Editor’s note: Kelly R. Jackson takes questions called into his phone recently at the Christian County Extension Office and answers them in the Garden Corner column.

Question. How can I be sure I’m buying good quality plants?

Answer. There are two ways to buy plants for your garden. One way is to run to the garden center on the first warm day and purchase any (or all) plants that strike your fancy. You might call this the chaos method. Although fun, it may be difficult to blend your plants into a cohesive landscaped bed and conditions of the site may lead to problems later. I tend to lean more toward the planning method, which is more methodical and requires a little effort on the gardener’s part.

It helps to think of plant selection like a game of 20 Questions, if following the planning method. First, decide the location for a new plant before buying it. Then, determine the right plant by asking yourself questions like:

  • How much sunlight will the plant receive? If the site receives direct sun most of the day, that eliminates all plants that need shade.
  • Is the location wet or dry? If it’s a dry site, you can forget all the plants that need moist or boggy soils.
  • Is your soil heavy clay or well-drained? Only a few plants may be adaptable to the heavy clay soils often found around Kentucky homes.
  • How much space do you have? No matter how hard you try, it is very difficult to fit a 60-foot tree into a 15-foot space.

These questions will definitely narrow the field. Then, you can evaluate the remaining possibilities for foliage, fragrance, form, growth rate, etc.

Flower color is usually a big deciding factor, and developing a color scheme for your flower bed will certainly help you in making a decision for the right plant. This may seem like a lot of work, but keep in mind matching the plant to the site helps eliminate many problems and creates less work for you later.

Don’t forget two key elements when selecting plants — cold hardiness and heat zone. Currently, we live in the plant hardiness zone 6b. This means plants that do not tolerate less than -5 degrees Fahrenheit are not hardy here and will likely die, or die back to the roots, due to cold temperatures. We are in heat zone 7, meaning we receive 60 to 90 days above 86 F during the growing season. Plants that need a lower heat zone would likely suffer during our summers. Most plant tags have the hardiness and heat zones listed.

Once you narrow the plant kingdom down to the three or five plants that work for you, don’t give in to the first one you see. After all that work, you owe it to yourself to be sure you are buying a good, healthy plant. How do you know? Here are some tips:

  • Annuals and perennials should have good green foliage. The exception are those plants grown for their light green, yellow green, bronze or variegated foliage.
  • Avoid plants with yellowing or spotted leaves. Yellow leaves may indicate a lack of fertilizer, crowded growing conditions, the beginning of a disease problem and/or the presence of insects.
  • Check plants carefully for insect problems on the leaves. Don’t buy plants with insect pests, such as whiteflies, spidermites, aphids and mealybugs.
  • Long, leggy growth indicates a problem with crowded growing conditions. Purchase plants with compact growth. Trees and shrubs should have a balanced shape. Lopsided trees and shrubs are difficult, almost impossible, to shape properly.
  • When selecting plants with flowers, it is best to purchase plants with only a few blossoms open and many flower buds. Then, you will have a long period of bloom to enjoy in your garden.
  • Thoroughly check plants at bargain prices before buying them. Poorly shaped, root-bound, overgrown and poor quality plants are not a bargain. These plants have problems; many of these problems are not correctable. However, keep in mind that high prices for plants do not always indicate quality. Taking time to shop around for plants at different locations may pay off for you.

Nursery and garden center professionals can often provide more information than plant tags when trying to make a decision. The Internet also offers many websites that help you narrow a list of plants to those that meet your growing conditions. Just be sure the plants are hardy to our zones before buying. The extension office has several reference publications listing great plants known to do well in Kentucky available for the asking.

Kelly R. Jackson is the Christian County Extension Agent for horticulture. He can be reached at 270-886-6328 or visit Christian County Horticulture online at www.christiancountyextension.com.

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