I've been hanging out in nurseries since I was 14. (Speaks well of my social life as a youth.) In those many years, I've really come to respect Texas' retail nursery owners and employees. They're my friends, and as friends will do, we often talk. I have some tips that I've heard over those years. They might help you have the very best nursery shopping experience.
Start with a plan
Compare it to shopping for groceries. You know how you'd do if you just showed up at the market with no idea of what you needed or what you intended to do with the things that you bought. Sure, we all stop in at nurseries on whims, but think through your purchases. It's sad to bring a new plant home only to find that you have no place to plant it.
Do your research
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Before you head out to shop, know as much as you can about the plants and products you're likely to buy. Which types are best-suited to your local area? What products solve the problems you face? A great deal of that information is readily available online and in books. Know as much as you can before you arrive.
Look for a full-time nursery that will be there months later should you run into trouble. We don't anticipate problems when we buy those beautiful plants, but problems do happen. It's not much fun to go back where you bought several new plants, only to find that plants have been replaced by grills or fireplace accessories.
Independent retail garden centers often have the most localized products and information. After all, they're your neighbors, and they're probably active in your Chamber of Commerce. They probably attend local churches, and they probably have kids in your schools. Most importantly, they do their own buying, so you'll know that they're familiar with the plants and products they stock.
Buy from nurseries that take good care of their plants. If the place where you're shopping has plants that aren't healthy and vigorous, how can you expect them to give you good advice and direction? Better yet, look for nurseries that have landscaped their own grounds attractively. Best yet, shop at nurseries that have given back to their communities. If you know that a nursery owner has helped at a park, street median or school yard, let him or her know that you're in their nursery to say thanks.
Look for membership in professional organizations. Prime among those would be the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association. I'm proud to say that I've been a member for decades, and it has been rewarding to see all the great things that the organization has accomplished. Specifically, TNLA Region V, which covers Tarrant County and westward, is a cohesive batch of great men and women who not only work to make the nursery industry better, but team together to support many great projects. I know firsthand how much they do to help the Denton State Supported Living Center. Look for the TNLA logo on the nursery's front door.
Look for Texas Certified and Texas Master Certified Nursery Professionals at member nurseries of the TNLA. These are men and women who have studied long hours and taken very difficult exams to validate their outstanding knowledge of plants, products and Texas gardening in general. They'll wear name badges, and you'll see their emblems on the front doors. This is a great program, and there are hundreds of TCNPs and TMCNPs locally. Their advice will be timely and reliable.
Visit during the week
Retail nurseries are always glad to see you, but it's crazy in there on pretty spring weekends. If you simply can't go in on a weekday, go early on the weekend. Or go in on a rainy, cool day. It's easier for a salesperson to spend more time with you when he or she isn't being rushed by a line of people standing behind you.
One of the things I've heard from many nurserymen is how difficult it is for them to answer questions on the phone while they have customers waiting in line. I can tell you from 34 years of experience answering questions on the air that it's always easier to help people in person. Gather your plant samples, photos, landscape plans -- whatever it takes -- and stop in for a visit.
Take a suitable vehicle. Cars are fine for small plants, but a pickup or trailer will be critical if you need anything large. Most full-time retail nurseries will help you load your purchases, and many will even help you secure and cover your load. Take a tarp with grommets, old sheets or a large piece of old nursery-shade fabric, along with good rope or strong nylon twine. You need to protect all vegetation from the burning effects of highway winds. You can't simply drive slower. I usually buy bags of pine bark mulch to prevent the plants from rolling.
How critical is the plant's guarantee? Actually, it's no better than the nursery that extends it. If you're buying an expensive large shade tree, you might want to consider it. In fact, it will probably come as part of the package of delivering and planting the tree for you. For other plants, however, especially container-grown plants, there really should be no risk if you opt out of the guarantee. On the other hand, if you do have a guarantee, whether you paid for it or not, and if a plant has died in a way that is most likely of your own doing, please do the honorable thing and accept your losses. Don't hold the nurseryman responsible.
Spring is a joyous time to stop in at a garden center near you. Hopefully these tips will make it the best possible experience.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.