When looking at plants at a nursery or plant sale, there are five basic questions to ask before you make a purchase. This is the very basic information you need in order to make a wise purchasing decision and in order to put the plants in the best location in the garden for optimal survival. Ask yourself these basic questions:
- What are the plant’s requirements for light and water? This will tell you immediately if you have a place for it in your garden. Does it need full sun, or morning sun and afternoon shade, or shade all day? Does it need to be watered often, or can it take dry spells?
- What will be its ultimate size? If it only gets a foot tall, you probably have the space. If it is a little bush that grows into a tree, ask yourself if you have space in a few years.
- What color is it? This is a placement issue. Know the color of the flower, fruit, and leaves in all seasons so you can plant it in a place where it won’t clash with other plants or worse, be camouflaged by the wall of your house.
- What is its function in the garden? Is it going to serve as a groundcover, will it provide spring flowers, or will it have lovely fall foliage? Will it be a strong vertical shape or will it have a wispy appearance?
- What is its life cycle? Is it an annual, perennial, biennial, or tropical plant? In other words how much plant life will you get for your money? Many plant tags will phrase this in terms of the hardiness zone. A tag that says zone 4-9 means that it will survive our winters since we are in zone 6-7. A tag that says zone 10-11 probably means it is a tropical plant that will die with first frost.
Much of this information would be on a plant tag but if there is no tag, ask a staff person or look it up in a book. In addition to these questions, of course, you need to buy a healthy plant. Make sure there are no signs of disease or pests. Consider all of these factors in relation to the price. Only you can determine if it is worth buying and there are no guarantees that the plant will survive the summer. However, if it does well, you know that you have found a plant that does well for you. Remember that there is no right or wrong, this is a personal choice.
You can also add more questions that are relevant to your area and your needs. For example, if you live in a deer infested area, you would want deer resistant plants. Make that your sixth question. Or you have many small children who play outside in the garden so you want non-poisonous, child friendly plants. Make that your sixth question.
If possible, before you buy the plant, find out from the nursery staff or the plant label, the plant’s individual botanical or Latin name in order to truly understand the type of plant you have. A common name can be used for many different species, all with different requirements.
It is not necessary to know how to pronounce the botanical name, it is only necessary to know how to spell it. If you want to hear how the name is pronounced, there are several web sites that can pronounce the name via your computer speakers. The Fine Gardening website has created a list of botanical names that you can hear on the computer. Books that have pronunciation guides are the Dictionary of Plant Names by Allen Coombes, 1994, Timber Press; and Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners by William Stearn, 1996, Timber Press.
If you don’t know the name, you can:
call your extension agent;
look it up in a gardening book;
look it up on the internet;
take it to a public garden that has staff horticulturists;
take it to a nursery;
take it to a farmers market;
take it to a Master Gardener plant clinic booth, which can be at a farmers market or at a public library;
take it to a local gardening club; or if you know the type of plant (a dahlia) but want to know the particular name (the cultivar), take it to the local chapter of the specific plant association such as the National Capital Dahlia Society.
I strongly recommend that you write the name down and keep a journal. Record what you bought, the scientific name, where you put it in the garden, and how it performs throughout the season. That way, at the end of the year, you can evaluate how well it did for you and you can either buy more next year or plants of a similar genus.