Garden Variety: Your guide to the garden center

Garden centers in the Lawrence area are full of beautiful blooming plants right now, and this is a great time to add plants to the yard and garden. The options can be overwhelming, though, and many times gardeners are lured in with pretty flowers, unusual species and low prices. The best way to shop is with a plan and a list, but even if you are out buying plants on impulse, there are some things to keep in mind to make better purchases.

First, always check the label for mature size. If this information is not provided on the label, ask staff or search online with the variety name. Plants can have considerable size variations. For example, zinnias might be 6 inches tall or 3 feet tall depending on the variety, and arborvitaes range from 1 foot to 120 feet. Consider the size in relation to the planting space and how the new plants will fit in with your existing plants.

Light requirements should also be on the label. If the label says a plant needs full sun, plan to plant it in full sun. It will not grow or bloom as well in limited-light conditions. Likewise, if a plant needs shade or partial sun, it will likely scorch and suffer in full sun. Plants are often grouped by light requirements at the garden center, with shade-tolerant plants under natural shade or awnings to protect them, but labels should still be checked.

The hardiness zone is the next thing to check out. Plants labeled as annuals are not winter-hardy in this area, so they’re unlikely to have the zone included on the label. Tomatoes, peppers and most vegetables are annuals. Zinnias, marigolds, petunias, and many popular summer flowers are also annuals. Some plant types, including salvia, have annual and perennial species so it is important to know which is which.

Lawrence and Douglas County are in USDA hardiness zones 6a and 6b. Look for plants that are listed as being hardy to those zones or smaller numbers such as zones 4 and 5. Plants listed as Zone 7 or higher are unlikely to survive the winter here.

Once you are sure the plant is suitable for your yard and the space you want to plant it in, look at the plant closely to ensure you are getting a healthy product.

Plants’ leaves are the first indicator of overall health. Scorching on the leaf edges or spots on the leaves are symptoms of stress and disease. Discoloration, odd color patterns, distortion and puckering are symptoms of insect feeding and/or viral infection.

Gardeners are often tempted to buy sick plants and nurture them back to health, but there is no treatment for many plant diseases. When buying a sick plant, you also take the risk of spreading the disease to other plants in your yard or garden.

Check on the root system next. Pull the plant out of the pot if needed. If it is very pot-bound with a large, tight mass of roots, the plant may already be stressed from having been left in a small container too long. Look for plants with full, healthy root systems that fit the pots but do not overfill them.

Finally, consider purchasing from local growers first. Local growers tend to be more knowledgeable about what plants grow well in the Lawrence area and focus on growing those. Also, plants started in this area are more likely to transplant easily and survive here than plants that have been moved from places like Oregon or North Carolina. Look at the label for the location of origin regardless of where you are shopping, or ask the staff if it is not listed. Plants produced in Kansas or neighboring states are the best bet.

One other thing to keep in mind when shopping is that size may not matter when comparing two plants of the same species. Small plants will often catch up with large plants because the small plant suffers less transplant stress.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.w


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