Plant Shopping For Newbie Gardeners | How Not To Waste Your Time and Money
Perplexed by plant shopping? Do your purchases die, shrivel, flop or grow like triffids? Don’t worry, you don’t need therapy. We help you avoid the mistakes that all newbies make (us included!).
1: Avoid Eye Candy Shopping
Buying plants for no other reason than you like the look of them is a compulsive form of gambling that the garden retail industry does pretty well from. Plants bought from “eye candy” shopping trips will survive and do well some of the time. When they don’t, we just go back to the same place and buy more.
It is no coincidence that the best looking plants looking perfectly in flower at any given time are placed at the front of displays ready for you to fall in love with them. Like all retail psychology, seasonal plant displays act exactly like chocolate at the petrol station checkout. You don’t stop to think of the calories, sugar or if you are even hungry, you just pop it in your bag for a munch on the way home through rush hour.
So what is the problem with buying what you like, just because you like it? Well, as you are going to discover through the rest of this article, all plants are not created equal. Our garden centre plants come from all over the globe and only some of them are going to like being re-homed in the very specific conditions of our garden enclaves. Others will sulk, get hungry or thirsty from neglect and just refuse to thrive.
So without a PhD in Botany, how can a newbie gardener know what to buy?
…First, arm your self with the basic knowledge of your garden we cover in this guide (Sections 2 & 3).
Then apply our tips in Sections 4-6 when you go shopping. Simples!
2. See the Light
You wouldn’t give a family in a desert an igloo for a home and expect it to last, would you? Don’t be ridiculous, I hear you say… Well why is it that we don’t think twice about plopping that sun-loving daisy flower from South Africa into the wettest, shadiest corner of our gardens in the hope of brightening it up?
Unless you live in the tropics, the direction that your garden border faces will determine how much sun your plant needs or can tolerate.
Like people, some plants like sun, others like shade. For some plants, it’s a mood thing-they can be happy with a bit of both. Plant a shade-seeker in a sunny, South-facing border and it will shrivel and fry. Similarly, plant a Mediterranean sun-lover like Lavender in a North-facing spot and it won’t stick around for long.
Most plant labels show symbols for plants that like full sun (>6 hrs of sunshine per day), half-sun (3-6 hours) or shade (<3hrs). Stand in each of your garden borders (well, not in exactly…) with your back facing the back of the border and then find out what direction you are facing. Any compass app on your phone will do this for you in a jiffy. This might seem a bit of a drag if you are not a planty person at heart, but it should only take a few minutes and you only need to do it once.
If your border is open on all sides with no shade from a building, wall or fence, then it will all be in full sun. If you plant something that prefers half sun in a full sun area, it might be OK but it will be likely to have fewer flowers and need a lot more watering from you.
If your border has a fence, hedge or wall, some of the area might be in shade even if the border does face in a sunny South or West direction. A classic mistake is to place sun-loving, plants in these shady patches just because you think of the area in general as sunny. A couple of things happen when you do this. First of all the plants grow taller to try and reach the light, more often than not this means that the stems are less sturdy than normal and so the plants flop. Also sun-loving plants that do not get sun from all directions tend to grow towards the light, also making them curve towards the sunny aspect. Pick the right plant for the right place and you will get a lot more value for your time and money.
3. Get Down and Dirty
Yawn, yawn I hear you say.. Come on, you got this far, just indulge me for 2 minutes. The hard fact is-plants live in soil. They get everything they need from it, food, water and air. Guess what happens to plans that don’t get these three things? They cost you time and money and they don’t look pretty in your garden.
Healthy plant roots grow down from the garden surface to anchor the plant and also to find food and water. Sugar is the fuel that plants need for energy and that is made mostly in the leaves. However, other nutrients come from soil minerals or from the composted leaf material made by fungus, bacteria and worms. Plants have evolved to use the minerals in the soil. The exact make-up of these minerals come from the underlying rocks in the area where the plants evolved. Similarly, the nature of the composted leaves depends on what other plants grow locally in the area.
Some soils come from rocks that are acid, some from alkaline rocks and some from rocks of more neutral pH. Composted leaves of conifers, and plants such as rhododendrons also contribute to soil acidity. No prizes for guessing what happens if you place a plant used to acid soil into an alkaline one. Quick soil pH test kits that cost a few pounds are widely available online and in garden centres.
Plants have also evolved to like a particular soil texture- i.e whether the roots like a heavier clay soil, a light sandy one or a crumbly mixture known as loam. The roots of roses like the high mineral content of clay soils. Roses are also thirsty plants and they like the fact that clay holds more water than sandy soils. On the other hand, the roots of Mediterranean plants such as Lavender and Rosemary hate to be sitting in wet soil and so prefer a more sandy home.
Bear in mind that your soil may not be the same everywhere in your garden so do get a trowel and dig some up in each area you might like to plant. One area where the quality of your soil is likely to be poor, is in front of a hedge or around the base of a tree. Even if the surrounding soil has a good texture, the roots of hedges are often extensive. They break the soil crumbs into tiny, dusty particles that don’t hold the water or nutrients as well as surrounding areas. They are also thirsty plants and often have a lot of surface roots, making it difficult to even dig a hole to plant something new. Moral of the story- don’t plant anything that needs moisture-retentive clay soil in front of a hedge.
If you want a bit more detail on why your soil type matters so much for your plants, check out Garden Soil Basics Part 1| Why Test Your Garden Soil?
4. Read the Label
Most plants come with a label. Don’t ignore it. Pick it up and check out.
Most will tell you:
· The sun/shade requirements
· The final height and width the plant will grow to
These are essential- ignore the sunshine needs and your plant will struggle or die. Ignore the final height and width and you will forever regret it. You would be amazed how fast some plants can grow.
Some labels will also provide information on when to prune the plant, how much water it needs and whether it is frost-hardy (will survive the winter) or tender (will die in winter outdoors). A useful piece of information is known as the USDA Hardiness Zone. This scale of 1-15 tells you whether the plant is likely to be suitable for the temperatures in your region. My home in Nottingham, UK is in Zone 7, so any plants tagged as Zones 6 and below might be tender in my garden. You can find your hardiness Zone here. In the UK, the Royal Horticultural Society uses it’s own hardiness rating scale- find out more here.
5. Ask the Staff
Don’t be shy.
Most garden centre and nursery staff are very approachable and love helping people choose plants.
We like to buy from nurseries where the staff generally have a better knowledge since they grow the plants on site. Garden centres also usually have good helpdesks too. Tell them the info you have learned about your garden after reading this post and ask if that gorgeous flower is right for you.
6. Get out your phone.
If you, or someone you are with has a smartphone, scan the QR code if the plant label has one.
Even better, type the botanical name of the plant (the long one…, not the easy to pronounce one…) into the search bar one of these sites for some instant info.
Shoot Gardening- great for years to maximum height and spread. Use the search box in top left.
Royal Horticultural Society - for light and soil requirements, years to ultimate height and spread.
Don’t forget to bookmark them for easy access.
Do leave us a comment below if there are any other resources that you like to use. It’s good to share!
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