Guide to Shopping the Nursery
Our new garden columnist Kevin Espiritu helps you get the most out of a trip to every plant lover's favorite store
Nursery Bound: Your Guide to Shopping the Plant Store
Whether you’re a first-time plant buyer or an experienced gardener, shopping the nursery can be a daunting task, so here is a nursery guide to help you make the most of your visit. With hundreds of varieties lining the aisles, it’s hard to know what to buy, how to pick the right varieties, and how to know you’re buying healthy plants.
With more than a few growing seasons under my belt now, I’ve made just about every mistake under the sun at the plant nursery.
With that in mind, here’s my approach to shopping the nursery that will save you time, money, and the frustration of buying plants that simply don’t do well in your garden.
It might sound obvious, but spending even 15 minutes planning your trip to the nursery will prevent you from making most of the common mistakes. Do a quick scan of your growing space, taking note of the total amount of plantable space in your garden, as well as the lighting conditions.
Write down a rough idea of what you want to buy before you go. If you’re like me, you’ll probably add a few (or more) plants to this list as impulse buys, but I find making the list prevents me from going totally overboard.
The best time to go to the nursery is in the late morning during the middle of the week.
Most nurseries get new plant shipments Tuesdays or Thursdays, so you’ll have your pick from the newest arrivals. You’ll also dodge the weekend crowd, making your trip much more pleasant.
Make Sense of Plant Labels
Your eyes might initially glaze over all the important information on the back of a plant label. Filled with gardening jargon that you might not be familiar with, plant labels actually tell quite a bit of the story about how to successfully grow a plant.
Here’s what you’re likely to see on the back of a label:
COMMON NAME: The colloquial name for the plant, which can often depend on region.
SCIENTIFIC NAME: The actual Latin name for the plant, which tells you exactly what it is.
LIGHT REQUIREMENT: The most confusing part of the label for newer gardeners, plants can require full sun, partial shade, partial sun or full shade, and this may be relayed with words or pictures—or both. Here’s a breakdown of what all of that really means:
• Full sun means the plant requires at least six hours of direct sunlight to thrive.
• Part sun or shade illustrates that the plant needs three to six hours of sunlight a day.
• Full shade plants prefer—or can survive—with less than three hours of sunlight.
HEIGHT: How tall (or wide) the plant will grow when it’s at maturity.
SPACING: Refers to transplant spacing between plants and rows.
DEPTH: Found on the back of seed packets rather than seedling plants, this tells you how deep to sow the seeds.
MATURITY: The amount of time it takes for the plant to grow to the point where it produces fruits, flowers or is at full size.
Pick the Best Plants
At a nursery, not all plants are created equal. Here are some inspection tips:
First, look for browning tips and edges, which are indicative of sun stress or disease. Avoid tall, stretched-out plants.
Next, look at the roots. There should be some nice, white roots poking out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Don’t be afraid to pop the plant out of its pot to get a better look (as shown above). There should be solid root development to the bottom of the pot, but the roots shouldn’t be wrapping around the bottom of the container. If they are, the plant is root-bound and you’ll need to cut some of that root matter away when transplanting to avoid poor growth.
If you’re buying fruits or veggies that have already started to produce fruit, be wary. It’s often better to let fruit set in your garden rather than transplant a fruiting plant. The same goes for flowers. When in doubt, buy healthy-looking plants that have more buds than flowers. They’ll produce much more once transplanted than an already-flowering plant.
Finally, always inspect for pests or diseases so you don’t bring a contaminated plant into your healthy garden. Look in the crevasses of the plant, where stems attach to the main stem. Inspect the underside of leaves especially, as many pests love laying eggs there.
Hunt for Bargains
If you’re shopping on a tight budget or want to get the most for your dollar, look to clearance sections. Remember…there’s a reason most of these plants are in this part of the nursery, but hunt around and you can score a few killer deals.
Plants in the clearance section are often unhealthy or overgrown, because they didn’t sell during the season they were purchased by the nursery. They may have been damaged in transport, or be showing signs of wilting. If one of these plants is priced at bargain levels and it doesn’t look too bad, you might want to chance it.
My favorite bargain buys are plants or six packs that have been overseeded and the plants are crowding each other out. Buy a couple of these and carefully separate out each individual plant and you’re getting incredible value for your money. You’ll need to baby these plants a bit more than healthier ones, but with a little TLC they’ll often do quite well. And even if you lose half of them, you still come out the other side having saved money!
TIP: Don’t be afraid to make use of the staff—that’s why they’re there. If you come in with a prospective plant list, a sketch of your growing space and give them a little information about your growing conditions, most nursery staff will be able to take that information and recommend some plants or varieties that you may not know exist.