Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

Garden Centers: Questions to Ask the Plant Geek

20150425AYou rarely have a plant encyclopedia in your hands when you visit a garden center. How then can you tell if the beautiful plant that you just found is find a gem or a dud… or worse yet, an aggressive thug?

Finding the Right Advice

20150425BFirst, you need to find the store’s “plant geek”, the person – all good nurseries have at least one – who really does know his or her plants. Questioning a summer intern who started only 2 weeks ago and who scarcely knows a pansy from a petunia is a waste of time: they’ll only parrot what they heard the other clerks say and the other clerks probably got their info from someone equally unexperimented. And even garden center managers are rarely plant geeks: they are generally hired more for their administrative skills than their horticultural knowledge.

Usually, plant geeks are clerks of some experience who not only sell plants, but are passionate home gardeners too (sadly not always the case of all garden center employees). And they’re not afraid to say what they think, even if they lose a sale. They want you to succeed!

Plant geeks are valuable tools: make them you friends!

The Right Questions

What questions should you ask the plant geek? Here’s a short list:

1. If the plant is a tree, shrub, conifer or perennial: Is this plant hardy in my area, without protection? (Sadly you can’t always trust the hardiness zone indicated on plant label, because many nurseries exaggerate hardiness zones to boost sales).

2. When does it bloom? (Nursery plants are often “forced”, that is, specially treated to bloom early, so they’ll be in flower in May when the garden center is at its busiest, but their true flowering season can be quite different!)

3. What conditions does it need to thrive? Sun, shade, dry soil, moist soil, poor soil, etc. (And remember that those conditions must match yours!)

4. Unless it’s a vine: Does it require staking? (The least thing you should expect of any plant is to stay upright! If it flops, you don’t want it!)

5. Does it have a recurring insect, disease or other problem that harms its health or appearance?

6. Does it need any kind of fastidious maintenance to stay attractive? (Frequent pruning, deadheading, sucker removal, etc.)

7. Is it invasive?

And if the plant geek hesitates, seemingly unsure of what to reply, ask the best question of all:

8. Would you want this plant in your own garden?

Don’t be disappointed if the plant geek does not recommend the plant you showed him, because I am sure he will immediately point to something that you will really want, a stunning, productive plant that will give great results without any effort. And those are the kinds of plants you really want in your garden!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

2 comments on “Garden Centers: Questions to Ask the Plant Geek

  1. I live in flood zone and just went through a flood. I can no longer use mulch around my plants and wondered if you could tell me something that will not float away since mulch does??? Thank you so much for your answer!!!

    • Yes, plant ground covers. Something short, dense, and not too invasive. They do everything mulches do, plus will help hold your soil in place. Of course, they’ll be more expensive and longer to install.

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