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Getting the most out of nursery visits

  • Dot Zanotti Ingels
  • Some tips from an expert cruiser.

    For me, cruising a nursery is like cruising a gelateria. Where to start? What to choose? Impulsiveness at the nursery will not put pounds on the hips, but it can take a chunk out of your wallet. A few simple strategies can help you get what you want and what you need to make your garden grow just the way you want it to develop.

    First, take some time to look around your garden to see what is in need of replacing or where there are spaces that need filling or refreshing. Note the sunlight that visits those spots. Consider the size, texture, yield and color you want to add. Consider the kind of plants you want. This goes for vegetables and herbs as well as shrubs and flowers. Remember that annuals last just one season and will need replacing each year. Perennials will perform for many seasons when properly cared for. Check your supplies of soil supplements, fertilizers and mulch. Take the time to make a list and establish a budget so you can prioritize as you go and avoid expensive, impulsive mistakes.

    Next decide where you want to buy your plants and supplies. Local nurseries are generally supplied with the plants that they know will do well in your climate and are staffed with horticultural folks who are familiar with your area. They know their suppliers and can speak to their stock quality. Large garden centers often have an extensive inventory but the quality may be more variable and it's sometimes difficult to find the knowledgeable advice you need. Mail-order catalogs offer variety but carefully note the climate zone for each choice you make. The catalogs are distributed nationally and your yard may be too cold or too hot for some of the tempting choices.

    Now choose your plants carefully. Look for plants that have healthy foliage that is free from signs of disease or pests. Check to see that the roots are robust and numerous but are not coming out of the container's bottom drain holes. If there is a solid mat of roots or roots coiling around the pot, the plants are probably root bound and stressed. Avoid plants that are wilting or have any brown, dead foliage. If you have a choice between similar plants, pick the one with compact growth and more buds than flowers. Root growth ceases while the plant is blooming so a plant not yet blooming has a good chance of better establishing itself before the show begins. Plants in 4-inch nursery pots are less expensive, can often catch up to the larger ones pretty quickly and best handle the stress of transplanting. Instant effect, of course, can be achieved with 1-gallon plants with a bigger price tag. Sometimes a larger perennial plant can be divided into several smaller plants.

    Study the plant tags. How big will that little plant get at maturity? Does it need sun or shade? Is it an aggressive grower that may overwhelm its garden neighbors? Does it need a lot more water than you are prepared to give it? Do you have the right soil quality to meet its needs? Will it bloom once and then be done for the year or is it a repeat bloomer?

    Gather all your purchases together when you have toured the whole nursery and review your choices. Check what you see with your list and your budget. Ask lots of questions about soil and plant maintenance. Then head home for a great day in your garden.