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Getting the most from your trip to the garden center

In today's "Growing Together" column, Don Kinzler offers tips to find the right plants and when to go to stores to avoid crowds and get more help from staff.

When shopping for flowers, check to see which types prefer sun and which need shade. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Did you hear about the flowers who went on a date? It’s a budding romance.

If you don’t already have spring fever, you’re certain to catch it with a trip to the local garden center — not only for flowers, but for all the plants they sell. Shopping the rows of shade trees, shrubs, fruit trees and annual and perennial flowers is a delight.

May is the busiest month for plant purchases and garden center traffic. Here are some tips to make the most of your shopping sessions.

  • Garden centers fall into two categories: those attached to national chain stores, and those that are locally owned whose primary business is growing and selling plants. If your only garden center visits are at national chains, I encourage you to explore locally owned garden centers, which offer a rich experience and a wealth of material well-suited to the region.
  • Before you go, make a plan and create a list. Measure container diameters so you’ll know how many plants to purchase. Measure landscape beds for proper plant spacing. Line the trunk with plastic or cardboard for easier cleanup.
  • Garden centers are very busy on Saturdays and Sundays. To avoid crowds, shop Monday to Thursday during the day, if you’re able. If you desire individualized help or have questions, garden center staff can more easily assist you on the less-busy days.
  • Garden centers are often divided into areas devoted to sun-loving flowers, shade-loving flowers, vegetable plants, trees and shrubs. Flowering plants are usually divided into separate sections for annual flowers and perennial flowers. Knowing the layout of the garden center helps select the appropriate plants.
  • Plant tags are a garden shopper’s best friend. They list the plant's height, width and winter hardiness, as well as whether it's annual or perennial, and its preferred light level.
  • When a tag denotes preferred light, full sun means more than six hours of direct sunshine, part sun is four to six hours of sun, part shade is two to four hours of sun, and full shade is less than two hours sunshine.
  • Trees, shrubs and perennial flowers must be winter-hardy in our hardiness zones 3 or 4, as listed on the tags.
  • Check tomato tags for days to maturity. Our best main-season tomatoes are listed as 65 to 78 days. Early tomatoes are 45 to 65 days, and tomatoes that are late for our season are in the category 80 to 100 days.
  • When choosing annual and perennial flowers, look for well-branched stocky plants with rich green, non-yellow foliage.
    Select annual plants that are compact and with rich-green leaves. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
  • In selecting shrubs, determine the footprint of space the mature shrub will require to allow it room to grow without crowding adjacent shrubs.
  • Check trees for straight trunks and a central leader with well-branched secondary limbs.
  • Be certain fruit trees are cultivars recommended for our region and winter-hardy in the zone in which you live.
  • When shopping large displays of flowering bulbs, tubers and roots, differentiate between those that remain in the ground permanently as winter-hardy perennials, like peonies, lilies and bleeding heart, and those that must be dug in fall and stored indoors, like gladiolus, dahlias, tuberous begonias and cannas.
  • New homeowners might consider installing trees and landscape shrubs first, followed by perennial flowers. Until shrubs and perennials develop, use annual flowers to fill in spaces for plentiful color with their season-long bloom.
  • When shopping with a limited budget, select smaller sizes of trees and shrubs, if available for the types you’d like. Pots of perennials can often be divided, if multiple shoots are arising from the center.
  • If you aren’t ready to plant the materials you’ve purchased, don’t leave them in the garage. Garden center plants are grown in greenhouses and high-light situations, and they’ll quickly languish in a dimly lit garage. Instead, put them outdoors in a location protected from the wind and gradually let them become accustomed to the outdoors. Move into the garage on frosty nights.

Examine tags of trees and shrubs for the plant's winter hardiness zone. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor


Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at

Don Kinzler column mug.jpg
Don Kinzler, "Growing Together" and "Fielding Questions" columnist.

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