A Shopper’s Guide to Buying Perennials

A Shopper’s Guide to Buying Perennials

Visit your local garden center and you're likely to find dozens of plants. I'll help you pick the happiest, healthiest perennials for your yard.
Look around and you can find perennials for sale at a wide variety of places, including garden centers, home improvement centers and mass merchandisers, and neighborhood plant sales, and most should offer plants that are well adapted to your area’s climate. 

While no two garden centers are the same, they typically offer the advantage of having a wide variety of plants to choose from. Garden centers may also be staffed by gardening enthusiasts or professional gardeners, so they may also be a source of information. Home improvement centers and mass merchandisers may not supply as many different varieties at one time, but they may offer different perennials every few weeks. Because they typically focus on what’s in bloom, you may want to visit your these stores in different seasons to ensure your garden will contain perennials that bloom in spring, summer, and fall. Neighborhood plant sales often feature plants donated from other gardeners’ yards, so the selection and quality of the plants will vary widely from sale to sale. 

Once you’re at the store, the plant tags and store staff can help provide information about the different perennials for sale, including their size, growing requirements (sun, water, etc.), and special features, such as if a particular variety is good for attracting hummingbirds. For best results, be sure to select perennials that are adapted to the conditions in your yard. 

When picking out plants, look at the foliage. The healthiest plants shouldn’t have many yellow, brown, or blackened leaves -- or leaves spotted with disease. Look at the overall foliage color; for most perennials, the leaves should be a deep, rich green. (Note: There are perennials that are grown for their colorful foliage, so not every perennial will have green leaves. It’s possible to find plants with chartreuse or gold foliage, as well as blue, silver, purple, bronze, and other colors of leaves.)

It’s typically best to avoid buying perennials in full bloom, although sometimes this is necessary to ensure you get the flower colors you desire. When perennials are flowering, they don’t have as much energy to put into getting established, so they may be a little slower to start in your yard than one not in bloom.

While the flowers and leaves are the showiest parts of most perennials, the most important part is the root system. A good, healthy root system is what’s going to allow your plant to get settled in your garden after you plant it, and then come back bigger and stronger year after year. Don’t be afraid to peek at the plant roots when shopping. It’s easy to do this by gently slipping the plant out of its pot. Just place your hand over the top of the pot, with the plant in the L-shaped space between your thumb and your forefinger. Then tip the pot upside down so your hand is supporting the plant. Slip the pot up away from the rootball. Healthy roots should be firm and white in color; unhealthy roots will be yellowed, brown, and mushy. You also want the roots to fill the pot, but be wary of plants that are excessively rootbound, where all you can see is a thick, tangled mass of roots and little soil. Rootbound plants are more likely to have been stressed the garden center. 

When transporting your perennials home, keep in mind your plants can suffer windburn if they’re exposed outside your vehicle, such as if they hang out an open window or are in the back of a pickup truck bed. 

Written by Justin Hancock