Friday, May 18, 2018

Beginner Series: Getting the Most Out of a Garden Centre Visit

For most Canadians, the long weekend in May marks the start of the gardening season in earnest. The danger of overnight frost is unlikely and it is finally safe to plant tender annuals and vegetables.

If the fine spring weather holds this weekend, garden centres will be crowded with eager shoppers looking to buy plants.

Here are a few tips that might help you make sense of the overwhelming choices and make the most of your plant shopping dollars.

The shiny leaves of this shade plant caught my eye, so I took a picture. I went home and looked it up online. Once I figure out a home for it, I may go back and get one.

Try to avoid Impulse Purchases

When it comes to plants, I am the worst one for making impulse purchases! It comes with being a plant geek. I see something new or unusual and just I have to have it. But here's what I've learned the hard way– those spur of the moment purchases end up languishing in their nursery pots while I try to figure out where to put them.

I solved the problem somewhat by creating a nursery bed for strays, but even so, impulse buys often spend a year or more on hold waiting for a final location in the garden. By that time, they are often big and awkward to move. So here are a few strategies I now use to avoid the issue:

• Take a stroll through your garden with a pen and paper in hand. Take note of any holes in your planting schemes that need a little something. If you happen to know which plant would work perfectly in these spots, start a list. If you don't know exactly which plant to buy, at least tally the purchases you require for sun or shade.

• When it comes to annuals, it's fun to wait and see what strikes your fancy at the garden centre. Even so, I'd recommend having a mental tally of the number of plants you will need to fill your containers and baskets.

• If something catches your eye, but you have no idea where you'd plant it, resist the urge to make an impulse buy. Instead, take out your phone and snap a picture of the plant tag for future reference.

Summer and late summer flowers top row from left to right: Phlox paniculata, Brown-eyed Susan, (Rudbeckia) and Sedum. Bottom row: Daylily (Hemerocallis), Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and Coneflower (Echinacea)

Make a point of buying at least a few plants that bloom in mid-to-late summer. 

A picture on a plant tag is helpful, but something in bloom is way more tempting, isn't it? The problem with filling your shopping cart with perennials in bloom is you'll end up with a garden of plants that flower in the spring and early summer. Come mid-July and August you'll be disappointed with the lack of color.

Before you head to the garden centre, draw up with a list of a few options that will give you color in July, August and September (see image above for just a few of the many possible choices).

• Annuals might be short-lived, but they will give you color all summer long. I think of them as a short-termed investment that always pays off.

Avoid the Showy Perennial in Full Bloom

You're looking at a tray of perennials. Some are already in bloom. Others pots have plants with flower buds. Which is the better purchase?

I say, always buy the plant with buds, not flowers. Most likely a perennial in bloom has already used up a good portion of its flowering time. Better to reach for the one with buds and enjoy the flowers for a longer period of time in your garden.

I feel sorry for the unwitting shoppers who buy expensive flowers like the foxglove (above). Foxgloves are biennials that flower in their second year. While that tall, impressive stock of blooms is a show stopper, it's also a sign that the foxglove is near the end of its short life. If you were to pay almost twenty dollars for this large potted plant, it may continue to flower for a few weeks. Then it will set seed, look bedraggled for a number of weeks and eventually die. If you love foxgloves, buy an inexpensive packet of seeds and grow them yourself.

Other plants that you often see in a large pot with a hefty price tag are delphiniums and lupins. It's much better and cheaper to buy a smaller plant and wait for it to bloom. Unlike the foxglove, they will continue to reward you with flowers.

Small plants on the left and bigger plants on the right. Which is better?

Smaller versus Bigger Plants 

You're looking at two trays. One has large perennials in big pots for $10.99 and the other has much smaller versions for just $4.99. Which is the better option?

If money is tight, I say go with the smaller, less expensive pot. Get it into the ground as quickly as you can, water it well and keep an eye on it for the first summer. It will bulk up soon enough.

• If you can afford it, the larger pot will give you instant impact.  On the other hand, I seem to find that large plants settle in okay, but don't always do as well as one might think the second year. Not sure why that is...

There are always exceptions to any rule. There are some long-lived perennials that are really slow to grow and establish. Gas Plant, Baptisia and Amsonia are great examples. They take years to reach any size. In these instances, I think it's worth it to buy the bigger plant.

Sometimes there is no smaller option. Peonies, for instance, are always sold in large pots with a proportional price tag. Ornamental grasses are yet another example. They're big plants, so it is hard to find a pot for under $10.

A few perennials are just plain pricy regardless of the pot size. Hosta and heuchera are a perfect example. Only you can decide if they are worth it.

Hemerocallis 'Orange Smoothie' reblooms. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners® 

New Cultivars versus Old Favourites

Gardening, like so many other things, has trendy items. It's expensive to develop and trial new cultivars, so that's usually reflected in the price tag.

When it comes to choosing the latest introduction or the old standby, I think it all comes down to your budget. You'll get more for your money by buying older cultivars. That being said, sometimes the new introduction has advantages to offer– a bigger flower, a longer bloom time or a smaller overall size. These advantages will sometimes make new introductions worth the extra money.

Problematic Goutweed lying in wait.

Beware the Problem Plant

Not every plant that you'll find in a nursery or garden centre is well-behaved. Retailers often sell plants that many consider problematic or invasive. 

For me a problem plant is not just aggressive, it's also a plant that is hard to remove where unwanted. The best thing a gardener can do is to avoid problems with invasive plants in the first place. Here are a few suggestions to help:

 • Pay heed to descriptives. A "groundcover" will spread out more or less aggressively to cover a wide area. If that's not what you are looking for, try to find an alternative that is "clump-forming."

• Take note of the manner a plant spreads and how quickly it does so. "Spreads by creeping rhizomes" means the plant will travel underground. "Prolific self-seeder" may also be an issue, if you dislike removing unwanted seedlings.

• The internet is an amazing resource. Before you plant something that is unfamiliar, look it up online. Type something like: "Is Creeping Jenny invasive?" into the search engine of your choice. If you get a long list of results, I'd think twice about planting Creeping Jenny.

• Make sure a particular plant doesn't have an invasive alert for your region. Some plants are fine in one part of the country but can be a problem in other regions where growing conditions are very favourable. Again the internet is a great research tool.

Reserve some of your overall budget for the unexciting but necessary stuff.

It is really tempting to blow all your money on plants. I always try to remind myself that I will need some slow-release fertilizer for my containers and hanging baskets. I also try to leave money for some organic fertilizer for my roses and mulch to keep weeds in check.

If your plant shopping this weekend, have fun picking and choosing your plants. Just think how wonderful your garden will look this year!


  1. These are all such wonderful tips, Jennifer, especially for me, since I fall into many of these pitfalls every spring/summer season! :-)

    Thank you!!

  2. good tips Jennifer. I've learned them over the decades. But one thing I used to be bad for was being an impulse buyer. I'd often go in with a specific purchase in mind (which I did buy) but seems I always came home with an impulse buy or two! Now that we have the tiniest little bit of a yard, I simply can't impulse buy anymore -- there isn't a speck of room!


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