Basic Gardening: Research Plants Before Buying

Take a little time to research before buying a new plant is one of the gardening basics. It'll save you time, money and save you the trouble of having to dig up a sick or dying plant later.

Garden Basics - research plants before buying

Have you ever experienced buyer’s remorse?  Maybe it was a pair of shoes that you fell in love with that you later discovered did not fit well.  Or, maybe you purchased an outfit that looked great in the fitting room mirror, but when you got home, it didn’t look nice at all under natural light.

Well, people often experience buyer’s remorse when they purchase plants for their garden without knowing enough about what the plant.  All too often, the lack of knowledge results in a plant that does poorly or kicks the bucket soon after planting.  Experienced gardeners know that one of the most important rules of basic gardening is researching plants before bringing them home and planting them in the garden.

Blue Potato Bush (Solanum rantonnettii)
Blue Potato Bush (Solanum rantonnettii)

Have you ever walked through a display of plants on sale on your way to the store and found yourself stopped short by the sight of a beautiful, flowering plant?  It happens quite often that people come home with a plant that they had never planned on buying when they left the house.

Before buying any type of plant, it is important to spend a few minutes finding out whether or not a particular plant will grow well in your garden.  Today, we’ll cover the most important things for you to research before buying plants.

Cape Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)
Cape Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)

1. What is the plant’s cold-hardiness?  In other words, how cold can it get and still survive?  A plant’s cold-hardiness is measured by USDA planting zones.  The lower the number, the colder the temperatures are the a plant can stand.  For example, a plant that is native to the tropical regions of the world, will most likely not survive a winter in Chicago.  You can find the USDA planting zone where you live by clicking here.

2. Cold isn’t the only factor that determines how a plant will do – so does the severity of hot temperatures.  The Heat Zone Map was created by the American Horticultural Society, which classifies geographical regions based on the average high temperature.  For example, there are many plants that should do well in southern regions based on the USDA planting zone, which rates cold temperatures.  But, when the heat of summer arrives, many of these plants wilt and die because they cannot handle the heat.

If you live in the southern half of the United States, it is wise to research both cold-hardiness as well as the Heat Zone Map before purchasing a plant.

Ornamental Allium

3. Research how large a plant will grow to at maturity.  Most plants start out small, especially when growing in a small, nursery container.  However, once you plant it in the ground, it will grow larger.  A small 1 ft. high and wide Texas sage shrub (Leucophyllum frutescens), in a 1-gallon container can grow to be 8 ft. tall and large within a few years.  Once you know how large a plant will become, allow plenty of room for it to grow or else you may be digging out the plant from a too small area a couple of years after planting.

4. Learn what exposure a plant requires to grow best.  A plant that needs full sun, can grow straggly, produce few flowers, become chlorotic and appear sickly if planted in the shade.  Alternatively, a plant that does best in shady conditions can suffer burned foliage, yellowing leaves and a dried out appearance when planted in full sun.

(I would love to grow hydrangea in my Arizona garden, but it gets too hot where I live).

5. Check to see if there are any other requirements of a plant such as fertilizer needs (if any), how often does it need to be pruned and watered?  What type of soil does it need – fertile, well-drained, etc?  If you don’t want to spend a lot of time fertilizing and pruning – make sure that your new plants doesn’t require it.

6. Finally, check to see if there are any common problems that a potential plant suffers from that you do not want to have to deal with.  Are there any pests that are known to bother it?  Maybe deer, rabbits, aphids, caterpillars are common threats.  Some plants have a strong odor, thorns or produce large amounts of litter.

So where can you find information on plants before buying?  I recommend starting with Birds & Bloom’s website, which has information on a large number of plants.  Another helpful site is Dave’s Garden, which lists cold-hardiness, exposure and a list of major cities where a particular plant is known to grow – it also has a comment section at the bottom of each plant profile, where people, who have grown the plant in question have written down their observations.  You local cooperative county extension office can offer advice on which plants do well in your area.

So, before heading out to buy a new plant for your garden, spend a couple of minutes researching plant(s), which will save you money, time and from suffering buyer’s remorse.

Noelle Johnson
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. When she is not writing or helping other people with their gardens, you can find her growing fruits and vegetables, and planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.