Get Nursery-Schooled: Buying Tips

Shop smarter by choosing plants from the garden store that will thrive.


Choose your plants wisely at the nursery and your investment will pay off.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company.

Image courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company.

Choose your plants wisely at the nursery and your investment will pay off.

If you want a plant to survive and thrive in your garden, be a picky buyer. “Don’t be seduced by a cheap price,” says Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for plant breeder Monrovia.“You get what you pay for. Your eye will tell you whether something is healthy or not.”

You’re looking for a solid root system, vibrant foliage and suitability for the conditions you’re going to put it in.

Staddon offers this advice for selecting winners:

Make Sure the Plant Has a Proper Label 

Without good labeling, you don’t know what you’re getting—don’t settle for vague information. Ideally, a label will include the following:

  • A picture of the plant.
  • The common name of the plant and the botanical name. The difference in size, shape and growing conditions between cultivars of the same species can be enormous—if the label isn’t specific, you could end up with something totally wrong for your space.
  • The hardiness zone, which indicates whether a plant will survive the winter in your area. “It might be that you’re buying a plant that is one zone too tender for the one you live in,” Staddon says. “That can work if you offer it a suitable microclimate—that’s what those of us in ‘zonal denial’ do.” He notes that the warm area where your dryer vent empties outside is a great place for a plant that needs a little “zone push” to survive.
  • The height and width of the plant at maturity. “Many people choose plants that are too big for the space,” Staddon says. “Know that plants grow toward the larger end of their range in warm and humid areas.”
  • Flowering time, watering needs and general planting instructions.

Eyeball the Foliage

The plant’s structure should be pleasing to the eye, not spindly, overcrowded, or misshapen. The leaves should look vigorous and perky, with strong color, and show no signs of mildew, black spots or extensive insect damage. But the presence of insects isn’t necessarily bad—some, in fact, may be beneficials intentionally released by the grower to control pest bugs. Ask the nursery owner to be sure.

Check the Roots

“It’s really important that the plant has a nice fibrous root system,” Staddon says. “But if you see big roots coming out of the drain holes or going round in a circle at the surface—that’s called girdling—put the plant down.” Nursery owners shouldn’t mind if you want to tip the plant out of the pot to see its nether regions—although it’s nice to ask first, since some plants such as bougainvillea have sensitive roots that don’t like to be touched.

Healthy roots are especially important when you’re making an expensive purchase of a long-lived plant—say, a shrub or a tree. Root bound perennials, on the other hand, can recover with some TLC. “They will just be relieved to get in the ground,” Staddon says. Plus it’s no major financial loss if the plant bites the dust.

Do Your Planning Before You Get to the Garden Center

If you focus only on buying plants in bloom, your garden will have only one season of interest. Spring nursery displays tend to focus on plants that are showiest in spring—but many brilliant additions to your garden bloom later and therefore won’t look spectacular when you buy. Research your options in books or online and visit botanical gardens to see what grows best in your area. Then go shopping with a list based on making your garden look beautiful all year round.

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