7 Tips for Garden Centre Shopping

I'm completely at home wandering the aisles of a greenhouse or nursery – I grew up in my family's garden centre just north of Bradford, Ont. By age five I was helping customers select the healthiest hanging baskets (and shamelessly promoting my favourite plants) and, even now, on a busy May weekend I can be found watering everything from flats of annuals to potted perennials. But for many wannabe green thumbs, a spring visit to a large garden centre packed with plants can be plain overwhelming. Here are my tips to help you make the most of your shopping trip and your gardening dollar.

1. Do your homework and make a list

Grab a pad and pencil and take a walk around your yard to remind yourself what holes need filling and what plants might best fill the gaps. Consider your working style (all-out or laid back), overall gardening goals (these could include planting for year-round colour, privacy and shade) and your yard's variables (such as hardiness zone, soil type and hours of direct sun). A shopping list always helps you stay on track and within your budget. It also makes it easier to pass up impulse purchases (remember, you are looking for the right plant for the right place not the right price for no place).

2. Select the best annuals and perennials 

Check each purchase for abundant deep green foliage (check top and underside of leaves) and compact form with multiple healthy stems. Avoid any plants with cracked, blistered bark, spindly stems and damage – from frost (blackened areas on leaves), insects (leaf holes), mildew and disease (leaves with black, rusty or powdery white spots, yellowing or the prominent veining that can signal iron deficiency) or rough treatment. Turn the pot on its side and gently slide out the root-ball to check for lots of healthy firm, white roots that aren't overcrowded or creeping out the drainage holes. And don't forget to take a plant with more buds than blossoms (why buy one in full glory when you could watch it gloriously unfold at home?).

3. Choose healthy shrubs and trees 

Always look for healthy roots and foliage first. Avoid evergreen shrubs or trees that have yellow, brown or decaying needles at their centres. Check for good overall shape and strong branches with no dieback on branch tips, or any split or damaged bark. Pick trees that each have a single strong leader, a sturdy trunk, and an open crown with lateral branches that grow out (not up or down) and don't cross. Most smaller shrubs and trees are sold in pots; if they've been container grown, their roots should be undamaged and adapt well when transplanted. Bigger ones are sold balled and burlapped; check that the root-balls are firm and moist, and avoid any with thick broken roots poking through the burlap.

4. Pick the perfect rosebush 

If you're new to roses, I recommend hardy, easy-care Canadian Parkland and Explorer roses and David Austin English roses over the more finicky hybrid tea roses. Again, look for healthy roots and foliage, as well as three to five sturdy well-spaced canes with swelling buds. Choose potted roses (rather than those in cardboard) and avoid any with soil that is dry, waterlogged, mossy, mouldy or – my pet peeve – sprouting with weeds. 

5. Read those plant tags! 

These are actually mini instruction manuals that list each plant's hardiness zone, and sun and shade requirements. Some also include information on planting, fertilizing and watering, or suggest companion plants.

6. Don't forget the fertilizer

Soil is the soul of your garden; if it's happy, your plants will be, too. Soil amendments such as bonemeal, coir fibre (an eco-friendly alternative to peat moss) and composted manure may be helpful. And (if you're not composting yet) this might be the perfect time and place to buy a compost so you can create your own nutrient-rich soil amendment on-site. 

7. Don't be afraid to ask!  

There are no stupid questions. Good garden-centre staff are a great source for all kinds of free advice, such as how to plant and maintain whatever's in your pots, and suggestions such as amendments to suit your soil type. They will tell you about their best deals, newest stock and what's coming in soon (ask about the delivery date, so you can have first pick), as well as their hardiest and favourite varieties. If you bring photos of your yard, they'll also give you design tips and advise you on reliable local landscapers. Just remember that staff will have more time to talk if it's not the first nice spring weekend (as busy as the last shopping day before Christmas) and, usually, in off-peak times at the start or finish of the business day. This article was originally published in the June 2008 issue of Canadian Living and at http://bit.ly/1oeyuah