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Know Before You Go
Turn your first visit to the garden center this season from problem to pleasure by following these smart, simple steps.
Spring fever can lead to all kinds of impulsiveness, especially at the garden center. With hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of pretty plants already in bloom and aisles overflowing with new products, it's easy to get a little carried away. After a winter's worth of anticipation, it's hard to avoid walking out with too much (or too little) of what you actually need. The antidote: a few simple strategies that help you size up the inventory with the ease and confidence of a professional. All it takes is some planning and shopping savvy. Armed with our helpful tips, you can head out to your favorite nursery secure in the knowledge that when you return, you'll have exactly what you need to make your garden grow.
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Take Stock, Make a List, and Set a BudgetA little research and deliberation at home will help make your trip a success (and minimize stress). Look around your garden to note plants that are dead or damaged. See how much potting soil, fertilizer, and other material you have, checking the expiration dates. Inspect tools, and test them, listing items that need to be replaced or repaired. Last, decide on your budget, so you can prioritize.
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Photograph and Measure Containers
Place your pots in their garden locations, and then take photographs. Print the photos, and note the diameter and the depth of each pot on the paper. This way, you'll buy the perfect plants in the right quantities. Determine how much potting soil you'll need, using an online calculator.
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Review Last Year's GardenRefresh your memory with photographs you (hopefully) took when the garden was at its best. These images will remind you of lackluster plants you wanted to replace or those that should be moved, divided, or added to. If you kept a journal, consult that, too. Your experience will inform this year's gardening.
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Choose HuesSelecting a color scheme is key when making your choices, particularly for containers. Get inspiration from a famous garden or an unexpected source: a favorite outfit, a painting, or a magazine.
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Bring PhotosMost nursery staff can help you find what plant you need, but common names vary from gardener to gardener, as do people's ways of pronouncing them. If you bring in images of the plants you want, you'll get an instant identification. Magazines and catalogs are often excellent resources. You can also search online for a specific plant and print a clear image of it.
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Make a BoquetAs plants wither and die, they leave gaps in the border. Before you go shopping to fill those holes, cut samples of the leaves and flowers that are already established. Tie the clippings together with twine, and take the bouquet with you to the nursery. As you shop, compare your sample with the plants you're considering and make sure that your selections will work in harmony with your garden's existing colors and textures.Photography: Mar ion Br enne r
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Make the Most of Your Visit
It's time to put your plan into action. Grab a cart and start shopping, beginning with your highest-priority plants.
Assemble Your Grouping at the Nursery
Instead of going back and forth between plants, place the ones you like in your cart as you find them. Make part of the cart your "audition" space, arranging plants as you would in your garden border or container. Whenever you discover interesting new plants, swap them in to see which you like best.
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Walk the Whole StoreTo create bodacious containers, venture beyond the annuals section. Explore the houseplants, tropicals, and succulents. Look for attractive flowers, fruit, and foliage in perennials, vegetables, and herbs. In the woody-plants section you may find dwarf shrubs to add just the right accents for your plantings. Remember, at the end of the season, you can move hardy plants to garden beds, and houseplants can be potted and brought indoors.Photography: Pieter Estersohn
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Try a New Plant This YearThis is a great time to be a gardener, with hundreds of tempting new species and varieties available. Even if you're intimidated, increase your confidence and broaden your repertoire by purchasing at least one plant you've never tried before.
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Shop All SeasonWhile nurseries are best-stocked in spring, they offer plants all season -- even all year. Many restock with annuals in July, after earlier plantings have tired. Make a point of browsing at the nursery to become familiar with the offerings. You may even happen upon a sale.
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Make Your Own MixesMany centers fill aisles with large pots brimming with their own colorful combinations. As pretty as they are, there is no reason to buy them (unless you want the container). Economize by finding the plants used, and make your own.
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Assess Plant Quality: Robust Roots
As you make your choices, be sure only the healthiest, most vigorous specimens make it to checkout. Avoid plants that are wilting or have brown, dead foliage, and pay attention to these less obvious, but very helpful, clues.
Root growth is the best sign of a plant's health. Remove the pot, and check for roots that are fleshy, firm, and numerous. Avoid specimens with sparse, rotten, or otherwise damaged roots.
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Assess Plant Quality: Buds and Compact GrowthWhen choosing between similar plants, pick the one with compact growth and more buds than flowers. A plant with sprawling, spindly stems will need to be pruned for fresh, vigorous foliage.Photography: Raymond Hom
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Pick Your Palettes: Pink and PurpleThis is the fun part. Here are three classic color combinations to inspire you while shopping.Photography: Raymond Hom
Petunia 'Vista Silverberry' and Strobilanthes dyeranus. Other pinks: cosmos, geraniums, 'Strawberry Fields' gomphrena. For purples: alternanthera, angelonia, heliotrope.
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Pick Your Palettes: Orange and SilverCalibrachoa 'Terra Cotta' and Dichondra argentea. Other oranges: calendula, Cuphea ignea, 'Radiation' lantana. For silvers: Cuban oregano, licorice plant, rex begonias, Salvia argentea.Photography: Raymond Hom
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Pick Your Palettes: White and Green
New Guinea impatiens and caladium. Other whites: alyssum, bacopa, Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost,' verbena. For greens: ferns, Nicotiana langsdorffii, sweet potato vine.
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Stretch Your Dollar: AnnualsKnowing a little bit about how plants (both annuals and perennials) are grown and sold can help you save money without diminishing the quality or beauty of your garden.Photography: Raymond Hom
Baskets of geraniums (shown), begonias, or impatiens can often be broken apart into four to six smaller plants, costing less than if bought individually.
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Stretch Your Dollar: PerennialsA single potted fast-growing, spreading perennial such as a daylily (shown), Siberian iris, or liriope can yield several plants.Photography: Raymond Hom
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More Money Saving Tips
Buy Plants You Can Divide
Healthy plants are easy to divide. Unpot baskets of annuals, using a trowel edge to gently break them apart. A perennial may be more firmly lodged. Remove it, and separate it into two, using pruners to cut stubborn roots. Check each half of the plant to see if it can be further divided.
Seek Out Discounts
Many nurseries will cut their price if you buy an entire flat or spend a certain amount, so it’s worth asking about discounts before you shop. If you need only a few plants, you can offer to split the flat with a friend or donate any extra plants to a local garden club or community center.
Wait for Markdowns
Annuals left on the shelves after the May and June rush tend to get marked down after the July 4 holiday to make room for fresh stock. That makes mid-July the perfect time for picking up a few plants to tuck into a dull spot in a border or pump up your hanging-basket display.