leaves could also be a sign of disease or lack of nutrients. No matter how much you love these plants, don’t buy them hoping to resurrect them.

Leaves with holes or distortion also signal problems with bugs or disease. Walk past those!

Flowering annuals

Many annuals are in flower when they are for sale. You bring them home, they stop flowering, and then start up again later in the summer. Large commercial greenhouses use hormone regulators to get plants to flower in time for the selling season. Good marketing ploy, but bad for the plants, and disappointing for buyers.

Didn’t you buy it because it was in flower? That’s what they want you to do! Again, this is where you need to know your plants and their bloom times.

garden nursery selection

Early flowering weakens the root systems. Plants use a lot of energy to put out flowers. When they are forced to flower, they are not allowed to develop naturally, and the rest of the plant suffers. It’s best to let a plant grow and bloom as it is supposed to.

Learn while you shop

You can get quite an education buying plants at a nursery. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of staff and other shoppers. Gardeners love to share information. Take advantage of that! Many nurseries have display gardens that hold a lot of information, too.

Make more than one trip. Deliveries are made weekly, and fresh plants are always coming in. You will also be able to see perennials, shrubs and trees in various stages of growth.

Shop smart

If you have any doubt about a plant you are looking at, pass it by. Better safe than sorry. You might introduce bugs or diseases to your yard with that pale, leggy plant with wrinkled leaves, even though the flower was luscious! Don’t take that chance.

You are making an investment in your property. Shop smart, and make it a good investment.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.