12 tips to help gardeners buy plants

Plants by Rectory Gardens

Gardening is a wonderful pastime, but buying plants can be daunting, especially for new gardeners. How do you sift through the hundreds of new varieties on offer each year? Here are my tips for success:

  • Look for a garden centre or speciality grower where all the plants look well cared for – not just on the day of delivery, but weeks later – or buy online or at a flower show from a reputable nursery.
  • Don’t try to do everything at once. I once spoke to the neighbour of a newbie American gardener who spent $3,000 planting a beautiful garden of annuals, not realising that they would all be gone by the end of the year. Annuals flower in their first season, set seed and die; true perennials will live for years given the right conditions; biennials or short-lived perennials are somewhere in between. Check before making a significant investment.
  • Many gardeners prefer to buy plants in summer in full flower. This has shaped a whole industry, not always for the better. Plant perennials in spring or autumn so the plants have more time to get established before they flower. It’ll get you more in tune with the natural seasons too.
  • New introductions are often more expensive, as it can take several years for the breeder to build up stock. Innovation is good, but don’t assume that new varieties are always better than plants that have stood the test of time. Of course, if you happen to fall in love with a sensational new variety, by all means snap it up while you can!
  • If buying mail order, don’t worry whether your plants will arrive potted or as bare roots. Either is fine.
  • Bare rooted plants are cheaper, as they are easier to transport and you’re not paying for the pot or the soil.  They are only sent out when the plant has stopped actively growing for the year.
  • Never be afraid to ask your gardener friends or nursery staff for help to choose. Explain your likes and dislikes and tell them a little about the conditions the plants will live in (sun or shade, in a pot or in the ground, sandy soil or clay). These people love talking about plants!
  • Grow plants from seeds. Why not? Start with annual varieties that are simple to germinate, will flower in a few months and can be either sprinkled in the garden or are sturdy enough to transplant easily. If you can eat them too, so much the better!
  • It’s much easier to choose when you can compare the habit and fragrance of the living plant. Horticulture shows are a fantastic way to talk to speciality growers, but early in the season, you may be seeing young plants that have been artificially forced. This can change the character and even the colour of the plant.
  • Visit a few display gardens in your part of the country to see the scale and beauty of the established plant in a garden setting. Follow your local NGS (The Yellow Book) on Twitter to find out when private gardens in your area will be open for charity.
  • As you enjoy the gardens, look out for plants you often see looking great. These are probably easy to grow and will do well locally. Take a picture on your camera phone to remind you – and don’t forget to snap the label too, if there is one.
  • When you see a spreading plant you crave in a friend’s garden, be cheeky and ask if they can let you have seeds or a small piece with a decent root on it. Gardeners are usually happy to share, or at least to tell you where you can buy one, if sharing is not practical.

When you’ve made your purchase, take the time to read and follow the planting and care instructions. These should be provided online, on the plant label or in a care leaflet that arrives with the plant. If in doubt, ask your supplier for help.