Sooner or later every gardener goes to the nursery to buy a few plants. A good nursery can be an important resource, a place where questions can be asked and new plants discovered. Like any garden tool, of course, it helps to know how to use this one to get the most out of it.
First of all, how do you tell a good nursery from a bad one? On your first visit, do you get the immediate impression that people are keeping the place clean? A tidy, well-kept nursery means the place is staffed by people who care about what they are doing. Do the plants look upright, well watered, and of good color? Is there a good selection of plants for sale that are suitable for your region? Don't balk if you see plants that are not well-adapted to your zone. There are gardeners out there who love a challenge, and won't always limit themselves by what they see on the zone map. Even the most ethical nursery will cater to such reckless souls (of which I am one!). Ask questions about basic things and see if the answers make sense for the region in which you garden. (Asking the proper planting time for a plant you've grown successfully is a good test.) If you like the looks of the place and get the feeling the staff is knowledgeable, you've come to the right place.
Now, before you start spending money, decide what you want to plant. This is not to say you can't change the plan if you find something desirable that you hadn't thought of ahead of time, but you can't change a plan until you have one. If you are planting a flower bed, at least make a rough map showing by location the colors and foliage types you'd like to display. Such a plan need not be too specific; you can fill the bed with whatever happens to be available at the nursery that matches the colors, sizes, and scents you are after. In addition to this basic plan, make note of the conditions the plants will endure. Knowing such things as how much shade the garden will receive or how well the soil drains will help the nursery staff guide you to plants that have the best chance of thriving where you garden. Such information is vital if you find it necessary to choose a substitute for a plant you put in the plan, but cannot obtain this season.
Now, about the plants themselves. Fortunately picking healthy plants is less subjective than picking the nursery. First consider the overall appearance of the plants from which you will be making a selection. If the majority of them are not sturdy and of a healthy green hue (appropriate to the plant of course), walk away. Even if you can root around and find a few good ones, you risk finding later that these plants simply had not yet succumbed to whatever was wrong. If the plants generally look good to you, pick up a few likely specimens and have a closer look. Are there roots dangling from the drainage holes of the pots? Skip these pot-bound plants because the roots will be torn off during transplanting, and could cause a major set-back. Do the plants flop around as if they are loosely connected with the soil? They may have weak stems, which could be a problem when you transplant them. Take a sniff; if the soil smells rank and sour, instead of earthy, the plants have been over-watered and may have root rot. Are there visible signs of pests or disease? If the answer is yes, well, you know what to do by now.
In general, good plants have intact, unblemished leaves, no dangling roots, signs of fresh growth at the tips, and few flowers. That last might make you wonder, especially if you're planting a flower garden. It's a good idea to buy plants that have a flower or two open, just to make sure you've got the right variety and color. However, flowers cost a plant energy, which they will need to establish themselves after you transplant them, and the more flowers a plant is trying to support the harder it will be for the plant to become established. And even a modest set-back in a region with a short growing season can lead to disappointment. Pick plants that show promise, give them what they need in your garden, have patience, and in due time they will reward you.
So do a little homework and exercise garden variety common sense, and your local nursery will become a resource you can use with confidence.
About the Author Thomas Watson is graduate of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture, where he earned a BS in Agriculture, majoring in plant sciences. When he is not writing he is usually working in the garden, re-landscaping his Tucson home, studying botany and plant identification, or "out there" somewhere, studying the natural history of the Sonoran Desert. This is all, of course, based on the assumption that it isn't baseball season, in which case he'll get all of the above done before the next Diamondbacks game.