Before You Go
Do a little research. Spend time reading garden magazines and then take note of favorite plants, tools, and tips in a garden journal or folder. You'll be more likely to buy plants that thrive and garden supplies that are truly useful and needed.
Be realistic. Know what you're looking for when you go. If you give yourself a list or budget, it's easier to stick to it and not make unnecessary impulse purchases.
Go with friends. Make a social excursion out of your trip to the garden center and bring some friends with. Get their input on making smart choices to help avoid impulse buys that won't grow in your yard.
At the Garden Center
Shop during off hours. A beautiful spring Saturday morning when the garden center is swamped is not a good time to ask garden staff questions or shop in a leisurely, thoughtful way. Friday afternoon, when fresh shipments of new plants are often just in and the crowds are smaller, is a better time.
Stop in often. Good garden centers have a variety of merchandise and plants that they are always rotating in and out. You'll learn more about early spring gardening, for example, if you visit the garden center in early spring and see what's blooming and what's in. You'll learn more about fall gardening if you visit during the fall.
Talk, talk, talk. Ask garden center staff questions -- they'll do their best to help. And be as specific as possible. Bringing in pictures or drawings of your garden is very helpful in communicating what you need.
Read, read, read. The label, that is. The basics are all on the plant label or on the package, but it's amazing how many people don't really spend a moment studying them before they make the purchase.
Save the receipt. Many plants have a one-year guarantee but a receipt is usually needed. Tuck it into that garden journal or folder.
How to Shop for Annuals
- Do comparison shop. Prices for bedding plants can vary widely. And be sure to check whether the cell packs have three or four plants per pack.
- More may be less. Check prices for larger amounts. Sometimes, for example, buying a flat of annuals (either all of the same plant or a mix of plants) costs less than buying them separately.
- Go for short and stocky. You don't want a plant that's too leggy -- it will never get as bushy, flower, or produce as well as a stockier plant, which will grow up healthy in your garden.
- Avoid flowering plants. Believe it or not, it's best to buy annuals not in flower. That way, when planted, they put their effort into root development instead of flower production, which is important to the health of the plant long-term.
- Buy only healthy plants. It's hard to keep annuals well-watered in the hot sun. Buy only those annuals that look green (assuming that's the color they're supposed to be), healthy, and not at all wilted.
- Stock up. Make sure you've got all your soil amendments, fertilizers, and the like when you're buying the annuals. The plants have a short life span and need to maximize every day. Give them a good jump start.
- Know your light. Plants need full sun, part sun (also called part shade), or they need full shade. Full sun means six hours of direct light a day. Part sun means four to six hours of direct sun a day. Full shade is four hours or less. Observe the light in different spots of your garden over the course of the day and the months and purchase plants accordingly.
How to Shop for Perennials
Compare sizes. A 1-gallon pot can sometimes be priced very attractively compared to a 4-inch pot -- or maybe not. Also, if the 1-gallon plant is mature enough, you might be able to divide it upon planting into two or three plants.
Check plant hardiness. Labels give a general idea of what climate a plant will tolerate. Check it closely or your perennial just may be an annual; that is, it will die out over the winter.
Find your USDA Hardiness Zone.
Buy enough to make an impact. Few gardens look good with one perennial tucked in here, another tucked in there, yet another over there. As a rule, buy at least five or six of one perennial so that you can create a cluster in your beds and borders.
Don't forget fall. Fall is a great time to plant yoru favorite perennials. See what your garden center has and take advantage of those crisp fall days to do a little digging.
Test Garden Tip. In fact, fall is the ideal time to come up with stunning combinations of bulbs and early blooming perennials.
- Bare-root vs. container vs. balled-and-burlapped. Bare-root is a good way to plant when the weather is very cool, usually in late winter or early spring, a couple of months before your region's last frost date. Bare-root plants don't have leaves yet so they're not much stressed by frost and other climate extremes. Container-grown plants as well as balled-and-burlapped plants are planted anytime from spring to fall, though they're usually a little more expensive.
- Make sure it looks healthy. If it looks healthy, it almost certainly is. But don't buy sickly or diseased plants just because they've been marked down.
- Check the roots. If the roots are bulging out of the container, the plant is very pot-bound and may have a tough time getting established. On the other hand, if the plant seems very small in its pot but otherwise is healthy, ask the garden center staff if you can knock it out of its pot to check before purchasing. It may just recently have been planted and not well established. It will take more time to get to mature size. You'd do well to look further.
- Consider size. A plant that is labeled as reaching 40 feet tall and 15 feet across is a big plant. Take size into consideration and envision it in its home. If you're unsure, take a deep breath, go home, and measure. A tree too big for its spot is an irritation you'll have to live with for years.
- Jump start roots. If you just spent $30 on a tree or shrub, spend a little more on one of those fertilizers designed to stimulate root growth. They're a good investment.