It’s a weird time to shop for plants, with so many stores in various stages of opening, with a variety of rules and procedures.
But you can keep your landscape looking good and stay healthy and spend your gardening dollars wisely with some thought and care.
Some COVID-19 specifics
• Use delivery or curbside pickup whenever you can. It not only keeps you safer, but most employees will appreciate having fewer people inside the stores and close.
• Check out in advance the stores’ rules for social distancing. Now is not the time to take your spouse or kids along, if you can avoid it. Honor signs about keeping 6 feet between yourself and others, including waiting for someone to leave an aisle before you enter it. Wear a mask, as is the current government recommendation. Follow signs or instructions about outside containers and one-way aisles.
• Mail order plants are always an option, but it’s getting late in the season for seeds, roses, trees and shrubs. Online shopping does give you great selection, though you do have cover for shipping, whether they charge you directly or indirectly. And I have to say, I’m not very enthusiastic about mail-ordering perennials and certainly not annuals. It’s difficult to ship these with any size on them and they tend to get damaged.
What to look for in plants
• If it looks healthy, it probably is, regardless of the price. It’s OK to buy that flat of annuals at the big box store if they’re the cheapest ones in town. The problem occurs when they’ve been sitting around for days with little care. It’s hard for the big discount stores, sometimes, to keep staff that really knows about and has time to care for live plants.
• Conversely, if it’s sick — not matter where it’s for sale — avoid it. It likely will be a waste of money and spread disease to your garden. Or it may just struggle along for weeks or months and never really look good or produce well.
How to buy
• Shop around on plant prices. They can really vary without much difference in quality. And when shopping for annuals, do your best to get a full flat of annuals (Most places allow you to mix and match different types of flowers and vegetables.) There’s often a 10 percent discount for a full flat.
• Look around for flats or cell packs of annuals all of one color. Annuals are often sold in mixes of colors. But I feel the best effect can be had if those, say, snapdragons are all of one color — less of a patchwork effect. Or those marigolds are all of the same bright yellow instead of yellow ones mixed in with orange ones and gold ones, all sold in the same cell pack. These flat and cell packs of a single color are usually harder to find at big discount stores, easier to find at smaller nurseries.
• Read the label carefully. In the Cedar Rapids area, it’s best to find plants that are hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture Zone 4, even though it’s technically in Zone 5, which is a warmer zone. But plant sellers tend to be overly optimistic about how cold-hardy their plants are, so take those zones with a grain of salt.
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• Research major purchases. If you want to buy a certain type of tree or large shrub, do a little online or other research first. Otherwise, you may be planting a problem that you’ll be living with for a very long time.
Most trees, for example, have a set of advantages and a set of disadvantages. Know both before you plant.
• Test drive perennials. I’m a big believer in planting “drifts” of perennials — six or more together — for best effect. But that’s expensive, and risky if I’ve never grown that plant before. So I buy just one or two or three and give it a couple of years.
If it does well, I then divide the plants (even if they don’t need it) to get myself the larger number of plants to create a drift.
• Keep a plant shopping list. Before you go to the garden center, make a list and stick to it. As with a grocery list, this really helps you save money.
• Through the year, jot down the name of new plants you hear or read about and would like to try. (I keep an index card in my pocketbook.) That way, when you’re visiting various garden centers, you can remember to see if they have any of those plants.
l Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.