Practical Permaculture – How To Buy Plants


Photo from September 2012 – A reminder to choose a variety of plants that bloom at different times of the year… There’s nothing worse than a beautiful spring garden that is colorless in the fall… Try to look at the big picture…

I thought this would be a good time of year to write a post on purchasing plants. With all of the attention I put on caring for them, I might as well write one on acquisition. You can buy plants locally or through the mail, both are typically good sources. When you buy plants locally, you get the added benefit of instant gratification. When you order through the mail, you get the thrill of waiting for a package full of plants.

Before you run out the door this spring with credit card in hand, consider a word of caution: All nurseries are not created equal. They vary greatly in the quality, selection, and price of the plants they sell. Further, and much more importantly, they vary in the amount of expertise their employees possess.

The first time I visit a nursery or garden center, I ask a question that I already know the answer to… I’m a shit head like that… Or, I will ask for a rare plant… Even if I already know they don’t have it… I personally feel that I should be able to ask any question I want, about any plant they stock, and get an answer within 5 minutes. Honestly, we all have smart phones with the google app… I could find the answer in under a minute.. But I still ask… If for no other reason… Than to watch the high school kids panic… I’m gonna be a mean old man…

In my experience, you get what you pay for. A reputable nursery guarantees its plants, stocks only plants adapted to our region, and takes good care of them. If you just want five trays of plain old petunias, consider going to a discount center that stocks the most popular plants and sells them at low prices. But if you want the whole experience, go to a specialty nursery and get pampered. Ask questions, take suggestions… But most importantly, support a local business.

Though the bargain plants might not exactly die upon planting, they are often more work than they are worth. When purchasing annuals that only flower for a few months before they die, it can often pay to spend a little more money on the stronger plants in order to get a longer flowering period. As far as perennials are concerned… The fact that they live from year to year gives you a longer growing time so you can buy smaller plants, but they will take longer to mature and will be a lot more work to establish. Inexperienced gardeners should spend the money to buy good plants, once you have some experience getting strong plants to grow, then consider buying cheaper plants.

Wherever you shop, pay attention to the quality of the plants. When purchasing annuals or vegetables, choose compact plants with deeply colored leaves. Avoid any plants that are spindly, pale, have splotches on the leaves, or show signs of insect damage or disease. Flower buds, if present, should be closed or barely open. I realize that this is not always what the plants you may be looking for will look like, you are looking for short plants that do not show signs of stretching. Sometimes the big box stores will pack their plants so tightly together that the only way they can grow is straight up, as they fight for light they will just stretch out… Avoid these plants…

Nursery bought plants often contain weeds, if you are paying full retail price for your plants, pull the weeds on site. Many an invasive species has hitch-hiked around this country in container grown plants, you do not want to deal with a weed invasion in your garden. I have a client that bought a few flats of annuals from a big box store and had me plug them into their perennial bed. A month later I noticed an odd grass growing in the bed, I pulled it and didn’t think about it again. Another month passed and I could not believe my eyes, the grass had grown feet, not inches, feet. I’m still battling this stuff today… I can’t find it growing anywhere else in Pittsburgh… It had to come in with the annuals…

If you are in the market for a tree or shrub, look for symmetry and deeply colored leaves and no evidence of insects or disease. Avoid plants with roots growing out the drainage holes and those with tops that seem out of proportion to the root ball or container. If you have to purchase root bound plants, break the soil and rootball up with your hands before planting them… Again, cheap or sick plants are not impossible to grow, they are just a lot more work.


Columbine are one of my favorite flowers… They self seed heavily, so if you don’t have much space I recommend dead heading before they go to seed.

Shopping for plants by mail will provide a much larger selection of plants than any garden center could ever dream of. However, the plants you receive by mail are generally younger and smaller than those from a retail center. When a garden center has 200 plants to sell, they want to sell the worst specimens first… Mail-order plants are usually only shipped in the spring or the fall, targeted to the proper planting time in your area. Remember you will not be inspecting these plants before you receive them, so choose a reputable dealer.

Ask friends for recommendations of mail order nurseries. Check gardening magazines, which are usually filled with advertising from mail sources. Most nurseries now have websites, a quick google search will reveal a whole world of plant porn that will blow your mind.

Old established nurseries are the best starting point; their website will have color photos, which are crucial when choosing color. Remember that printing and computer monitors affect color, do not expect your flowers to be identically colored to the photo. Do not overlook the small nurseries, they are the places to find rare and hard to find plants and are often owned and operated by fellow plant lovers.

While browsing mail order catalogs, look for the catalogs that include a substantial amount of information on each plant; details like growing conditions, how much sun, drought tolerance, the soil preference, recommended hardiness zones, and the regional climate to which the plant has adapted. Read the shipping information and make sure the package will come with planting instructions… Most importantly, ask questions if you have them… That is why they are paid.

I personally do not like getting plants by mail, I find it to be a very lacking experience. I have rarely been happy with the quality of the plants I receive. I prefer the personal experience I get from a local nursery, and I’m picky as hell when it comes to my plants… I have been known to pop a plant right out its pot in front of the owner of the nursery… Sometimes you have to check… Softer pots can be squeezed to determine density… The soil should be loose… Not a hard ball of roots…

peace – chriscondello

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