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How to Buy Plants

It's easy to be spontaneous when buying plants — they're so beautiful. But . . .

Plan your landscape

Having a landscape plan can help focus your enthusiasm. It's easy to draw your own. Use graph paper to approximately show your house and property. Indicate north. Note existing conditions: slope of ground, major tree locations, their canopy outline, soil conditions (if known), primary windows for looking out, and exposure to sun, rain, and wind.
It doesn't have to be a formal landscape design, just a sketch that will help you identify what you have to work with as you try to pick the right plant for the right place. If you want a detailed, structured landscape plan, you can enlist the services of a professional designer or landscape architect, or you can develop your own design. Our Tips & help page points to several publications on landscaping that you can download and print.
Make a special note of overhead and underground utilities. Those not visible can be located by calling a toll-free number: 1-800-432-4770. All of these details, however sketchy, will guide your ideas for landscape improvements as you visit nurseries and garden centers or as you discuss your needs with design and service professionals.
Remember, most plants grow up and out. Ask the plant merchant about growth habits and locate new plants with an eye to their future form. Your county Cooperative Extension Service offers free literature, classes, consulting, and other programs that will help you plan your landscape.

Obtaining quality plants

When you're at the nursery, look for plants with a vibrant quality — often indicated by color and posture of the leaves. If possible, familiarize yourself with healthy examples of the plants you want, growing in your own neighborhood. Note the appearance of the different parts of the plant (trunk, stems, leaves, flowers) and characteristics of the micro-habitat in which the plant is growing (duration and time of day the plant is in sun and shade at various times of the year, soil type, drainage, exposure to rain and wind, proximity to other plants).
Try to avoid buying plants with dead or discolored or misshapen leaves. Also avoid plants that have large gaps between new leaves, as this is a sign that they have not been properly cared for. Look closely at the stems and leaves for signs of insects and diseases. If a plant is already in bloom, look for additional flower buds that have not yet opened up; otherwise, you may have a long wait before the plant blooms again.
The most important variable in selecting a plant for a particular place is sunlight. A plant won't grow properly, and may even die, if not planted in the right type of light. Next, put plants together that will need the same kind of watering and care — don't put plants that want desert conditions in the same bed with plants that want tropical rainforest conditions.
One of the most common mistakes beginning gardeners make is to buy just a single specimen of a flowering annual. A flowering plant that would be very eye-catching in your living room will be just a colorful speck when it's placed in the larger canvas of a yard. The moral: buy at least three of a kind and plant them next to each other.
But plants are not like furniture, they're more like children: you expect them to grow and change. So, visualize your positive contribution to their future beauty. With your help, they will overcome most minor defects. Ask the nursery-person about the recommended care for your selections. You'll find it's easy to keep your plants happy. This is not rocket science.
Landscape plants are graded by the Florida Division of Plant Industry as Number 2, Number 1, or Fancy. Grade will affect price. "Standards" are shrubs that are trimmed up to have a bare trunk — giving them the look of a small tree. These are specimen plants and thus more expensive. Topiary plants also deserve a premium price. They have been trimmed and trained to have a geometric shape or perhaps look like an animal. Rare and endangered plants may also deserve a premium price.
Choosing plants from a selection of thousands can be delightful. Everyone can see something different in the nursery. Remember your landscape plan and let your eye wander... Ask lots of questions. Most garden elves are friendly and helpful.

When to buy what where

Trees and shrubs grown in containers can be successfully transplanted into your yard at any time of year. It's a great relief for them to be back in the ground. If you'll be transporting large plants from a nursery in an open vehicle, cover the leaves with a sheet to prevent wind damage. Once home, plant properly. If you must put off planting, prop the plant upright in the shade and water adequately.
Annuals and flowering perennials are typically available in stores only at the times that it's appropriate to plant them (at least in Florida). However, because of their buying patterns, some of the large discount stores may have plants that are out of season for our climate at certain times of the year.
Where's the best place to find bargains? It really depends on how much you know about what you're buying. If you're new to gardening, it'll probably be more economical for you to buy larger plants such as trees and shrubs from local nurseries and growers in your area. Even though the purchase price may be higher than what you see on "the same plant" at a discount store, locally-grown plants are likely to be better cared-for and better adapted to your local conditions. In a year's time, more of them will still be alive, so the cost per plant is actually lower.
On the other hand, if you're buying cell-packs of common annuals for filling up flower beds and containers, you might as well buy them from the discount stores (assuming you can tell healthy plants from sick ones). Why not? They all come from a handful of gigantic growing operations (check the labels). Just be careful to get them while they're still fresh, because the big discount stores are very uneven in how well they take care of plants once they're off the truck. On the other hand, if you're already at a garden center that has what you want, it doesn't make much sense to drive all the way across town to save fifty cents.
Moving right along, now that we've proven we're an equal opportunity offender...
Many indoor plants are available year-round and some can be grown successfully outdoors as well (at least in Florida), if planted in the right place.
If you must dig up plants taller than you are, it's recommended you do this in the winter months. With proper technique and after-care, even large plants can be moved successfully. Ask for advice. You can learn, but you may loose a few patients in the process. Don't dig up plants from public lands or private property without permission.

The first year is most important for new plantings, so include their care in your calendar. With all this in mind, you will have made an important and valuable investment in Florida's Plant Kingdom.
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