20+ plant nursery and garden center tips

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I LOVE this time of year. There are waves of spring flowers blooming, blossoms and leaves appearing on trees (seemingly when you blink), and plant retailers are gearing up for new and seasoned green thumbs to appear with their shopping lists and questions. I enjoy visiting all the local plant sales, garden centers, and plant nurseries in my area. They all offer something different—different varieties, different prices, different ideas, different container combos, different merchandise I didn’t know I needed. Heading out with intentions to fill a blank slate garden, or even a small area of an established one, can be overwhelming. So I thought I’d compile a few plant nursery and garden center tips I’ve gathered over the years that help me when I’m making one of my multiple trips.

In southern Ontario where I live, the long weekend in May, which generally falls sometime around the 24th, is the benchmark date for getting all those heat-loving edibles, like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, as well as annuals, into the ground. This date will differ, depending on where you live and what Mother Nature has offered up in any given year. A good rule of thumb is to check your region’s frost-free date for your local safe-to-plant date. And keep an eye on the forecast in case there are any sudden predicted cold snaps.

Garden center tips: What to do when you walk through the doors of a plant-filled paradise

• First things first. Grab a cart, put your hat on (you don’t want a burn, do you?), and pull out your list. Did you make a list? If not, sometimes it’s better to make your first trip more of a scouting mission. See what’s out there, snap a few pics, make a few notes, and then come back when you’re ready to hand over your credit card.

• At this time of year, weekends can be hectic at my local garden centers. If I’m shopping on a Saturday or Sunday, I aim to arrive early. Otherwise, I try to shop during the week.

• Know your annuals from your perennials. Annuals last one season. They are great for containers and borders and filling in spaces. Perennials will come back every year, provided they are planted in the right conditions.

• Take a look at where plants are placed at the nursery. Without reading the tags, you can sometimes immediately tell which section displays the shade plants (they’ll likely be more protected, perhaps under an awning) and where the sun lovers are.

• I want to say budget schmudget, but I suppose it’s a good idea to know what you’re working with and to stay within that amount. If plants come in trays with a few cell packs, consider splitting the purchase with a friend or family member to cut down on the price. In the fall, I usually split my garlic order with my sister and we split on seed packets, too!

• I recommend checking local flyers for sales, and social media accounts for any other special deals (i.e. BOGO) or events that are scheduled.

• Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Staff should be able to help guide you if you’re not quite sure about a plant or you’d like recommendations of what to put in a certain area.

• Always read the plant tag—or the seed packet—closely. A few years ago, I planted zinnias all along the front of two of my raised beds, but I failed to read that they grew to be about three to four feet tall. They were beautiful and attracted bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, but they also shaded out the veggies behind them! Now I make sure to plant more compact varieties.

how to read a plant tag

The plant tag—or sticker, in this case—gives you all sorts of vital plant information, from the size it will reach and the conditions it likes (i.e. full sun/part shade/full shade), to its resistance to pests, like deer.

Plant nursery tips: Choosing plants

• Draw up a garden plan and prioritize the holes you want to fill first. Keep in mind you might not get everything you need in one trip. It’s also fun to shop around as all retailers order a different variety of plants.

• Rather than buying one plant here and another there, consider purchasing a grouping of odd numbers, like threes or fives, for more impact in the garden.

• Don’t be afraid to really analyze a plant. Gently pop it out of the pot to take a look at the roots. If the plant is really really root bound, see if you can find one that is a little smaller and comes out more easily.

• Look at container combos the nursery has planted up for inspiration. They might help with plant selection, colour choices, arrangements, and more.

• Don’t be dazzled by blooms. Go for the plants with unopened buds as they’ll flower after you get the plant home. Also check for new plant growth.

Garden center tips: Go for the plants that have more buds than blooms!

Go for the plants that have more buds than blooms!

• Plan for continuous bloom periods throughout the season. That means ensuring that something is always flowering throughout the season, from spring right through the fall. Plan to make a trip (or two!) back to the garden center mid summer and in the fall. You might discover a new favorite and you’ll get ideas for what to plant the following year.

• Sneak edibles into your ornamental garden and plan for flowers among the veggies. We like to call this concept #gardenbffs on Savvy Gardening, as there are so many benefits to planting food and flowers together.

• When shopping for edibles, look for strong, healthy plants. Avoid herbs, like basil, that have started to flower or plants, like tomatoes, that look leggy. If you have a small space, look for patio varieties.

• Don’t bring invasive plants home. Google charts that will show you what’s invasive in your region.

• On that note, choose plants that are native to the area in which you live. Do a little online research and ask the experts at your plant nursery for recommendations. Native plants will be appealing to pollinators and be able to withstand certain weather conditions common to your area, such as drought.

• If you want to garden organically, be sure that your plants have not been sprayed with insecticides before they’re put on the shelf. Also, scrutinize any plant you put in your cart for any evidence of insect damage or plant diseases.

• Don’t ignore the power of foliage. Flowers don’t always have to be the ones to take center stage. Sometimes leafy plants can make a big impact in the garden. Keep an eye out for heuchera and tiarella, hostas, weigela, brunnera, and coleus.

• If you’re afraid to plant Impatiens walleriana for fear of downy mildew, try alternatives that are resistant to the disease, such as SunPatiens and Rex begonias.

A few last garden center tips when you’re ringing through your purchases

• Does your local garden center offer a rewards card? I get points from two of my local nurseries and at least once a season it means money off a purchase.

• Did you remember to buy garden soil or compost? It’s a good idea to amend your soil in the springtime with compost, before you get all the plants in. Also, if you don’t have a compost pile, keep a bag or two of compost (mushroom, vegetable, shrimp, manure) on reserve and top-dress your edible gardens with it throughout the season to add nutrients back to the soil. If you need more than you can carry home in your car, arrange for a delivery.

• Speaking of deliveries, are there any other services your nursery offers, such as delivering and planting a large tree for you?

• Do you have trellises or other support systems—tomato and peony cages, obelisks, etc.—to hold up certain plants that need a little propping up?

Plant nursery tips: Have you figured out how you're going to stake your tomatoes this year?

Have you figured out how you’re going to stake your tomatoes this year?

• Check to find out if your local plant nursery or garden center has a recycling program to take back empty pots. Pots also come in handy when creating false bottoms in containers, so you might want to keep a few.

• If you aren’t planting right away, place plants in a safe, space. If you’ve brought home an impulse purchase and you don’t know what to do with it, plant it up in a spare space until you know where its forever home will be. Part of one of my raised beds is used for these plants, as well as others that might need a little nursing. A little plant hospital can also be used to nurture weak plants back to life.

• Keep your receipts and find out what your retailer’s return policy is before you head home with your purchase(s)!

• One of our readers, Julianna, posted this handy tip in the comments, which I totally forgot to include: “Make sure to line the trunk of you car with plastic to put plants on for the car ride home or have plastic bins to pop them into so they won’t fall over during the drive.” Great idea!

For more on selecting great plants for your garden, check out the following articles:

Have I missed anything? Add your nursery tips below!

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Plant nursery and garden center tips







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11 Responses to 20+ plant nursery and garden center tips

  1. Julianna says:

    Make sure to line the trunk of you car with plastic to put plants on for the car ride home or have plastic bins to pop them into so they won’t fall over during the drive.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for including “don’t bring invasive plants home” on your list of tips! PlantRight has a list of invasive ornamental plants that Californians should avoid, and several suggested alternatives for each one: https://plantright.org/about-invasive-plants/plant-list/

  3. Garden Dad says:

    Thanks a lot for these tips! I especially like the part where you’ve mentioned on bringing home a plant with only just buds instead of flowers. 🙂


  4. Artion Marra says:

    Very Nice Post!

  5. Yvonne de Valera says:

    What a really excellent site! I found it extremely helpful.
    A new fan from London

  6. Robin Burns says:

    Join a local Garden Club or Horticultural Society. They typically host great Speakers on a variety of topics and many nurseries offer members a discount on plant purchases.

  7. Maria Mazarura says:

    Thanks for mentioning the reward cards .i am about to start my own nursery , so rewarding clients is a brilliant idea, i will definitely look into that

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