The art of plant selection

By Todd Merrin, B.L.A. and Bruce Gaudette | Jul 27, 2011

One of our favorite parts of working in landscape design and construction is choosing plants at the nursery for clients.  

If you are anything like us, when you are visiting a nursery and see a beautiful new plant variety with unusual foliage or beautiful blooms, an instantaneous urge may come over you to purchase your find, plunk it into your garden, and never look back…  

If so, this column is for you.

We are here to tell you that when that urge rushes up within you, stop, take a breath and pause a moment!  Read the tag on the plant and ask yourself, “Is this really the plant my garden needs?”

If you don’t have the sunlight and space conditions in your garden that your new plant needs, those gorgeous blooms and foliage will fade like dashed dreams of garden greatness.  

The plants you are looking for should be researched ahead of time to fill specific needs in your garden.  If you are at the nursery to pick up the varieties that you already researched, then the following tips will help you to select the best plants possible.  

First, make sure that the plant you have selected is full and healthy looking.  Avoid plants with dead or dying leaves.  Pick up the plant or walk around it to inspect the foliage and branch or stem structure.  

Branches or stems should be evenly spaced and not crossing back into the middle from the outside. 

The pot should be heavy for its size, and the soil should be moist to indicate a recent watering.  

Select plants that seem large for their container for the best value.  We prefer plants that have plenty of buds that are about to flower, instead of picking those that are blooming at the time of purchase.  

That way, the budding plant will flower once planted in the garden, instead of having the bloom time cut short by the shock of planting.  

Also, you should check to make sure that the plant you are about to buy is not root bound.  Pop the plant out of its container without doing too much damage, and see if the roots are all grown together in a tangled mass.  If they are, it tells you that the plant should have been potted in a bigger container some time ago.  

Choose a plant that has a full set of roots but doesn’t look like it is strangling itself.  If members of the nursery staff throw you a furtive glance, just tell them that you are doing your due diligence!

Finally, if the plants you want do not pass the above set of tests, ask the staff when their next shipment is coming in.  Generally nurseries get new shipments of plants every week.  The arrival of large shipments to begin the fall and spring planting season are great times to go plant shopping.  

While you are at it, you can ask when their big sales are, then you can time your plant purchases on a seasonal basis when a new shipment has just come in, or when a sale is going on.  

If you are going to make improvements to your garden, it is worth it to have the most vigorous and healthy plants in the first place.  If you do your research first and follow these tips when purchasing, the plants you select will outperform their peers and your garden will be the better for it.  Happy hunting!

Bruce Gaudette, owner of Land Hoe! Landscape Design and Construction, holds an Associate Degree in Horticulture from Edmonds CC and industry certifications in paver and permeable paver installation.  Todd Merrin, designer for Land Hoe!, holds a degree in Landscape Architecture from CA Polytechnic Institute.

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