Even the greenest of thumbs sometimes needs help—sometimes lots of it. Which plants to buy? How to plant them? Where to plant them? How to nurture them? The best-run garden centers have the answers. They employ experts and—maybe most important—emphasize quality. Selling plants is not like selling power tools or lumber. Plants are alive, each one unique and each one vulnerable to disease, injury, and death. Running a good garden center or nursery takes knowledge, years of experience, organizational skill, and a strong commitment to quality. And since most garden centers buy—rather than raise—most of what they sell, there is room for tremendous variation in buying ability and buying standards.

Getting Good Advice

Our Ratings Tables show how consumers we surveyed rated local stores on “advice on choice and use of products.” Click here for more information on our surveys of area consumers—who are primarily Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers.

At several of the rated stores, the quality of advice was judged “superior” by at least 80 percent of surveyed customers; by contrast, several others got similarly favorable ratings from fewer than 40 percent of their surveyed customers.

A garden center or nursery should also label plants clearly so it’s easy to find what you want. A legible sign, tag, or brochure on each plant should indicate botanical name, common name, care requirements, expected height, flowering and berrying behavior, and price. Our Ratings Tables show how customers rated each store for “ease of looking at/testing products.”

Finding Good Plants

Tremendous store-to-store variation exists in the quality of plants offered, partly due to the variations in the quality of each store’s staff and management: in knowledge, years of experience, organizational skill, and commitment to quality. In addition, unlike nurseries, which grow plants, most retailers buy what they sell, and buying expertise and standards can vary greatly from store to store.

The best stores buy some types of high-cost plants by sending buyers to suppliers and having them mark by hand each plant they want. It would cost less if they let the supplier choose the plants, but then quality would be less consistent.

Even if they don’t handpick plants, the best stores rely on longstanding buying relationships and the incentive of future purchases to obtain top-quality plants. They make sure suppliers know their standards and tell them when their plants are not up to par.

Although this level of buying skill and concern is important, the care plants get after they reach the store is even more important.

When you visit stores and assess their plants, consider two main aspects of quality. First, are plants “true to type”—that is, do they look the way that species of plant is supposed to look? If they are supposed to be symmetrical, are they? If they are supposed to have full foliage, do they? If they are supposed to be dark green, are they?

Find out how plants are supposed to look by visiting several nurseries, checking plant catalogs and garden books, talking with experts, taking garden tours, and visiting public gardens.

Second, ascertain the plants’ condition. You can easily judge some aspects by examining the plants; others must be deduced from what you observe and hear about the store’s plant-care practices.

The condition of plants is important not only because healthier plants are more likely to survive, but because they grow up looking better and require less effort to maintain. You don’t want a plant that loses foliage or branches and becomes scraggly. Stressed plants can also attract insects and diseases, which can spread to neighboring healthy plants.

Here are points to check when evaluating places that sell plants and, later, when selecting individual plants:

  • Make sure the plants have not dried out—at any time. Check with your finger for moisture around the roots to determine that the root ball is not cement-hard. Avoid plants that have been placed on hot pavement; the best nursery practice is to keep the root ball covered—usually with soil, sawdust, or bark. Many plants—particularly broadleaf evergreens—should be kept under a lath structure or otherwise protected from continual direct sunlight. Good garden centers have good sprinkler systems.
  • Make sure the root ball of “balled and burlapped” plants is not cracked or loose—that dirt is not torn away from the roots—as happens, for instance, if nursery personnel carelessly drop plants when unloading delivery trucks. Check that the ball moves as you gently tip the tree, but don’t rock the tree from side to side because that might separate the tree from the ball.
  • Check the roots of containerized plants; you can usually see them through drainage holes. Live roots are whitish; dead ones, brown. Make sure the plant has not outgrown the container and become root bound. Roots of root bound plants are tightly wound around one another, and may eventually strangle the plant.
  • Make sure plants’ root balls are large enough to sustain them. The rule of thumb for deciduous trees is that the ball should be nine to 12 inches in diameter for each inch of trunk diameter. Root balls for evergreen trees can be slightly smaller.
  • Check the drainage holes of plant containers; excess white residue indicates over-fertilization.
  • Examine trees and shrubs for weak and declining branches, scarring, pruning cuts not flush with the branch or trunk, dead wood, indications of disease or infestation, and holes.
  • Make sure trees and shrubs have strong branches that grow out from the center.
  • Make sure a tree doesn’t have a “V” crotch, which is likely to split when the tree gets older.
  • Check that foliage is not unnaturally yellowed or faded, and that it is not bruised or injured.
  • Look for signs of disease, such as browned or grayed areas, or spots on leaves or stems.
  • Examine plants for insects. Look in the tight areas between leaf and stem, on the underside of leaves, and on leaf stems. Check foliage for insect damage, such as holes chewed in the edges of leaves or tunnels visible between leaf layers.
  • During the growing season, make sure there is new growth (usually a lighter green) and that leaves are not wilted or brittle.
  • Find out if plants were dug in the wild. When plants grow in the wild their roots spread, and that root material is lost when the plants are dug up. Plants cultivated in nurseries, on the other hand, are likely to have their roots pruned several times during transplanting or otherwise contained during their development, forcing a more compact root system that can be dug up largely intact. The Federal Trade Commission’s “Guides for the Nursery Industry” characterizes selling such plants without disclosing that they were collected from the wild as an unfair trade practice.
  • When buying plants sold with bare roots (for example, most young fruit trees), check that the roots are not shrunken or shriveled and have been kept moist. Check also that the buds are firm, not crispy and dry. And look for a lot of fibrous roots, an indication that the plants have been cultivated and dug carefully.

Our customer survey ratings on our Ratings Tables regarding “quality of products” show what many consumers thought of the condition of plants in the stores they used. Of course, in many cases our raters not only looked at plants in the store but also saw how they performed in their gardens.

Another way to assess quality is to find out what guarantees the store offers. Garden centers offer good guarantees when they believe their plants are healthy—and are willing to compensate you if they aren’t.

Guarantees vary in duration, proportion of the price covered, proportion of delivery and planting costs covered, and other factors. In general, you get a broader guarantee if the store does the planting than if you do it yourself.

All things being equal, choose a store that offers a broad guarantee, even though there are sound reasons some quality stores don’t offer especially good guarantees. Fact is, most plant deaths result from improper planting or care, not from problems at the time of sale. A store may not want to put itself at much risk based on the performance of its customers.

We asked customers to rate garden centers on “reliability (standing behind products, delivering on time, etc.).” Our Ratings Tables show the percentage of each store’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior”—a good indication of which stores are most likely to replace plants that prove to be defective.

Getting Lots of Choices

If you are a sophisticated gardener with exotic tastes, you may care as much about the availability of unusual specimens as about plant health. Even novices may want enough choice of sizes and shapes to find a plant that suits their available space and fits their budget.

Our customer survey scores provide one measure of variety. But keep in mind that our “variety” question meant different things to different respondents, depending on which store they were rating. A garden center specializing in annuals might have been rated high for its wide selection of annuals, and not downgraded for a weak selection of shrubs or trees.

To find out whether a store carries the types of plants you want, you’ll have to pay it a visit.

Getting Special Services

Many stores do more than just sell plants. Most deliver them. Many garden centers also provide landscaping advice, do planting, build retaining walls, remove stumps, and offer various other services.