Choosing and Buying Plants


Visiting your local garden centre can be an exciting experience; a bit like a department store for gardens, they have a huge range of materials, from gloves, spades and compost to ornamental plants, shrubs and trees. It can be very easy to let your enthusiasm get the better of you so that you end up buying plants on impulse just because they're unusual or pretty; however, if you're going to create a successful planting scheme, it's worth doing some homework BEFORE you go shopping.

1. Choosing the Right Plants for Your Garden Conditions

Before choosing your new plants, make sure that you find out the different conditions your garden has to offer. Consider the following points:

  • How much sun does your garden receive? Do you have several areas offering different levels of sun and shade?
  • What soil type do you have?
  • What are the moisture conditions?
  • Is the garden exposed to winds?

You should always aim to buy plants that will thrive in the conditions your garden has to offer, rather than trying to make the conditions suit the plant.

2. Design Issues

The second consideration is the plant's shape and form, colour, texture and scent. Will it harmonise with the existing planting? Is it easy to maintain? What size will it reach when mature? Make sure that the plant's characteristics will enhance your planting scheme.

One of the most common mistakes gardeners can make is to buy just a single specimen of a flowering plant. Unfortunately, plants can tend to look insignificant when planted individually; it is always better to buy at least three of a kind and arrange them in groups.

Buying Tips

Established plants may be bought in rigid containers such as plastic or terracotta pots, or polythene wrapped. Shrubs and trees may also be purchased 'bare-rooted' - that is with little soil around their roots - or 'root-balled', wrapped in hessian to prevent the soil falling away from the fibrous roots. Bare-rotted and root-balled plants must be bought in autumn or early spring when they are dormant, as they are unlikely to survive transplanting once they are in leaf.

Does it Look Healthy?

Avoid buying plants with any obvious signs of pests or diseases, yellowing or brown leaves or that have a lot of dead wood. However, you will need to bear in mind that herbaceous perennials tend to die down naturally in the autumn, so they may not look particularly impressive at this time of year. Deciduous shrubs should have an attractive, balanced shape, whilst evergreens should be bushy, with no broken stems or branches.

Checking the Compost

Check the compost in the pot to make sure it does not contain moss, weeds or liverwort. You will also need to ensure that the soil is not bone-dry - this indicates that the plant may have been subjected to a period of stress, and will take longer to reacclimatise to your garden.

Bedding Plants

When buying bedding plants, make sure that the plants are not leggy, have prematurely yellowing outer leaves or unusually early flowers: this is often a sign of stress. You should also be wary of buying half-hardy bedding plants when they first appear in the garden centres; it is usually better to wait until all risks of a late frost have passed, unless you are willing to protect them yourself until the time for planting out.

Containerised Trees

Containerised trees or shrubs should remain firm in the soil; if the roots start to come out of the soil when you lift the plant up by its stem, then this may indicate that it has recently been re-potted. Check the bottom of the pot; if there are a lot of roots pushing through the drainage holes then the plant is probably pot-bound. If in doubt, ask an assistant to remove the plant from the pot for you. If the roots are curling around the inside of the pot, the plant may take a long time to establish itself in the ground and will be vulnerable to wind damage.

You can often save money by buying smaller plants; in fact, it is usually preferable to purchase shrubs and trees when they are small, as they establish more quickly than very large specimens.

However, large herbaceous perennials can often offer good value for money as they may be divided up into several plants.