Shop Smart at the Garden Center
Wagon filled with plants
Credit: Ngoc Minh Ngo
Here's how to prepare for your trip, spot healthy plants, and select the right tools.
- Survey your site and take notes. Be specific about how much land is available, how much sun it gets, and whether it’s dry or wet. If you are not sure about the condition of your soil, bring a small sample with you, buy a soil test kit, and ask a staff member to help you analyze the results.
- Take pictures. If you’re planting a foundation bed along one side of the house, for example, bring in a photo to reference where windows, utilities, and existing plants are located.
- Bring along the pots you plan to use. Or take photos of them (and jot down the measurements on the back). This will help a salesperson guide you to the right type and size of plants.
- Leaf through garden magazines and books to find plants you like. Make a list of names or bring in pictures of your favorites. Keep in mind that many people end up using a mix of perennials (“permanent” shrubs, trees, and plants) and annuals (varieties that bloom for one season).
Get Acquainted With the Nursery
- If you're a rookie gardener, try to visit the center on a weekday. The salespeople won’t be overwhelmed.
- Admire the plants in full flower, but buy those that are just budding. Their fireworks will last longer, and the plants will go through less transplant shock. If you must know the flower color, choose a plant with only a few opened buds.
- When you arrive, grab a wagon, and pick up plants as they catch your eye. You won’t have to hunt for those peony hybrids you saw two aisles ago, and it will be easier to imagine how everything will look together. Navigating the nursery is simple once you know how the plant types are usually arranged:
Perennials: Generally arranged alphabetically by botanical name (Hemerocallis), which can often be different from the common name (daylily). Have the staff translate, if necessary.
Annuals: Like shade plants, annuals will often be grouped in a separate covered area or a greenhouse.
Shrubs and trees: Usually grouped in yet another outdoor area and sold in containers, or “b and b” (balled and burlapped) if they are larger specimens.
- Note varieties. Many nurseries have display gardens of plants that thrive locally. Look there for ideas, then hit the aisles, keeping your specific needs in mind.
- Consider the climate. Potted plants are often organized by the conditions under which they flourish―“sunny/dry,” “shade tolerant,” etc. ―so you’ll know which will survive in your garden.
- Decide whether to buy pots or packs. Annuals are frequently sold in multipacks for much less than individually potted plants. If you are planting a large area, save money by going with small specimens; but if you’re planting in a mature bed, bigger is better.
Pick Healthy Plants
- Scrutinize the leaves and the stems. Compare them with other plants of the same variety: You want bushy specimens with many stems. If the plant is tall and spindly, chances are it’s had poor care. And unless the plant should have variegated leaves of a different color, look for a lush green.
- Check the roots. A plant’s primary source for delivering nutrition and water, roots are essential for a successful transplant from the nursery to your garden soil. To check their condition, gently tip the pot to one side and slide out the plant, soil and all. If the roots are cramped or curling around and around, the plant is “root bound” (shown, far left), which may cause growth problems down the line. On the other hand, if there’s a lot more soil than roots, the plant is underdeveloped. When you find a specimen with a balanced roots-to-soil ratio (shown, left), put that gem in your wagon.
- Never buy plants with:
Brown, crispy leaf edges: May indicate underwatering, stress.
Yellowing leaves: May indicate overwatering.
Papery, bleached leaves: May indicate spider mites.
Notched leaf edges: May indicate insect damage.
Too many broken stems: May indicate rough handling.
Tiny scars on undersides of leaves: May indicate insect damage.
Wilted, brown, or spotted leaves: May indicate fungal disease.
Buy the Right Gear
If you aren’t sure what supplies you need, seek advice from the staff. And even if you think you know, double-check your list with them. Here are the essentials for almost any project:
- Bagged materials: Topsoil, compost, mulch, and other planting materials are sold in bags by volume (cubic feet). Go to areamulchandsoils.com and use the online calculator to find out how much you’ll need. Input the dimensions of the planting area and a figure for how thick you need to apply the material (two to three inches for mulch). If a large quantity is called for―say, a few dozen bags―save money by buying in bulk (unbagged) and have the nursery deliver the goods to you by truck.
- Containers and hand tools: The variety of garden containers is wide: fragile yet beautiful terra-cotta, all-season fiberglass, weather-resistant cedar, and more. To find the right container for your project, see Planters for Any Garden. Many garden centers will plant your containers for a fee―a real time-saver. When it comes to hand tools, quality corresponds to price. A hand-forged trowel may seem pricey, but it will probably outlast a more cheaply made one.
- Long-handled tools: To make sure you have a basic arsenal, see A Guide to Gardening Tools for a list of essentials and how they work. If you’re in the market for a large tool, ask for a test drive: The store may have samples from the manufacturer or one for nursery use on hand. Check out the feel and the heft to make sure it’s a good fit for your height and strength.
- Hoses and watering cans: Watering right after planting settles the soil around the roots and provides the hydration necessary for a successful transplant. If you’re planting in an area that’s far from a faucet head, measure the distance to determine the length of hose needed. You’ll also need a hose attachment, such as a trigger sprayer. If the planting is small (in a pot or a little plot), a good-size watering can will do the trick.