How to buy garden center plants like a pro (including at online plant nurseries)

July 14, 2022

Buying plants can seem overwhelming, particularly if you don’t know how to navigate the garden center. Here are some tips for managing the nursery or flower market like a pro. And since online plant shopping has evolved significantly in recent years, I’m also sharing my tips for getting the best plants from an online plant nursery.

A plant nursery or garden center display of potted perennials and grasses with colorful flowers and foliage in fall

Tops tips for buying plants like a pro

Have a list

While I wholeheartedly recommend walking through a garden center for the sheer joy it, don’t buy unless you have researched your choice and know where it will succeed in your garden. If you were going to make a nice dinner, you would have the recipe in mind and know its ingredients. The garden is the same. Know what you need before you go.

Don’t buy onesies and twosies

Unless your garden is truly tiny or you are shopping for large trees and shrubs, even the smallest plot will benefit from repetition and the coherence it brings.

If you must make an impulse buy (we are talking annuals and perennials here), don’t regret it by buying only one. You will get it home, put it in the ground, it will be perfect, and I can almost guarantee when you return to the garden center for a few more plants, they’ll be gone. You will be forced to wait until you can split the plant or take cuttings to enjoy the rhythm of a garden with good repetition.

Be careful with substituting

Have confidence in your first design decision and seek out your original choice somewhere else or wait until you can research the suggested sub thoroughly. Take your phone with you and google in garden center! Often a substitute won’t meet your exact requirements. Online plant shopping is a great option for harder to find plants.

A great garden center with highly knowledgeable employees can help find a good match – but you should feel that they are sending you home with the right thing – not just some thing. Don’t get stuck on having a particular plant – get stuck on having a particular set of qualitites (which may mean a different things entirely).

Ask questions

There are no dumb questions when it comes to buying plants (or anything really).

Give plants a good physical.

Check them out from top to bottom. Do they have lots of leafy stems? They should. Make sure you don’t see any suspicious pests or signs of disease (yellowing leaves for example). Large weeds growing in the pot with your plant is a sign of neglect. Take a look underneath. Are there large amounts of roots coming through the drainage hole? Just a few are okay, they imply the plant has a healthy root system. But massive amounts suggest the plant is root bound and probably not a good choice.

Carefully consider the plant size

Often in larger nurseries there are multiple sizes of the same plant. The bigger the pot, the more you pay. When making this choice, consider your budget first. Buy what you can afford. But it’s better to get more of a smaller variety than just a few more sizable versions. They will all grow together more quickly than their larger counterparts.

Many plant growth studies that show that smaller plants establish more quickly. Over a three year period a small plant will catch up to a larger plant in size. (This happens because due to it’s smaller installation size, it can establish a stronger root system more quickly which will lead to more rapid short term growth – enabling the plant to catch-up in size over a short period of time).

I like to strategically pick a couple of things to go big on (for instant gratification) but save on everything else.

It is also important to examine plants side by side. Sometimes a plant in a small container might actually be the same size as the variety in a bigger more expensive pot due to different planting times or that it was just transplanted to a larger pot size. Make sure you get your money’s worth by looking at the whole plant.

Don’t choose a plant in full bloom (if you can avoid it)

Look for its’ friend that is a little less showy. So long as you can confirm the color, buy a plant that has fewer flowers than more. You might even want to nip off blooms when planting. This forces the plant to put its energy into establishing roots rather than new flowers.

A plant nursery or garden center display of potted perennials and grasses with colorful flowers and foliage

Special Considerations for Online Plant Nursery Shopping

I love internet shopping for plants because the varieties online nursery plant available are vastly greater than what my local nurseries can offer. Speciality nurseries in particular thrive online and if you hanker for that just-right variety, you can often get it via mail order. But buying plants sight unseen can be a little scary, so here are a few tips to get you comfortable with online plant nurseries.

Know your planting zone and what will work in your garden

You local nursery serves just your areas, its selections have been pre-edited to include only things that will work for your area. Online, you have to narrow your choices and ensure you aren’t buying something that won’t survive in your garden. Many sites offer zone searches, which I head for straightaway. I like to narrow things down first so I am even tempted to think I can keep things alive that aren’t for my region.

Make sure you know what you are buying

Look at multiple images of the plant to get a range of expectations for color (photos do lie). You might want to do a google search to find a product image on another site as a cross-reference.

Also make sure that you are clear on size – mail-ordered pants tend to be smaller than you would buy nearby and they often come bare root and need to be planted sooner.

This isn’t something to shy away from – it is just good to set your expectations. Many plants (like roses) are better when planted as a bare root (you get a bigger better plant faster) and it is good to avoid the sustainability issue of needing to mail excess dirt.

Pay attention to shipping costs from an online plant nursery

They can be high due to the special requirements of plants. I don’t buy anything online that I can get nearby. It is also important to note that many online nurseries will have limited shipping times. This is sometimes due to when plants are large enough to sell – but more often is due to weather restrictions. If your plant is traveling across country, no one wants it to cross paths with a deadly heat wave or cold front en route.

Make sure that damaged goods will be easily replaced

Before buying, make sure you understand the company policy for plants that arrive a little worse for the journey.

Read online reviews and buy from reputable online plant nurseries

Otherwise you risk not only wasting money but also infecting other plants with disease or insects.

images licensed from Nancy J. Ondra

You might also enjoy these posts:

Smart Plant shopping tips to get the best late season bargains at the Plant Nursery (this post is great for learning how to find a bargain!)


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  1. Ricky Smith says:

    Thank you so much for the information!

    Have a great sunny day!

    Rick Smith

  2. Barbie says:

    Don’t get suckered into buying from TN Wholesale Nursery like hundreds of us did in 2023. Check Better Business Bureau ratings first before purchasing from any online store.

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