Highlighting what both chain and local nurseries have to offer

As thoughts of spring begin to enter our mind, gardeners begin planning their seasonal pilgrimage to local nurseries and gardening centers. And North Texans are blessed with some of the finest destination nurseries in the South. If you will be making your own trek over the next several weeks, let's talk about the best ways for you to maximize the time and money you'll spend there.

Nurseries are like plants that grow out of a packet of mixed wildflower seeds -- they're all different. Some are large and impersonal, links of big national chains. And many are small "mom-and-pop" businesses that have carved out a niche in their community. Let's examine a few of the assets and liabilities of each half of the industry.

Chain gardening centers are often alongside stores that sell thousands of other things, most of them unrelated to gardening. Their buyers drive hard bargains, and a low price becomes a major factor in the inventory they offer. If you know exactly what you want, and if the plants and products are in good condition, you can probably save money at these stores.

Their help, however, isn't always highly trained in the science of horticulture, and you'll have to make a lot of the decisions on your own. These big stores tend to handle a diversity of plants and products, even into the hardware of horticulture. That can be helpful.

Smaller independent retail nurseries will usually offer high-quality plants and products, as well as the service and knowledge to go with them. You'll always be able to find a professional horticulturist should you have questions later. You'll be able to establish an old-fashioned business relationship with these people more easily, and you may hear yourself being greeted by first name the third or fourth time that you shop there.

Some gardeners are willing to pay a little extra for their plants and gardening products when they know that they'll be getting timely and reliable advice. These businesses also are part of the fabric of their local community. They're often involved with the schools, churches and Chamber of Commerce.

Finding a good teacher

Wherever you do your shopping, look for a trained nursery worker. The easiest way to pick them out is by the name badges they wear. If you see one marked Texas Certified Nursery Professional, you're on the right track. Even better, look for a Texas Master Certified Nursery Professional. That's the highest level of credentialing offered by the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association.

Some retailers, especially independent garden centers, have evolved into niche nurseries. Some specialize in organics, while others prominently feature Texas native plants, annuals and perennials or outdoor-living accessories. Have a good idea of what you're seeking before you shop. As the Internet search engines say, that will "narrow your search" and make the process easier.

Now for a few of my opinions. I believe a nursery should sell only plants that are healthy and vigorous, and that they should offer only plants that have a reasonable chance of succeeding in the locale in which they're being sold. It helps if you're a reasonably savvy botanist for this next comment, but it really bothers me to see a garden center that has brought in inappropriate plants that are suited to northern or West Coast climates. Plant-buying really needs to be done regionally (better yet, locally), not from a national headquarters in a distant state.

I also prefer nurseries that show us how to choose and use their plants. Their grounds are attractively decorated and carefully maintained. I'm put off by places whose plants are wilted, withered or dead. Those qualities don't motivate me to buy fresh produce at the market, so they won't encourage me to buy fresh plants at a nursery, either.

Nurseries are still fairly empty as winter winds down, but the growers' trucks are warmed up and rolling, and all those empty aisles will soon be filling. Take this opportunity to pre-shop for springtime. Get to know the places you'll want to visit later, when everything's moving at top speed. And, oh yes, if a landscaping makeover is on your schedule for this upcoming season, work with their designer now, before that spring rush.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts the Texas Gardening radio show from 8 to 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays on KRLD/1080 AM. Reach him during those hours at 214-787-1080.