The White House’s Rose Garden. Versailles’ manicured grounds. TV chef Ina Garten’s Hamptons acreage, which we hear includes expansive herb plots, an orchard, and tons of hydrangeas. (Not that she’s invited us over, drat.)

Your lawn or backyard growth plans might not be as ambitious as those green dream spaces. But a good garden center has the inside info on the plants and plans that will make your outdoor space thrive. Top-notch centers employ in-the-know staffers who can tell you what to plant where in addition to selling quality annuals and perennials more likely to flourish than flop. And in many cases they’ll offer good prices, too. But some garden centers have overpriced, droopy flowers and even droopier employees.

To get to the root of it all, we collected opinions from area consumers on garden centers they frequent, reported on our Ratings Tables. They reflect big variations in quality, with some stores rated “superior” for “quality of products” by at least 80 percent of their surveyed customers, but some other retailers rated “superior” on this question by fewer than 40 percent. We also found big price differences, perhaps more than in any other subject we cover. However, those lower price tags usually come from big chains, which for the most part get lousy ratings from their customers.

You’ll want to shop at garden centers that employ knowledgeable staff, sell healthy plants, offer broad selections of products, make things right when something goes wrong, and charge reasonable prices. Our ratings and advice provide the dirt on local garden centers.

Finding Sage Advice

Garden center staffers can offer invaluable advice on buying plants, including which ones grow best for the conditions in your yard and how to care for them.

Our Ratings Tables show how consumers we surveyed rated local stores for “advice on choice and use of products.” We surveyed Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected individuals. Click here for more information on our surveys of area consumers and other research methods.

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 30 percent of their surveyed customers.

A garden center or nursery should also label plants with their botanical and common names, care requirements, expected height, flowering and berrying behavior, and price. Our Ratings Tables shows how customers rated each store for “ease of looking at products.”

Finding the Best Plants

The quality of plants varies tremendously from store to store, partly due to the variations in the quality of 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.

The care plants get after they reach the store is even more important.

When inspecting plants, be sure they are “true to type”—that is, they look the way that species of plant is supposed to look. If they’re supposed to be symmetrical, dark green, or covered in purple flowers, make sure they are.

Find out how plants should appear by checking plant catalogs, gardening websites, and books, or by talking with experts (listed on the right). You can also gain knowledge and design inspiration by taking garden tours or visiting greenspaces.

You’ll also want to determine if the plants are in good condition, since healthier ones are more likely to survive, 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.

When evaluating places that sell plants or selecting individual
plants, check the following: 

  • 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 continuous direct sunlight.
  • 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.
  • That roots aren’t brown, which means they’re dead. You’ll also want to check that roots haven’t outgrown their containers or become tightly wound around each other. This is called “root bound.”
  • 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; it’s 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 reported 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 determine what guarantees the center offers. They’ll have good guarantees when they believe their plants are healthy—and will compensate you if they aren’t. Guarantees vary in length, percentage of the price covered, whether any planting costs are covered, and other factors. In general, you get a broader guarantee if the store does the planting than if you DIY.

Even though there are sound reasons some quality stores don’t offer especially good guarantees, choose a store that offers a broad guarantee. 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 contingent on its customers’ lousy planting and care techniques.

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.

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Finding Variety and Special Services

Sophisticated gardeners may care as much about the availability of exotic specimens as plant health. Even newbies may want enough sizes and shapes to find plants that suit their spaces and fit their budgets.

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.

Many stores do more than just sell plants, also providing landscaping advice, doing planting, building retaining walls, and more.

As you make your plans, a garden center or nursery can be a valuable resource. You’ll want to shop at ones that employ knowledgeable staff, sell healthy plants, offer broad selections of products, make things right when something goes wrong, and charge reasonable prices. The information on our Ratings Tables for area garden centers will point you to several businesses that do all of these things well. But our Ratings Tables also reveal that many other local stores miss the mark on quality, and some charge very high prices.