Nurseries are so seductive, especially the big ones. You walk down rows and rows of plants that have been coddled and coaxed into looking their very best. And they always display a multitude of them in a group, standing at attention. You are smitten and must have this one and that one over there and wouldn’t that one look just splendid by the front door? But then comes the reality of choosing the one or few from among that pack to take home with you. Here are some tips for savvy shoppers.
• Just as you were attracted to the mass of plants on display in the nursery, many plants show off to even better advantage if they are planted in multiples in your garden. Onesies and twosies can work for large or striking specimens, but very often a group (minimum of three, please) will create a much better effect. Consider their space requirements and plant them just a tad-not too close now-closer than their ultimate size would indicate. In this way, they will create a unified mass instead of looking like polka dots. Buy and plant in odd numbers, as well. Too much unwitting symmetry can happen when even numbers of plants are grouped together.
• Shop for economical sizes of perennials, shrubs, and trees. Very often the smaller plants can easily catch up to their larger brethren within a season. That one-gallon pot of Alstroemeria will increase quickly to equal the five-gallon one that will cost at least two to three times as much. Even large, long-lived trees can make impressive growth in just a few years. A 15-gallon coast live oak will adjust to its new home more quickly and outstrip that 24-inch boxed one in about three years. The exception to this rule would be when buying annuals. They are on stage for a brief time, so look for the most bang for your buck in the short term.
• Now to inspecting the plants themselves. Obviously you look for healthy green foliage. The color should be even, without spots or streaks of yellow, or other “off” colors. Variegated plants are an exception, but you should be able to gauge their health just as easily. Foliage color will be affected by pests, as well as overall plant health, so don’t be intimidated into thinking that since the plants were professionally grown, they will be perfect in every way. Just as they do in your garden, pests infest nurseries, either the one where the plants were produced or the one in which they are being displayed for sale, so do a little snooping among the leaves and along the stem. If you find aphids, mites, or whitefly, don’t buy the plant and do everyone (including the nursery owner) a favor by showing the affected plant to attending personnel.
• Don’t be shy about inspecting the root system as well. If you feel intimidated by tipping the plant out of its pot by yourself, enlist the help of nursery staff. Roots should be visible, but not totally filling the pot. Root-bound plants may have a difficult time breaking into their new situation. When planting, some root balls can be teased apart to help in the process and woody shrubs and trees can stand some root pruning before planting to encourage new root growth. Seasoned gardeners have no qualms about slicing off the bottom inch or so of a root ball and perhaps making some shallow slits into the sides of the root mass from top to bottom to encourage new root branching. If you are squeamish, buy only plants that have room to grow in their pot. They will find your garden an easy extension of that space.
Check for weeds, too. You have diligently removed these pesky competitors from your garden; don’t bring them back with your new purchases. Pass over the pot that has weeds or looks like it might have had them (the seeds could still be in the potting mix). And if you find evidence of them when you get your purchases home, shake as much of the potting mix off (into the garbage can) before planting them in their new home.
One last piece of advice; look for a plant tag that includes the complete botanical name of your new purchase. If the tag also contains information about the plant’s water and exposure requirements, so much the better. If it only has the correct name, however, you will be able to find this information, either in gardening books or on Web sites.