3 Pro tips to buy plants like a boss

It’s time to think about buying plants for your yard- you’re excited about some color and something new. But what do you look for? How do you know you’re getting a good deal? How do you know you’re getting quality plants? What if there’s more than one size- which one do you buy? They say plants are supposed to calm us, but all of this can raise some serious anxiety!

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I get it! That’s what I feel like when I’m buying makeup. When I walk into Ulta or another makeup store, I’m like a deer in headlights. I don’t know ANYTHING about makeup, and there are all these choices and prices and options.

You don’t want to spend too much money, you don’t really know where to go, when you get there you’re not sure where to begin. I brought my sister-in-law with me recently, and it was like I’d unlocked a new level or something. She knew all the options and what to avoid- that part seemed like the biggest super power to me. With so many choices, it was nice to ignore a whole lot of the store.

If that’s how you feel when you go to buy plants, take a deep breath. We’re going to break this thing down and set you up for success at the garden center.

You don’t have to be overwhelmed, and you don’t have to waste your money. So let’s break this down. A few important tips will get you on your way to buying plants with confidence.

1- BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER.
Clients often want to start with the biggest plants they can get, until they see the price tag. The secret is that, especially with trees, you can start with a smaller plant and save your pennies for something else. Here’s the deal: countless studies have researched how plants grow using trees of various species and various starting sizes in similar growing conditions. There is quite often NO DIFFERENCE in size after a few years. Countless studies of lots of different tree species have shown that the smaller plants catch up to the ones that started out bigger. And sometimes the larger plants suffer more transplant shock and never really recover, while the smaller ones just take off.

Take-home point: go big if you want immediate impact, but know that you can save money on smaller plants if you are willing to wait just a few years.

2- YOU’RE BUYING WHAT’S IN THE POT, NOT WHAT’S ABOVE IT.
What I’m talking about here are the roots. They matter most. Yes, the stem or branches or trunk matters. We need healthy plants- I won’t accept a tree with a damaged trunk on the job site. The plants have enough stress just with getting settled into their new home, so we don’t need to start off with injured material. All of this is more of a big deal when you’re dropping $250 or more on trees or shrubs, and may not be quite as important for a $20 perennial.

But no matter what, the most important thing to evaluate is what the root system is like. For plants in containers, you don’t want smelly potting media - the “dirt” should smell nice. The roots should be white, at least some of them, and they shouldn’t be packed super tightly in the pot. (That’s called being root bound, and it’s not ideal.) You don’t want something that just got planted, either- if you pull the plant out of the pot and tons of potting media falls away from the roots, it was just potted up. But you also don’t want to pull it out and the roots are so jammed in there you can’t get the plant out. right in the middle is what you’re after. Yes, I’m describing you at the nursery or garden center, pulling the plant out of its pot. I don’t do this every single time, but if I’m concerned about plant health, this is the first and most important place I look.

For ball-and-burlap plants, you still want to check what the soil is like where they’re grown. Ask the nursery staff to pull back the burlap so you can see the trunk, all the way to the flare where trunk becomes roots. Often this is below the soil line- don’t get those plants! Planting too deep is often a big problem.

For trees and shrubs, you want to check seriously for what’s called stem-girdling roots. The roots of all plants should grow AWAY from the center, not curve back around toward it. Girdling roots will kill a tree and waste your money and time.

Take-home point: Roots are really important, y’all. Get serious about what you’re buying.

3- COSTS OFTEN VARY WIDELY BASED ON SPECIFICS ABOUT THE PLANTS
Plant nurseries invest a whole lot of time, manpower and resources into their plants. When they can turn around a good-sized plant quickly, it doesn’t cost them as much and that gets passed on to you. When they have to invest years into a plant, it’s super expensive for their business and therefore pricey for you to purchase. Many evergreens are very costly, and this is because a nursery might have them for 10 years before they’re able to make a profit on them. That’s a lot of investment and a lot of risk. However, some evergreens grow pretty quickly and therefore are cheaper.

Other plants just don’t root very easily, or they’re picky about the substrate they’re grown in, or how much water they get - all of these things lead to higher prices for the consumer. Yes, some pricing is based on demand- popular plants can command a higher price. But also some of the pricing is just based on the reality of growing a particular plant. If you’re at a good nursery or garden center, they’ll have more than one option for you. Maybe you liked the Japanese maple, but the price tag scared you. Consider something like an elderberry, which is a fraction of the cost with similar dissected purple leaves and great fall color. If the sales staff don’t have ideas for you, ask if other staff members could help. Many nurseries are family run, and almost all are small businesses, so there’s bound to be a knowledgable plant person somewhere on site.

This may not help you at a big box store. I don’t shop for plants at hardware stores- rarely are the plants healthy there. Seek out an independent garden center in your area and give them your business!

Take-home point: Look around or ask the nursery staff if you like something that’s priced too high. There may be a comparable plant at a lower cost, or a smaller size (see above).

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I love plants, and I love yards that are full of them! Buying plants doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming. Take these tips and go to the garden center with confidence! Let me know if you have more questions.