Yardsmart: Three questions to ask before buying a plant

Maureen Gilmer
Tribune News Service

We buy new plants because we fall in love with them. Every time you visit the garden center in spring, your oxytocin starts flowing and you want all those beautiful flowers for your yard. But love is blind and our judgment becomes skewed by all that passion and beauty. The plants come home with us to live yet they die.

Such failure is painful and expensive if you know little about a prospective date before stepping out. With people, a quick check online can reveal details about the person’s family, interests, employment, etc., to see if any red flags pop up. Do the same for any prospective new plant to check its statistics too, or it’s likely to land in the compost heap sooner or later.

Designers think deeply and on different levels about each plant before including it on the plan. They visualize it in the space at maturity.

Here are some of those details to help you verify any new plants for this year’s garden improvements. You’ll find this info on the plant label or if not, look it up online by botanical name to find the answers to these questions:

Will it survive the winter?

Know your USDA Hardiness Zone and make sure the plant is designated as winter-hardy in that zone.

Will it fit?

Learn the shape, size and diameter of the plant at 3/4 maturity, and use that as your criteria for whether it works or fits in the spot you have in mind. It should mature naturally without any need for pruning or shearing to keep it smaller. Solutions to too-large plants inevitably lead to repetitive maintenance tasks.

Will it grow?

Plant labels stipulate the amount of sunlight required, typically full sun, part sun and full shade. Problems arise when the designation doesn’t include regional differences. For example, full sun in Arizona will be dramatically more stressful than full sun in Seattle.

Climate change and drought have brought many new plants into the market that are unknown to gardeners. Research them before spending money to make sure they are reliable in your area, particularly in colder or very arid climates. Buying locally native plants ensures they will be climatically adapted, but they should be vetted for suitable size and exposure too.

Getting these details right is how to plant your garden properly. One of the best plant databases online is at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Their Plant Finder leads searches to an enormous number of really detailed plant profiles prepared in the middle of the U.S. so you won’t get to far afield regionally with the content. After so many years working as a horticultural journalist online, I believe this is the best universal database for average gardeners.

If you do live in an extreme climate such as the far northern states, or perhaps Florida where conditions are unusual, stick with those regional databases. They offer all the general criteria plus helpful local details such as soils or diseases that afflict certain regions.

A last resort is to vet an unknown plant with an inquiry on a local Facebook gardening group. This is where you’ll find unpublished but vital details about that plant’s behavior on a micro-local level under conditions going on right now.

With landscape plants getting very expensive, it pays to do your homework. Unlike quick herbaceous plants that die and may be replaced in a season, long-lived landscape plants are a far greater investment in time.

Recovering from a loss of that magnitude requires the same amount of time to replace, time many of us don’t have. Do homework and stifle your passions to bring home sensible beauty for that special place, where you can love him for the rest of your life.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at MoPlants.com.