Treat yourself to these tips for making smart nursery purchases

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Originally published March 22, 2009
By Valerie Easton, former Natural Gardener writer

A SMART STRATEGY for grocery shopping is to stick to the fresh produce perimeter of the store, avoiding interior shelves loaded with processed goods. The stores are so vast and full of temptations that such tactics not only save time, money and sanity, but also help to ensure that we return home with food that is actually good to eat. .

For many of us, nurseries are even more alluring, especially in the spring, when plant fever is burning the most. Too often, we end up spending more than we planned on plants that cause longer-term problems than any packet of potato chips or Oreos. How many times have you unloaded your car after a jaunt through the nursery, only to wonder what made you buy six beds of candy pink begonias or that adorable little tree that will grow like Jack Bean? We have all done it. Unfortunately, the pleasure of hoarding plants is more than offset by the heartache of tending to an overplanted garden.

So how do you safely approach a well-stocked nursery on a sunny spring morning?

Give yourself plenty of time. Do not drink too much coffee before leaving; a buzz can get you in trouble. Relax, breathe deeply, don’t run and grab. It’s not the first day of the Nordstrom sale – there’s a lot of plants to browse, and if you miss something, you probably don’t really need it, anyway. (I know: what does need have to do with it?)

Start with your list. Much like a Netflix queue or a list of birds to see, most gardeners have a rolling list of wanted plants. Such lists keep us from wandering aimlessly around the nursery, and when we actually find that salvia or heuchera, we can confirm that it really is the genus we were looking for. But don’t be so mindful of your list that you miss out on anything new, special, or unusual that day.

Study how the place is organized. The tables in front usually carry seasonal plants in bloom. I always start there, just for fun. Most nurseries organize plants not only by type (trees, shrubs, perennials), but also by conditions. You will find tables of aquatic plants, plants resistant to drought, those suitable for shade, plants appreciated by butterflies. Never assume that just because you find a 4 inch artemisia in one place, they are not a gallon size elsewhere. Nurseries can be confusing. Always ask if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

Read the signs. Of course, it’s marketing, but they contain reliable information. If, after reading signs and labels, you are still not convinced of a plant’s hardiness or suitability, seek out the answer desk, which usually has reference books as well as a informed staff.

Get inspired. Study expert container plantings and demonstration beds. There’s no shame in copying the combinations you see on screen – in fact, nurseries employ talented designers in the hopes that you will.

Get to know plant buyers. At good nurseries, they know when a plant will be available, can order specific plants for you, and are happy to take your name and call you when what you’re looking for comes along. Often, they can suggest other possibilities or steer you away from problematic choices. Good nurseries are gateways to the wide world of plants; you never have to settle for what you find in stock on any given day.

Consider more than price. It is worth paying more for a plant with a beautiful shape, healthy foliage, a well-developed root system. In the case of plants that are still new to the market, you may want to wait, if you can, until next year, when the price will surely drop a little. Nurseries offer much more than shopping; think of them as both a bookstore and a library. Sometimes we run to a bookstore to buy a magazine or a bestseller, but other days we visit a library to really study a subject or bask in the wealth of books and knowledge. Let your nursery experience be part bookstore and part library, and your mindset, bank account, and garden will thrive.

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