Like most gardeners, I cannot resist plant sales and nurseries, and I struggle to fit them into my travels around this area and across the country. A recent trip to Iowa had me passing within an hour of Neil Diboll‘s Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin, and the only thing that held me back from a two-hour detour (plus an additional hour or two onsite) was a full agenda. Every plant sale and nursery, like every garden, has a unique approach and plant palette to take in, but sometimes “taken in” is exactly how I feel. For years, I would end up with plants that wowed me onsite, only to arrive home and allow them to languish in their containers in my driveway for months before being planted, or in a few circumstances before their browned out foliage and soil was added to the compost heap.
But this occasional write-off of plants should not discourage us from attending every plant sale we can and going off route to visit a nursery in the area. It should just make us more strategic, when we get out of our cars, about what we select to carry back with us. With this in mind, I have generated a few questions I am determined to ask myself before adding things to my garden cart. Maybe we should all keep these in mind.
Can I grow this?
From soil, light, and moisture conditions to hardiness, can this plant get what it needs in my garden in order to thrive and do its best? And if the answer is that I have to water that area of the garden every day to give it the moisture it requires, the answer is no.
Do I know where I want to plant this?
It is best not to purchase plants on impulse without an idea of where they will be sited, so asking where a plant will go, and when it will be planted, are good second and third questions. (Note: Sometimes the answer may be no, but the plant is irresistible. Feel free to buy the plant, knowing it can always be given to a friend if you do not have a place for it. And feel free to consider me a friend in this case, particularly if it is a choice epimedium or terrestial orchid).
Is the plant healthy and well-grown?
There are a few general things to take note of when it comes to plant health. First, it is best to avoid root-bound plants, particularly in the case of trees and shrubs whose roots can become girdled and literally choke the plants to death (although roots can be teased apart upon planting to help prevent this.) Second, diseased foliage, root rot, and insect infestations are also things to watch out for. Some gardeners isolate newly purchased plants in their containers for a brief time to ensure they are not introducing diseases and non-beneficial insects into their garden. This is not a bad idea, especially at sales that offer plants that are divisions from other home gardens. Most reputable nurseries do their best to manage such issues; they would not want to introduce these issues into their nursery any more that into your garden. Turning a plant upside down in its pot and examining the health of its roots is not out of the question if one has concerns about the health of a plant.
Does the plant match the label?
Labels are often put back into the wrong container by customers or salespeople. A quick look at an image online or a glance at the other plants containing that label may result in not bringing home a misidentified plant. At the Berkshire Botanical Garden sale and at most nurseries, there is usually someone with expertise nearby that should be able to ensure that you have the right plant. If you are unsure, just ask. If you are concerned about whether or not the plant is the right variety of a species (such as a white flowered form of Culver’s root), you may have to take your chances or wait until the plant is in flower before buying. I have several lavender forms of this species in my garden that remind me of this issue every year as they come into bloom.
Will I regret the invasiveness of this plant?
Making sure that you are not buying something that is invasive should not be an issue at most nurseries, but a quick look at your state’s invasive plant list online can help provide you with some insight. Terms like vigorous or fast-spreading on a plant label may serve as a warning to do a little research. Also, if the plant has weeds growing in the container, be careful. Things such as goutweed can easily enter a garden from such a container. An old gardening friend once advised me to put the top few inches of soil from a purchased plant in the bottom of the planting hole so that any weedlings or weed seeds in the top few inches of soil do not take hold in your garden. While this method is not foolproof, it is worth taking into consideration.
Do I love it so much that none of the other rules apply?
In this case, enjoy your purchase and hope for the best. We all do it. And if it is still on your driveway come fall, heel it in and take note so that you do not repeat the process next year, at least with the same plant.
Note: The Berkshire Botanical Garden’s annual plant sale is this Friday and Saturday in Stockbridge. For more information, visit berkshirebotanical.org.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.