Growing Together: 21 tips for garden center shopping

FARGO -- I love to shop. I could spend days browsing, comparing, studying prices and eventually making my purchases. I like shopping even if I don't buy anything. My wife, Mary, chuckled a bit when she read this, and suggested I admit the only li...

Warm weather encourages gardeners to shop for flowers like these salvia at the Bloomfield Garden Center in Sabin, Minn. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO -- I love to shop. I could spend days browsing, comparing, studying prices and eventually making my purchases. I like shopping even if I don't buy anything. My wife, Mary, chuckled a bit when she read this, and suggested I admit the only line of merchandise for which I enjoy shopping.

You probably guessed it's not clothing and it certainly can't be found by wandering in a mall.

Yes, it's plants. Plants of all kinds. Trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, fruits and roses. Even shopping for grass seed and a new rake puts a smile on my face.

May is the busiest month for plant purchases and garden center traffic. Following are 21 tips for happy shopping sessions.

1. Most garden centers have special strengths in certain plant categories, such as perennials, annuals or woody plants. Visiting all garden centers broadens our choices.


2. Locally owned garden centers offer an experience that is different from the national mass-merchandising chains.

3. When selecting annuals or perennials, choose short, stocky plants with good basal branching. Avoid tall, lanky plants.

4. Plants in full bloom are attractive, but non-blooming plants often transplant better because flowering takes extra energy. Removing blossoms from newly purchased plants helps them devote energy to rooting and development, for stronger overall performance. They'll re-bloom shortly.

5. Potted perennials purchased in full bloom usually won't remain flowering all season because perennials have their specific season of bloom. We avoid disappointment when we understand their flowering traits.

6. There's a wealth of information on plant tags and labels worth studying.

7. Check winter hardiness of trees, shrubs, fruits and perennials. Minnesota and North Dakota are in hardiness zones 3 and 4, which means plants must survive temperatures to about minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

8. Because zone 4 covers a large geographic area, some items listed as zone 4 are borderline in winter hardiness for our region. Research zone 4 plants to see if the variety has a record of regional success. This is especially important when shopping national chains.

9. Check tags for mature height and width for proper plant spacing to avoid eventual overcrowding especially with shrubs.


10. Tomato tags list days to harvest from transplanting into the garden. Early varieties are 50 to 65 days. Main crop, mid-season types are 65 to 79 days. Late varieties are 80 to 110 days.

11. When removing a plant tag for reading, remember to replace in the correct container so packs of tomatoes and other plants don't become mislabeled.

12. Displays of packaged bulbs and perennials don't always distinguish between winter-hardy perennials that remain in the ground and those that must be dug and stored including gladiolus, canna, caladium, dahlias and calla lilies.

13. Some perennials are long-lived, lasting many years. Others are shorter-lived. A little research helps choose good combinations.

14. Are potted trees expensive? They're often over $100 each. A husband and wife can enjoy an evening or two of dinner and drinks for that amount. However, a tree lasts decades or centuries, and we don't gain weight while planting.

15. Should plants come with a guarantee? I can't give you a one-year guarantee about my own survivability, and I don't expect garden centers to guarantee against life's uncertainties either. Just supply us with healthy stock that's proven to be adapted for our region.

16. Garden centers' busiest times are warm, sunny Saturdays and Sundays in May. If schedules allow, try a less-busy day early in the week, especially if seeking extra information from personnel.

17. Healthy plants have lush green leaves. Yellowing leaves often indicate they're lacking nutrition.


18. It might sound odd, but a few insects like aphids on pepper or cabbage plants aren't a huge concern. Most insects like greenhouse aphids disappear when the plants are set outdoors. Wash with water. Understanding this helps greenhouses avoid the need for controversial insecticides like neonicotinoids.

19. Know your light conditions when studying labels. Directional descriptions, such as south exposure aren't reliable because of influences like shade trees. Observe the actual amount of sun. Full sun is six hours or more. Part sun is four to six hours. Part shade is two to four hours, and full shade is less than two hours of sunshine.

20. Plant material at garden centers is always changing, giving us the chance to shop often. Potted trees, shrubs and perennials can be planted all summer.

21. Once home, water purchases before planting to moisten rootballs. Water again immediately after planting to firm soil around roots. If planting is delayed, don't store plants in the garage. Keep them outdoors in a wind-protected spot in bright light. If watered thoroughly as needed, potted plants can be kept almost indefinitely until planting time.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Tune in to his weekly radio segment at noon Wednesdays on WDAY Radio 970. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether//

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