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Plant Shopping Tips for Iowa

• If it looks healthy, it probably is. So that means that it's okay to buy that flat of annuals at the big box store if they're the cheapest ones in town. The problem occurs when they've been sitting around for days with little care. It's hard for the big discount stores, sometimes, to keep staff that really knows about and has time to care for live plants.

• Conversely, if it's sick—not matter where it's for sale—avoid it. It likely will be a waste of money and spread disease to your garden.

• I like mail-order for seeds, roses, trees, and shrubs. You get great selection, though you do have to pay for shipping. I'm not very enthusiastic about mail-ordering perennials and certainly not annuals. It's difficult to ship these with any size on them and they tend to get damaged.

• Shop around on plant prices. They can really vary without much difference in quality. And when shopping for annuals, do your best to get a full flat of annuals (Most places allow you to mix and match different types of flowers and vegetables.) There's often a 10 percent discount for a full flat.

• Look around for flats or cell packs of annuals all of one color. Annuals are often sold in mixes of colors. But I feel the best effect can be had if those, say, snapdragons are all of one color—less of a patchwork effect. Or those marigolds are all of the same bright yellow instead of yellow ones mixed in with orange ones and gold ones, all sold in the same cell pack. These flat and cell packs of a single color are usually harder to find at big discount stores, easier to find at smaller nurseries.

• Read the label carefully. In Zone 5 in Iowa, it's preferable to buy a plant that says Zone 4. In Zone 4, it's preferable to get one that says Zone 3. Plant wholesalers tend to be overly optimistic about how cold-hardy their plants are.

• Test drive perennials. I'm a big believer in planting "drifts" of perennials—6 or more together—for best effect. But that's expensive, and risky if I've never grown that plant before. So I buy just one or two or three and give it a couple of years. If it does well, I then divide the plants (even if they don't need it) to get myself the larger number of plants to create a drift.

• Research major purchases. If you want to buy a certain type of tree or large shrub, do a little on-line or other research first. Otherwise, you may be planting a problem that you'll be living with for a very long time. Most trees, for example, have a set of advantages and a set of disadvantages. Know both before you plant!

• Keep a plant shopping list. Before you go to the garden center, make a list and stick to it. As with a grocery list, this really helps you save money.

• Through the year, jot down the name of new plants you hear or read about and would like to try. (I keep an index card in my pocketbook.) That way, when you're visiting various garden centers, you can remember to see if they have any of those plants.

• That said, plan one special trip a year to a cool, independent nursery. It's a great way to spend an afternoon with a friend or loved one. Plus, these more specialized nurseries carry lots of nifty plants you may not otherwise encounter!

Veronica

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