Before You Buy That Plant, Answer Five Basic Questions

My teenage son introduced me to the phrase “talk to the hand.” Although “talk to the hand because the face ain’t listening” is clearly another way of saying be quiet (nagging mom), I, as a gardener, immediately thought of the five basic criteria for buying plants. A finger for each question! What a concept! This will make it easier for new gardeners to figure out what to buy or what to do after they have bought plants for their garden.

When shopping for plants, 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 decision and to determine the best location in the garden for the optimal survival rate. Raise a finger and ask:

  • What is the plant’s environmental requirements? What is its preference for light, water, and temperature? 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? Does it prefer the cool spring weather or must it be planted after the average last frost date?
  • 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.
  • What is its function in the garden? Is it going to serve as a groundcover, will it provide spring flowers, or will it have bright fall foliage?
  • What will be the ultimate size? If it only gets a foot tall, you probably have the space. If it 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 your house.

You should have five fingers up by now. Much of this information should be on the plant tag but if there is no tag, ask nursery staff or look it up in a book or on the internet.

This isn’t to say you can ask more questions or there are not more criteria 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 and look at your palm. Or you have small children who play outside in the garden and you want non-poisonous, child friendly plants you can make that your palm. But these are more specific to you and could change if you move or if your children grow up.

As the plant establishes itself and thrives in the garden, eventually you will learn additional information, such as fertilizing and pruning. These are maintenance questions. This could be the other hand, like a second tier of information. But for now, when you are considering planting peppers and peppermint together, in your garden, talk to the hand!

2 responses to “Before You Buy That Plant, Answer Five Basic Questions

  1. Arborists prefer to say, “Talk to the ‘palm’.”

  2. Mary B Schwegler

    This is well-said, good realistic advice for gardeners: those of us who know our eyes are bigger than our gardens, and those of us who have not yet had to face that fact.

    Thanks for the “five fingers” memory device, Peggy.

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