A gardener can have no better friend than an experienced nurseryman or woman. You can rely on their wisdom, for who handles more plants...

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A gardener can have no better friend than an experienced nurseryman or woman. You can rely on their wisdom, for who handles more plants or hears more tales of garden triumph and woe than someone working the nursery floor?

Years ago I admitted to my friend Doug Bayley that my Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ had up and died despite my babying it along. Its rapid decline had unnerved me. Bayley, who’d worked for years at area nurseries, reassured me that these beautiful trees had a rep for dying suddenly. His response gave me the perspective to try again. At the moment, I have a gorgeous plum-colored ‘Forest Pansy’ growing like crazy in my garden. If it dies, I’ll mourn its splendor, but won’t take losing it to heart.

There’s nothing as instructive as pumping a knowledgeable nursery person for information. It was Alex LaVilla, perennial manager at Swansons Nursery, who confirmed that Heuchera ‘Amber Waves’ is a bust — and it was such a comfort to learn that these lovely plants melt away in other gardens besides mine. LaVilla has also assured me that, among the onslaught of new heucheras, the glossy ‘Obsidian’ and brilliant ‘Marmalade’ have already proven garden-worthy.

Whenever I’m asked where to buy plants more cheaply, I recall such enlightening conversations. It’s not that I’m above bargain-hunting, but strong, healthy plants are worth paying for. And nurseries do so much more than fulfill our plant fantasies.

Several of my favorite nurseries have turned informational signs into an art form and have arranged plants by their cultural needs so it becomes almost intuitive to practice “right plant, right place.” Inspiring display gardens and container plantings introduce us to new varieties and combinations. Nurseries offer free classes. But the greatest resource at any nursery is the expert staff who help us become successful gardeners. Ask salespeople what to plant in sun or shade, in dry soil or wet clay, and they’ll advise. Many nurseries have return policies more generous than Nordstrom’s. If your plant dies for whatever reason, bring it back and get a new one. Honest.

“Plants aren’t a loss leader for us, as they are at the big-box stores,” points out Jim Fox of Wells-Medina Nursery. “Plants are our bread and butter.” It was Fox, one of the most serious plantsmen you’ll ever find working the floor, who shook his head when I claimed that my ‘Golden Showers’ climbing rose was perfectly healthy. The very next year that stupid rose defoliated in the ugliest way. I dug it up and tossed it.

Are there any roses that thrive in our climate without spraying chemicals on them?

“The Knock-Out series are turning out to be good shrub roses,” says Fox. “Some of the new generation of David Austin roses are really healthy, like the fragrant, sulfur yellow ‘Jude the Obscure’ and ‘Wild Eve,’ which is soft pink tinged with apricot.” Fox warns that the ubiquitous ‘Iceberg’ has been bred for so many generations it’s become senile, which means weak and diseased in nursery-speak.

Where else do you hear such frank and useful talk? Drive north to Bayview Farm and Garden on South Whidbey Island and hunt down veteran nurseryman Eric Studebaker. This guy is well-versed in gardening on an island challenged by drought, wind, deer and rabbits.

Are there any plants deer won’t eat?

“There’s no perfect plant, but hellebores, phygelius and elaeagnus are all deer-resistant, if not deer-proof,” advises Studebaker. The variegated E. pungens ‘Gilt Edge’ is his favorite of these handsome evergreens.

Does he have a favorite rose?

” ‘Opening Night’ is a classic, velvety red hybrid tea that cuts well and has good disease resistance,” he says.

“People ask for ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ and it’s OK, but ‘Opening Night’ is better.”

One more bit of advice from LaVilla is too good not to pass on: “People still ask for the hardy geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue,’ but ‘Jolly Bee’ and ‘Rozanne’ are so much superior. They bloom forever, don’t need to be cut back, and they don’t seed around . . . the perfect perennial.” Words to remember from a guy who knows.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.