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Ten Tips For Shopping Plant Sales

  • Shop with Ketzel at the Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, Ore.

    audio button Listen to Ketzel talk about attending the kickoff plant sale of the season.

    1. The Need List
    Use whatever discipline you can muster before the sale to identify the real holes in your garden; they will provide you with chapter headings for your shopping, and increase the likelihood that you'll bring home at least a few needed plants. Useful headings include a gorgeous something by the front door, a vase-shaped shrub for the perennial bed, an assortment of variegated perennials to perk up the shade.

    2. The Want List
    Got a want list? Great! Now leave it at home. You've got to be on your toes at a plant sale and lists are a distraction: you'll find yourself focusing on what you can't find, rather than what's right before your eyes. Besides, if you want a plant that badly, no doubt its name is already etched in your brain.

    3. Picking Plants
    The single most important thing you're looking for in a good plant is roots. A poorly rooted will be all the more difficult to establish. First off, check the pot bottom to see if roots are coming out. If not, and there's no grower there to assist you, give the plant the tiniest little tug to see if it moves freely in the pot. If it does, and you can live without it, move on to the next plant.

    4. Think Onesies
    Plant sales are best used for finding choice specimens, not for groundcover masses or a hedge of evergreen shrubs. Shop for the unique stuff and leave the meat and potatoes menu for the retail nurseries.

    5. Take It Now, Put It Back Later
    If you see something you love but don't think you can use it, put it in your basket anyway. Plant sales are full of one-of-a-kind items that disappear fast. Once you're finished shopping, take a cold, hard look at your bounty, and put back anything that doesn't still thrill you to your toes.

    6. Haggling
    You've got to figure that most plants sales are either fund-raisers for non-profits or opportunities for local growers to sell their wares. These local growers would have chosen far more lucrative trades if they were in it for the money. Rather than balk at their prices, get the extra added value of their wisdom: ask lots of questions about the plants you're going to buy.

    7. Be Nosey
    Go ahead, stick your head into everybody else's business, and look at what other gardeners are buying. Just be sure to compliment them on their choices, and they'll be thrilled to tell you what it is, where they got it, and how many more are left on the table.

    8. Buddy Up
    Unless you're extremely focused and consider socializing a distraction, shop with a friend. That way, you can cover twice as much territory, and have eyes in the back of your head.

    9. Dress Code
    Skip the shoulder bag! It will get in the way. Use pockets, backpacks, even those unattractive waist belts, and keep your hands free.

    10. Finally, Absolution
    Overbuying is inevitable. You will bring home plants that you will never plant. So instead of berating yourself or, worse yet, neglecting and killing the plant, give yourself one month (O.K. , two months) to get it in the ground and when the time's up, GIVE THAT PUPPY AWAY!


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