Garden centers, with their vast collections of plant colors, sizes and shapes, can be intimidating to inexperienced buyers. But you can become a discerning purchaser with a little homework and by quizzing the sales people as you shop.
"Usually, when shopping, I go early before the crowds and also before the staff are worn out," said Jack McKinnon, a garden coach from the San Francisco Bay area. "I like asking questions like, 'What are you getting in next?' 'What is new?' and 'What is the most popular now?' If it is early (in the season), you may learn a lot that puts you ahead of the masses in designs and trends."
The most important factor in plant shopping, however, is the health of the plant, McKinnon said.
"As one nurseryman I trust says: 'Don't accept ugly plants.' And he doesn't give refunds."
How can you tell if a plant is diseased, pest-ridden or beyond its prime?
"Look for any unusual brown, black or gray spotting on the foliage," said Rizanino (Riz) Reyes, a landscape designer and owner of RHR Horticulture in Shoreline, Wash., a Seattle suburb.
"Any dead sections that are beyond just grooming to make it look good should be avoided," he said. Also avoid plants "that may be unusually red or sickly yellow looking."
It's a good idea to check plant roots at the nursery. It's risky to buy plants that are root-bound, too wet or too dry, although that may mean removing them from the pot to examine them.
"If you politely ask a garden center staff member, any reputable retail center should stand by their product and allow you to do it, or they may do it for you," Reyes said.
Other plant-buying-like-a-pro tips:
Shop by price and shop the sales. Find out when new plants are usually delivered and displayed.
Bare-root, container grown, or balled and burlapped? "Bare-root plants have not had a chance to get root-bound in a pot, and you can see what you're buying," McKinnon said. "Both are definite advantages."
Work from a plan. "I recommend having a general list so you avoid too many impulse buys on plants that may not end up getting planted or worse, get forgotten," Reyes said.
Annuals vs. perennials. "Perennials come back and can look great year-round," Reyes said. "Annuals provide traffic-stopping impact and remarkable color. You save and have the most incredible garden by integrating both."