Vintage Pacific NW: We’re revisiting some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food, fitness, gardening and more.

Originally published March 22, 2009
By Valerie Easton, former Natural Gardener writer


A SMART STRATEGY for grocery shopping is to stick to the fresh-food perimeter of the store, shunning interior shelves laden with processed goods. Stores are so huge and full of temptation that such tactics not only save time, money and sanity, but they also help ensure we return home with food that’s actually good to eat.

For many of us, nurseries are even more seductive, especially in springtime, when plant fever burns brightest. Too often, we end up spending more than we intend on plants that cause problems more long-term than any package of potato chips or Oreos. How often have you unloaded your car after a nursery jaunt, only to wonder what possessed you to buy six flats of candy-pink begonias or that sweet little tree sure to shoot up like Jack’s beanstalk? We’ve all done it. Unfortunately, the delight of amassing plants is more than outweighed by the grief of tending an overplanted garden.

So how to safely approach a well-stocked nursery on a sunny spring morning?

Give yourself plenty of time. Don’t drink too much coffee before you go; a buzz can get you in trouble. Relax, breathe deeply, don’t run through and grab. It’s not the first day of the Nordstrom sale — there are plenty of plants to go around, and if you miss something, you probably didn’t really need it, anyway. (I know: What’s need got to do with it?)

Start with your list. Not unlike a Netflix queue or a life list of birds to see, most gardeners tend an ongoing roster of sought-after plants. Such lists keep us from aimless nursery wandering, and when we actually find that salvia or heuchera, we can confirm it’s really the kind we’ve been seeking. But don’t be so intent on your list that you miss whatever is new, special or unusual that day.

Study how the place is organized. Tables in front usually carry seasonal plants in bloom. I always start there, just for the fun of it. Most nurseries arrange plants not just by type (trees, shrubs, perennials), but also by conditions. You’ll find tables of water plants, drought-tolerant plants, those suitable for shade, plants beloved by butterflies. Never assume that just because you find a 4-inch artemisia in one place, they don’t carry a gallon size somewhere else. Nurseries can be confusing. Always ask if you don’t find what you’re looking for.

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Read the signs. Sure, it’s marketing, but they contain reliable information. If, after reading signs and tags, you’re still unconvinced of a plant’s hardiness or suitability, seek out the answer desk, which usually has reference books as well as informed staff.

Draw inspiration. Study the expert container plantings and demonstration beds. There’s no shame in copying combinations you see on display — in fact, nurseries employ talented designers in the hope you will.

Get to know the plant buyers. At good nurseries, they know when a plant will be available, can order specific plants for you, and are happy to take your name and call you when what you’re seeking comes in. Often they can suggest other possibilities or steer you away from problem choices. Good nurseries are gateways to the wide world of plants; you never need to settle for what you find in stock on any given day.

Consider more than the price tag. It’s worth it to pay more for a plant with a lovely shape, healthy foliage, a well-developed root system. In the case of plants still new on the market, you might want to wait, if you can bear to, until next year, when the price surely will come down a bit. Nurseries offer so much more than shopping; think of them as both a bookstore and a library. Sometimes we run into a bookstore to pick up a magazine or a best-seller, but on other days, we visit a library to really study a subject or bask in the wealth of books and knowledge. Let your nursery experience be both bookstore and library, and your frame of mind, bank account and garden will prosper for it.