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Help Us Help You: 6 Things to Consider Before Shopping for Plants

We know that shopping at a large garden center can be overwhelming. Where do you browse? What do all these plants do, and what will they do for me? How do I take care of them? Here are several tips and pointers on what to bring with you (mentally, at least, or perhaps written-down) when you come shopping with us. If you’re short on time and can’t plan ahead, pictures are worth a lot. It’s easier for us to make educated guesses on lighting, spacing, and other factors when we can see where you’re landscaping or what you’d like to do.

 Light – how much, and when (in summer, mainly)
“Plant food” isn’t so much fertilizer as it is light. Sun-loving plants languish in too much shade, and shade-loving plants burn in too much sun. But what is too much and too little? We can help with that, but knowing roughly how many hours of direct (uninterrpted) sun the area you want to plant is important. Some plants are very adaptable and can make do with just about any light level, but for many, it’s very important to their prosperity and looking how you expect them to. Sun at ten o’clock in the morning, two o’clock in the afternoon, and seven o’clock in the evening are all different and affect plants differently. If you’re not home all day to observe the sun, at least make note of where it rises and sets in relation to the planting spot (behind a fence, house, or tree?) so we can get a sense of exposure. Do you have other plants growing there? What are they, and how are they doing? That can be an indicator to us also. Are you gardening inside, under lights or near a window? The same opportunities and limitations apply here too, so try to get a sense of how much light your area gets and what kind of light it is.

Soil – clods or crumbles?
If you haven’t gardened in this yard before, dig a test hole. Is it sandy? Is it full of rocks and clay? Is it crumbly and easy to dig? Most of us in central Maryland have some degree of clay. Folks closer to the bay may have more sand. Each soil has its advantages, and knowing which you have lets us pick the plants that prefer it best. You can always amend with compost – both soil types – and build raised beds, but working with what you have is usually the easiest approach. Growing in pots? That’s another type of soil mix we can make recommendations for, but we’ll need to know that plants are going into a container.

Water – soggy? parched?
Does your planned garden have a ponding problem when it rains? Does the neighbor’s runoff wash away your soil? Does that spot stay dry because of a shade tree, house eave, or because it’s too far from a hose spigot when things need water? Since all plants need water to grow as much as they need light (some don’t need soil, though!), this is an important consideration. Some plants are very tolerant of wetness to the point of being swamp denizens. Some are very tolerant of drought. A few don’t much care what moisture levels they have so long as it’s not to either extreme. This wet spring can give you a sense of where your wet spots are and what dries out the fastest. Watering with a hose can be a way around dryness, but wetness takes more planning and effort to change. It’s easiest to work with what you have, and we can direct you to the plants whose preferences match your conditions so they don’t just tolerate – they thrive. If you use a sprinkler system – especially the programmable ones – let us know, because often their default programming is quite the opposite of how you want it to water your garden. If you’re growing houseplants, tap water can bother some plants more than others depending on your mineral and chlorine content. Let us know if you like to water often, rarely, and if you keep the plants on saucers so we can get a sense of how wet or dry the plants might get.

Size – how large or small do you want it to grow?
Knowing the space available to you is very important so you don’t pick something too dwarf and slow-growing where you need speed or screening, or too fast and large where you have obstacles. Not all plants can be pruned and survive it with their appeal intact, so measure or ballpark the space available or keep in mind the limitations (windows you don’t want blocked, overhead power lines, overhead tree branches, gas/electric meters, driveway sight lines, and so on). Many people are tempted to start plants off closer together so they fill in faster, but do realize that this could shorten their appeal and threaten their health in the long term as they struggle to compete with one another. If you can be patient, it’s better for the plants (and better for your budget) to give them the space they’ll need as they get older. It’s also helpful to realize that it’s rare that you can get a plant close to its mature size – they just don’t have the room to grow that much in their pots, and they’d be much more expensive and harder to establish if they were more mature. Our information signs tend to list plant sizes after 10-20 years of a plant’s life, depending on how fast or slow it grows, but since plants never truly stop growing, take that with a grain of salt. If that concerns you, ask if the plant can be pruned to fit the space. Indoor plants rarely reach the size they would in the wild, because they don’t have unlimited root space or the comfort of tropical humidity and light year-round. Still, factors you control can influence how large they grow, and if you need something small or want something large, let us know how much room there is and how large of a pot you intend to use.

Deer – are you plagued?
Deer are everywhere nowadays. They browse next to our highways, they stroll nonchalant through our neighborhoods, and they hardly care about our distress over mowing-down the prized plant. Try to shoo a deer out of your yard and you may be surprised at how tame they’ve become. Still, for those of us who are visited (or plagued) by deer, there is hope, but we’ll save a lot of time in helping you make plant choices if we know that they’re a problem. There are still lots of good choices – don’t worry – and you can always fight the good fight in other ways, such as using barriers or repellent. If you have plants the deer have (or haven’t) eaten, it can help us gauge how desperate they are. Remember, though, that nothing is deer proof, so while we may recommend something based on experience and data gathered from multiple sources, it’s never a guarantee.

The Fun Factor
The catch-all for all the reasons we use our gardens – color, scent, food, wildlife habitat, blocking views, creating escapes, making bouquets, enjoying the great outdoors, and improving home value. Do you have a favorite color? Do you open your windows on mild days and want to enjoy the smell of flowers? Do you want to attract lots of songbirds, bees, butterflies or hummingbirds? Do your neighbors have a too-close window, junk pile, or are you next to a busy street? Do you want to feel like you’re in a northern forest, Japanese garden, tropical oasis, or English cottage garden? Style isn’t something we can choose for you, but we can advise you on what plants best suit certain styles. Do you like naturalistic, mixed groupings and lots of different plants? Or do you prefer a simpler palette, neat lines, reserve or formality? We can tell you which plants lend themselves to fine pruning and those that don’t; which plants mingle well with each other and which may take over their neighbors. Winter is the time we least use our gardens, but they could be much more interesting if year-round interest were considered, so don’t skip a season. It improves your curb appeal and keeps you engaged with your garden so you can appreciate all the effort you’ve put into planning it. Indoors, plants can help purify the air and add lively seasonaility to static décor. If you’re giving the plant as a gift, do you know how or where the recipient might use it? (On their desk at work? In a pot on the porch? In the garden?)

 We can ask you all of these questions if you don’t think of it, and our information signs can guide you with regards to most of these subjects. Your garden is your own, and you should plant it in a way that makes you happy; we can help you narrow-down the overwhelming possibilities to a more manageable group and those plants most likely to succeed and fulfill your dreams. Don’t be afraid to make multiple visits – not all plants are available to us all year long – and remember that you can plant at any time of year (except when the ground is frozen, of course). The best time to plant is always when you’re ready to plant, and we’re here to help you be ready.

by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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