Before You Buy That Plant, Answer Five Basic Questions

azaleaThe weather has been beautiful lately and the nurseries have been crowded. Plant sales are scheduled (in person!) and gardening events are filling up the weekends. So many plants to get, so much to do. But no matter how tempting those plants are, consider five basic criteria before you purchase them so you can have better success once they are in your garden.

When shopping for plants, there are five basic questions to ask yourself. 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.

1. 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?

2. 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.groundcover

3. 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?

4. 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.

5. 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.sunflowersMuch of this information should be on the plant tag. 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’t 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/criteria. Or if you have small children who play outside and you want non-poisonous, child-friendly plants, make that an additional criteria.

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. Think of this as a second tier of information. You may not even need to address these issues until the next year.

So save yourself some time and money by determining these basic answers for each plant you buy. When you bring the plant home, write down the date, name of the plant, and where you planted it in the garden. Keep a journal so when the the plant survives and thrives, you can then move on to the second tier of information and write down all the answers to those questions.

Happy gardening!

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

  1. Regarding question #1 – if you are not sure about how much sunlight your plant will get in its intended location, you can use an Android app called “Sun and Shade Analyzer”. It will accurately compute the average hours of direct sunlight a plant will receive during any part of the year. The app is predictive: it knows the sun’s daily and seasonal movements, and uses your device’s camera to “see” all obstructions (trees, buildings, etc.) which would throw shade on your plant. It can even simulate foliage if necessary, to compensate for fallen leaves.

    It’s fun! Try it out!

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