In the Garden: Plant Buying Tips

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By Charles Kidder

Shopping for Pansies at Millmont Garden Center and Greenhouses in Stuarts Draft.
Shopping for Pansies at Millmont Garden Center and Greenhouses in Stuarts Draft.

Fall is the best time for planting many garden favorites, so let’s review your options for what most gardeners regard as the most enjoyable aspect of our hobby: buying plants!

Usually you can find the plants you want at a local garden center just down the road. The staff will not only know their plants, but will be familiar with the growing conditions in western Albemarle. They can answer questions about what plants will do well on your property, whether you have sun or shade, damp or dry.

Garden centers are not really the same as nurseries, although the terms are often used interchangeably. The latter term refers to a business that actually propagates its own plants, and then usually sells them wholesale to retail garden centers. They sell plants obtained from many nurseries in order to provide a wide variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, etc., to their customers; they’ll also carry all the pruners, gloves, hoses and gewgaws you need for your garden. These distinctions aren’t always hard and fast, however. Viette Nurseries over in Fishersville is a true nursery, specializing in daylilies, but they also sell to retail customers.

Buying plants at big box stores is another option. Prices are low, but expert horticultural advice may be in short supply. A general rule of thumb for shopping at such places: try to buy your plants shortly after they come off the truck from the nursery. With small staffs, plant upkeep and watering is often spotty, so the longer that shrub is sitting around, the greater the danger that it might suffer from neglect.

If you can’t find the plants you want at local retailers, there is always the very seductive option of mail-order nurseries. Whether it’s the traditional printed catalogs or their online counterparts, they offer just about any plant you can imagine. Whether they will actually grow in your yard is another matter. This is definitely the world of caveat emptor. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the glossy pictures and the gushing verbiage. These horticultural wonders can look and sound even better than the actual plant sitting on a bench at the garden center. And you have to read between the lines of the horticultural puffery. “Give plenty of room to romp!” or “spreads quickly in good soils” can translate to: These plants will take over your garden!

Seeds and bulbs are the ideal forms of plants to receive in the mail. Bulbs are dormant, and seeds are lightweight, to boot. So, no worries about the shipper leaving live plants to cook on your porch while you’re away for the weekend. Asking friends about mail-order companies is always a good idea, but if that doesn’t work out, try the website Dave’s Garden. It has customer reviews and rankings of over 7,000 mail-order outfits; if nothing else, some of the rants make for interesting reading! A very quick glance at their current top 30 companies revealed at least two Virginia nurseries, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, and Lazy S’S Farm and Nursery.

What about the size of plants you buy? With mail order, you don’t have a heck of a lot of choice. Plants will typically be small—or tiny—but considering shipping costs, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Perennials generally come in 24 oz. pots, which by some horticultural magic are often called “quarts.” (Not surprisingly, their three-quart pots are often called “gallons.”) This is primarily a type of shorthand rather than any kind of intentional deception, and catalogs nowadays are pretty likely to state the true size.

I don’t have any consistent preference for quarts or gallons when I am purchasing perennials. Perhaps if I am buying only one of a particular plant and want quicker results, I’ll go for the bigger size. But if I’m purchasing several of the same plant, I’m more likely to get the smaller size, so that expenses don’t get out of hand. Sometimes I think that the gallon plant will have an easier time getting established in the garden, but I have no evidence to back that up. Either size will require frequent watering in its first year.

Make sure that when you buy a gallon plant you are not just buying a pot with more soil. When a nursery raises a plant, it is put into increasingly larger pots as it grows. When a quart plant is “promoted” to a gallon pot, there is initially a lot more dirt than plant in the container. A good nursery will not sell the plant at this stage, so if you receive such a plant, consider registering a complaint.

Woody plants can be purchased in just about any size from a gallon to something with a root ball of several tons. (The latter is moved and planted with a special device known as a hydraulic tree spade.) Unless you absolutely must have instant gratification, I lean toward smaller plants, perhaps no larger than 10 gallons. This is less plant to heave into your car, plus it’s a lot easier to dig a smaller hole in Piedmont clay. And it will require smaller quantities of water—but not less frequent watering—during its establishment. One more reason to buy smaller rather than large: I have seen at least one study showing a smaller plant catching up with its larger cousin in a couple of years.

By the way, don’t pay too much attention to fancy plant “brands” with catchy names and colorful plastic pots. I’m sure that they’re fine plants, but probably no better than plants in plain old black containers.

Enjoy your plant buying. Just don’t forget to put them in the ground, admittedly not as much fun as picking them out.

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