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The staff at a garden center or nursery can provide valuable information about the plants they sell. Many workers have grown the plants themselves, so they may know how well a particular plant will do in your area and give you tips about caring for it. Plus, if you get to know the employees, they may give you early notice of upcoming sales or fresh plant deliveries.
It's easy to buy plants on impulse. But it's wise to make sure a plant will grow well, and that you have an appropriate spot for it, before you bring it home. Go to your garden center with a list of plants that should do well in your conditions (use our Plant Encyclopedia to help you know what plants should thrive in your yard). If you see a plant that's not on your list, read up on it to make sure it will grow for you. Many gardeners have wasted money and had their hearts broken watching a beautiful plant die because they didn't have the right spot for it.
Choose plants that have firm, healthy-looking leaves. Wilted or pale green foliage is often a sign that the plant is unhealthy. Avoid plants with curled, black, or brown foliage. Inspect plants for insects, as well as brown- or black-spotted leaves, which often signal disease.
Even though you don't see the roots, they're one of the most important parts of the plant. Gently pop a plant out of its pot to examine the root system. The roots should be firm and white; if they're discolored or mushy, look for a better plant. Avoid rootbound plants. If the roots are circling the inside of the container, the plant is probably stressed.
It's easy for customers, or even a busy garden-center staff member to accidentally put a tag in the wrong plant's pot. Because plants sometimes get mislabeled, take a look at other plants with the same tag to make sure it matches.
The small Japanese maple in this picture cost $6. The larger specimen cost $60, and the tiny bare-root plant came from a mail-order supplier for $11. The large plant costs a lot more than the others -- but will look nice the day it's planted. Smaller plants will take years to develop similar structure, but you do save money by starting small. Think about how important instant impact is when making a purchase.
Certain plant groups (such as hostas, daylilies, and peonies) are the focus of plant collectors who have created a large number of cultivars, including some rarities. Generally, the more obscure, the more expensive. When it comes to rare plants, you're paying for scarcity, not their value as a landscape plant. In fact, some are rare because they're difficult or slow-growing -- the opposite of what most gardeners are looking for.
While we're drawn to beautiful flowers, it's always best to purchase plants that aren't in bloom. This is because flowering plants put energy into their beautiful blossoms. Plants that aren't blooming send more energy into becoming established in your garden. Short, stocky plants are usually better picks than tall, leggy ones. You may need to stake leggy varieties to keep them upright in your garden.
Garden center employees often feel rushed and may water inconsistently. So first look at the middle of a group of plants on the greenhouse bench. They're usually watered the best. The plants at the ends of the bench tend to be missed by the hose most often.
Keep your new purchases healthy on the ride home. If temperatures are below 40F, wrap tender plants in plastic to protect them from the cold. Keep your car windows rolled down if you go plant shopping in summer and have to make a stop on the way home. That way plants won't bake and die. Protect plants that hang out a window or are in the back of a truck from wind, which can turn the leaves brown or tear them from the plant.