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Choosing The Right Garden Plants

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Clematis Flowers.

Everyone who has ever wanted to buy a few plants to perk up their garden when springtime rolls around probably knows the feeling: you walk into a garden centre pleased with yourself - you've taken the first step to taming the jungle outside your front door. You might even have a vague idea of what kind of plants you want to buy. There's a spring in your step and you're feeling chipper. You walk past the urns and ornaments and out into the plant section - you know what you want and you're not going to get side-tracked into unnecessary purchases!

But wait! Halfway down the first aisle a slight unease grips you - there are just so many plants! Where to start? Bewildered by choice, you might even pile the first half-dozen plants with nice flowers into the trolley and beat the retreat. Well, no more. Although old hands fall prey to this impulse almost as often as gardening beginners, there's no need to, if you bear in mind a few simple tips.

Read on to find out how to shop for plants!

Choosing The Right Plant For The Spot

Often people look at a garden where the plants all seem to be thriving, and remark that the owner must have green fingers. 'I can never get a rose to grow like that', you might hear them say. In reality though, their fingers are probably within the normal spectrum of human skin, if perhaps a bit black under the nails. Perhaps the gardener just knows that the most important thing is to buy plants to suit the situation in the part of the garden where you want to put them. Plants want to grow – it's in their genes. They'll do well as long as you don't stack the odds too heavily against them. So, what goes where?


The main consideration is probably the amount of sun the plot receives. Unless you get a certain level of sunlight, say six hours each day, the range of plants you can grow is very limited. There are plants which will grow in shade, too; many of these can tolerate sun, but since shade can be tricky for plants, if they can grow in areas without much sun they are often marketed exclusively as 'shade plants.'

Some examples of plants which love sun:

  • Roses
  • Herbs such as basil and rosemary, which often come from warmer climes
  • Most annuals1

In short, nearly all plants prefer sun to shade. If you are stuck with a shady spot there's no need to panic, as a lot of plants can live in varying degrees of shade, too. Some examples:

  • Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)
  • Bugle (Ajuga)
  • Astilbe
  • Hosta
  • Christmas or Lenten Rose (Helleborus)

Soil Moisture

Depending on a plant's native habitat, it may prefer to be in a moist spot, or a dry, sandy patch. Some plants such as astilbe will dry out and scorch very easily if they don't have enough moisture. Others, such as the many types of cactus or succulent, will turn to brown mush very easily if the soil is too wet.

This is as important as the amount of sunlight, but the good news is it's possible to change the structure of the soil. If it's too boggy, you can increase drainage by adding compost to the soil. If that isn't enough, you can add sharp sand2 or horticultural grit. These will all help to break up the soil and give it a more open texture. If the soil is too sandy and won't hold moisture for long, you can improve it by adding lots of compost and manure to make it a bit richer.

Some examples of good plants for heavy, clay3 soil:

  • Primroses (Primula)
  • Astilbe
  • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
  • Hosta
  • Crocosmia

Some examples of good plants for light, sandy soil:

  • Lavender
  • Yarrow (Achillea)
  • Lamb's/Rabbit's ears (Stachys)
  • Verbascum
  • Russian Sage (Perovskia)

Soil pH Level

It's not necessary to worry too much about this. Most plants grow best in neutral-slightly acid soil - a pH of between about 6.5 and 7. There are some, like clematis, which prefer it slightly alkaline, and others like azalea and rhododendron which prefer it to be more on the acid side. Garden centres sell little cheap pH testing kits for you to check how acid or alkaline your soil might be. For most people though, it shouldn't be a factor, as the majority of plants can get by on a wide range of common soil types.

Where Should I Buy Them?

There are a few different places to buy plants, and all have their advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the options:

  • Garden Centres4 - these are possibly the best choice. They have a wider range of plants than other outlets, so if you are after something unusual, they're the first choice. Another point in their favour is that the stock you find there should be healthy and well-tended. The staff will usually be knowledgeable enough to give you any advice you need. The drawbacks are price - you can expect to pay a little more here than in a supermarket5 - and accessibility - they are often out-of-town and awkward to get to if you don't have a car.

  • Supermarkets and petrol stations - you can get some good bargains here. The range won't be great, and the staff mightn't be as experienced as they are in a garden centre. Usually it's best to buy plants as soon as possible after they come in, as the care they get might not be the best. It's also a lot more convenient, as you can pick up a few plants while you get petrol or do your shopping.

  • Mail Order/the Internet - a lot of specialist nurseries sell only by mail order, and offer many unusual plants you won't find elsewhere. The price really varies from company to company, but many are very reasonable. It's convenient in that your order is delivered right to your door, but you will have to wait a bit longer to get your plants. Another downside is that you don't get to see the stock before you buy, and if they aren't healthy or the order is wrong it can take a certain amount of hassle to get plants exchanged.

  • Open-air Markets - the price is usually very good here, but it's a complete lottery with regard to the quality and the range available.

Points to Look For

There are certain signs to look for to see whether a plant is a worthy specimen or not. Depending on how the plant is packaged for sale, there are different signs of health. Below are the most common ones to look for.

Pot grown plants

Plants grown in pots are the most convenient. They are already fairly well established and easy to plant. To see if it is worth buying, have a look at it. Firstly, is it clearly labelled? This is very important, and you should look for good labelling no matter what way the plant is packaged. For one thing, you want to be sure of what it is. Labels can vary in how much information they provide, but apart from the plant's name, a good one will also tell you important things like its size when mature, and should give some cultivation tips about preferred soil, sun exposure, and even advice on feeding and pruning.

Make sure it isn't wilting badly. This might just mean it needs a drink, but it could be a sign of disease. If you think it just needs water go ahead and buy it, but you might be able to get a discount on it - it's worth a try!

Look at the container itself. Is it split, or are there thick roots poking out of the holes at the bottom? If so, the roots are probably a bit congested, and it might not grow as vigorously as it should when you plant it.

A few small weeds on the surface don't really matter, but if there is a thick growth of weeds, they've been taking food and water away from the plant. It's also an indication that the care the plant has received is a bit hit and miss.

Take a good look at the plant itself - don't buy it if there are any pests on it, or if it has signs of mildew. Feel free to tap it out of the pot and look at the roots. You don't want to see any little maggoty grubs, and the root ball should take up nearly all of the space in the pot. Plants are usually priced by pot size, so you want the size of root system you end up paying for, not just a small root network with soil packed around it!

Bare-root plants

These are just roots often packaged in a plastic bag. They should be planted in the dormant season when the plant is not growing, before spring growth begins. It's important that they are completely dormant - if the heat indoors has prompted them into premature growth, they will take a hammering when planted out into the cold. Make sure there isn't any mildew, and that the roots are firm and healthy looking. Unless they are rotten and mushy, they will probably grow well when the growing season comes around.

Annuals in flat trays

This is an inexpensive way to buy bedding plants. They should be quite compact when you buy them - if they appear drawn out or lanky, they probably haven't had enough sunlight to start them off well in life. The roots shouldn't be growing wildly out of the bottom, since they've outgrown the tray if they are. Because annuals die after flowering, you should buy them before they bloom to make sure you get a full display from them. As with all other plants, if the leaves look diseased or are turning yellow in parts, give them a miss.


It may seem by now that there is an awful lot to remember, but don't worry. It really isn't that hard. The two key points to remember are to buy something that suits your conditions and don't buy it if it looks too shabby! The chances are if you see a row of plants of the same type, you'll know the healthy ones when you see them.

Whether you want to create a wildlife garden, a garden to stimulate each of the senses, or something less specific, it makes sense to get off to a good start by picking decent plants. Hopefully the task is now a bit easier.

1An annual is a plant which grows from seed, flowers and dies all in one year. They usually need plenty of sun since they have a 'live fast, die young' habit, so they need plenty of energy. They also have no food reserve to rely on, unlike bulbs, for instance.2This should be bought from a garden centre or nursery rather than a builders' merchant, as builders' sand often contains lime or salts that the plants won't thank you for!3To find out if your soil is clay, sandy or just nice, grab a handful and give it a good squeeze. Clay soil will stick together and ooze between your fingers. Sandy soil will just fall through your fingers like dust. Ideally you want soil to be somewhere in between - to hold on to water, but to be quite crumbly too.4Many DIY and home improvement stores have a 'garden centre' section. While these mightn't have such a big range as a specialist garden centre they are often slightly cheaper, and the plants are usually pretty well tended.5Many offer good bargains, however, if you visit at off-season times - usually from autumn until the beginning of spring.

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