How-To Ideas

How to Be a Good Consumer

Are you the type of gardener who just loves to walk the garden center or nursery and let what you see inspire you? Or, are you the type who walks in with a landscape plan, maybe one that is 10 years old, and tries to fill in the blanks like a paint–by-number scheme? Each has its pitfalls. We will talk about the first situation today.

Remember that plants grown for the garden center are vying for all the attention they can get. There is a lot of competition. Bright colorful branded pots attempt to woo you and keep your eye focused on them. How do you know what to bring home? There are many factors to consider.

First of all, if the plant is to serve a particular function, like being part of a foundation planting for one example, it is essential to know what the growth rate is and what size to expect this plant to become in ‘x’ number of years.

Many people do not have a realistic expectation and assume the plant will stay the same size, indefinitely. In the foundation example, consider 10-12 years as the average time before the plantings may need to be replaced.

Plants in the nursery that are already large are fast growing plants and may likely outgrow a more restricted site than a smaller selection. With trees, some of the fast growing ones are structurally weak and it will cost plenty to have them removed after they break apart or their roots begin to cause damage. Always ask questions of knowledgeable nursery staff or do your own research, recognizing however that nursery staff may have the best information for what works best in our local area.

It is important to learn how to ‘look at a plant’. I am amazed that often when it comes down to selecting one plant out of the nursery row, the customer becomes insecure and will often say to the nursery worker – “you select.” When it comes to making selections in the grocery store, there is no problem. Why is it different in the nursery?

Is it always best to select the largest plant out of the row? Sometimes the top of the plant has outgrown the root space in the pot. Although the plant may end up being successfully planted, it does take more time and effort and care in spreading out the roots. There may also be a delay in the plant taking off. A smaller plant in balance with the root zone space might be the better selection. Look at the trunk. Is it damaged? If there is a wound, is it healed or is it fresh?

If you are looking at trees, what is the spacing between branches? Figuring out how much it grew the previous season might give you a clue as to the vigor and health of a particular tree. You can often determine this by carefully looking at the last shoots on the plant and seeing where there is a change of thickness or color. If you are making your selection during the growing season, what is the color of the leaves? This might give you an indication if the tree has had adequate nutrition.

I once had a couple come to the nursery where the husband was the tree lover and the wife apparently put up with his interest. When it came to making the selection out of the nursery row, he would always defer to her. Each time, she would pick out the most crooked tree out the group and say, “How about that one?”

When asked, nursery workers are always willing to share their thoughts, but it is a good practice to develop your own skills in selecting plants.
Coming in the May-June issue: We’ll look at how to use landscape designs but not be overly bound by them in creating your garden or landscape.

John Monroe, Owner of Architectural Trees, grafts hundreds of pines, Japanese maples and other specialty plants to grow at his nursery in Bahama, NC.