how to shop for plants

How to Shop for Plants

A garden is only as good as the plants in it. The quality of the plants is largely influenced by where you buy them and how you select them. Last week I talked about some of the key qualities that determine if a plant is the right fit for your space, including regional climate considerations and growth habit. There are a few other key considerations you will want to take into account when shopping for plants, and knowing them will help you make smarter decisions about what plants you bring into your yard. 

Where to Shop

When it comes to finding high quality plants that are best suited for your area, nothing beats shopping at an independent/local retail nursery. The box stores have their role in the gardening food chain, but purchasing decisions are made at market level, meaning, plants that are available in the box stores may not be appropriate for your local climate and conditions. Also, because they are buying for the lowest common denominator, the selection and variety are sparse, especially when it comes to native, organic, and edible options. 

Local nurseries, on the other hand, buy for your specific area, usually focusing on varieties for a specific county. That means the plants are suited for the climate, soil conditions, and ecology in your backyard. Also, since they specialize in plants, they attract and hire plant people who are passionate and knowledgable about the inventory they carry. Local nurseries also offer lots of education on all things gardening related and host seminars by local experts (such as yours truly), many of which are free to the public. 

Condition of the Plant

Once you know where to shop, the next thing to consider is the condition of the plant itself. Select lush varieties that are free of any damage. Check and make sure the soil is at least damp. Avoid buying plants that are completely dry (unless they are supposed to be), as that’s usually a sign of neglect. 

Size of the Pot

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash
Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

When you go to the nursery, you sill see them grouped, labeled, and priced by size. This is where many people get confused. Wilson Bros Gardens has an excellent post outlining the most common sizes, which range from a pint, or 3-4”, up to a 7 gallon plant.

It’s important to note that these are not true liquid gallon measurements and that a plant’s crown/canopy can vary greatly depending on species and other factors. Still, knowing theses sizes and how to identify them will help you in making purchasing decisions. 

Word of Caution

Don’t forget that plants grow, and the size they are in the pots is not the size they will mature to. Plant according to maturity size not the pot size when you purchase it. 

Organic Versus Conventional

Another key consideration when shopping is the use of pesticides. Pollinator and edible gardens are becoming very popular. Pollinators are especially vulnerable to pesticides. Many of those used in conventional growing operations can render pollinators sterile or even kill them. I have not been able to find data on the life span of chemical usage in nursery operations post-purchase. I’ve also erred on the side of caution and looked for options produced with organic practices. It’s also important to use native species of plants, as many varieties of natives that are bred by growers lose the benefits to pollinators in the breeding process. 

Transporting Plants Home

After you’ve made your plant selections there is one more key factor to keep in mind and that is how to safely transport them home. It’s best to stack the plants flat and level inside a covered space, such as a trunk or enclosed trailer. If you must transport them in an open truck bed, keep them low and/or cover them with a tarp to protect the plants from wind damage when driving. Even at 30 miles per hour, wind whipping across the truck bed can strip plants of vital leaves/foliage.  On the highway, it’s the equivalent of sticking them inside the path of a tornado. Once damaged, it’s hard for them to recover. 

Overall, the more informed you are about what plants work best in your yard and how to shop for quality plant material, the more successful your garden will be. It’s hard work making a garden. Make smart choices so your money and your effort don’t go to waste. 

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