The Small Budget Gardener’s Guide to Buying Plants

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When buying annuals, freshness is everything, which means very small plants are a good buy.
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“The Small Budget Gardener” by Maureen Gilmer offers down-to-earth gardening advice on sourcing and propagating plants, treating the planet right, creating garden art and more.
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When you’re shopping for bedding plants, pay close attention to the number of cells that are in the packs you buy. Those with eight cells obviously have more plants than more common six-cell containers, even though their prices can be similar.
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A quart container will be your “Best Buy” for established perennials.
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The traditional garden center is the place to find service, unusual plants, and quality trees and shrubs.
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This tickseed is a private brand as shown by the unusual container designed to make it stand out against similar, or perhaps even identical, varieties in generic containers.
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There’s no reason why fruit trees can’t also serve as landscape trees because they offer just as much spring and fall color as fruitless forms.
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The best outdoor Christmas trees are smaller conifers that remain small enough to decorate even when they mature.
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Conifers that bear attractive foliage and coloring offer both an outdoor holiday tree and cuttings to trim off for indoor décor.
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Above are the most common plant groups and the retail location where you can find a good bargain on a healthy plant.
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Some common ornamentals can be substituted by fruiting plants that offer the same beauty and color plus provide a bonus of edible fruit.
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Unlike seasonal flowers that are here today and gone next year, the 2-for-1 plant is more long-lived and becomes a permanent component in your garden.
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This carefully compiled list features well tested varieties of otherwise large forest trees.

Gardening can be so much more than planting pansies or growing patio container tomatoes — with proper planning and site location, trees can help you save money on your home energy bills; you can recycle virtually everything in and for your garden; you can save money and be “greener” in the process; and you can just have more, plain old fun in the garden! The Small Budget Gardener (Cool Springs Press, 2009) by Maureen Gilmer is your “big book” of ideas and resources to help you squeeze the most from your gardening dollars. Learn all about buying plants on the cheap in this excerpt from Chapter 2, “Shop ‘Til You Drop.”

The simple act of acquiring plants is among the most satisfying shopping experiences. Installing these new candidates into the garden, particularly in spring, touches something primal in all of us that responds to this season when life returns from winter. Unlike many things we purchase at a store, plants are living, so the way we buy them takes a bit more care to get a healthy, vigorous individual at the lowest price possible.

Plants are second only to food in the amount of care they require while on retail display. Like lettuce, a wilted annual flower may never come back no matter how much moisture it gets later. And like bread, once the freshness has gone out of it, its value vanishes altogether. Day-old bread tastes nothing like fresh bread, and a plant too long in a retail setting will never become a vigorous, floriferous adult.

You must consider three things when shopping for plants. First is your budget, which limits how much you have to spend. Second is your level of horticultural knowledge, which dictates how well you can evaluate a plant. Third is the amount of time you have to devote to gardening or for a plant to mature.

Perhaps the most important factor when plant shopping is avoiding impulse buys. If you don’t come prepared with a strong idea of what you need, you’ll be vulnerable to buying plants that are truly fabulous, and possibly at a great price, too, but they may not fit your climate or into your landscape design. If a plant really catches your eye, write down its name, then research it to find out if it will be successful in your garden.

Where to Buy Plants

While comparison shopping there are many details to absorb, from evaluating material quality to product workmanship, freshness, and style. In addition, knowing where you are likely to find what you want at the highest quality for the best price is the synthesis of all this data. Shopping is a many-faceted process that goes far beyond a simple act of “find it and buy it.”

Our parents and grandparents bought everything they needed from a local nursery (if they didn’t get it for free from a relative or neighbor!), which was later renamed “the garden center.” In recent years many new kinds of stores and chains have cropped up that have changed the landscape of plant sales. Greater choices allow you to save a lot of money on plants if you know where to get the best value for that particular kind of plant.

Plants are assembled into a few basic groups, about which a little knowledge will help you to understand where to buy them and why. Understanding the longevity and lifecycle of the plants you like helps you to make decisions in the marketplace that are right for your time and budget constraints.


Examples of annuals include viola, zinnia, and marigold (as well as literally hundreds of others). While they may seem to be the least expensive kind of plant to buy, an annual is actually the most expensive of all. This is because annuals (by their very definition) grow for just one year or growing season and then die. Its goal in life is to sprout from seed, mature, and then flower and set seed for the next year. When you buy annuals you need to select a vigorous individual capable of a fast start and immediate, prolific bloom. A poor doer might not catch up with the rest of the pack; tightly packed roots may never branch out into native soil–a poorly treated young annual may fail outright.

Annuals are started early in spring under lights in greenhouses so they’re growing well by the time you’re ready to buy them. But annuals are a one-shot deal in the garden. Oh, occasionally some might self-sow, but this is uncommon with today’s hybrids. Typically, annuals are bought in six-packs or quart containers in quantities to create large bedding floral displays (though annuals can be vegetables and foliage plants, too).

Standard grow option: Purchase seeds.
Cheap grow option: Buy seedlings in six-packs.
Cheaper grow option: Buy seed and start your own.
Free! grow option: Save the previous year’s seed and grow them this year.


Examples of perennials include prairie coneflower, phlox, and lavender. A perennial is an herbaceous bedding plant that dies back to the ground in winter and sprouts again the next spring (usually–sometimes a perennial’s growing season begins later in the year). Each year a perennial will grow more and produce new shoots that can be split off into entirely new plants in a process known as “division.” They are long-lived flowering or foliage plants that take two to three years to reach marketable size. Some perennials require more or less time according to that species’ growth habits. They will have to winter over in their containers, and growers usually have far more time and money invested in perennials. For this reason a perennial is often more expensive to buy. However, a perennial also lasts longer, so your investment is spread out over the lifespan of the plant, and you can also receive a bonus of free plants through division.

Standard grow option: Purchase one-gallon containers.
Cheap grow option: Buy quart-sized containers.
Cheaper grow option: Buy six-packs when available.
Free! grow option: Trade divisions with friends.

Shrubs and Vines

Shrubs are woody plants that can range from small, groundhugging dwarf groundcovers to tree-sized monsters; all share the feature of woody branches. A shrub can live for a decade to a century, depending on the species. Shrubs require many years at a grower to reach saleable size. For this reason, shrubs will be far more expensive than bedding plants to buy, but due to their longevity they are much less expensive overall. With these plants it’s even more important to remember that, no matter what size it is at purchase, they all mature to the same height and width of the particular species. Buying older, five-gallon container specimen shrubs is among the most expensive of all purchases since you are paying for instant gratification.

Standard grow option: Buy five-gallon containers.
Cheap grow option: Buy one-gallon containers.
Cheaper grow option: Buy balled-and-burlapped specimens.
Cheapest grow option: Buy bare-root shrubs or vines.
Free! grow option: Salvage and transplant from a demolition site.


A California study conducted several years ago sought to put to rest once and for all the question whether paying more for a larger container tree is really worth the expense. Trees grown in five- and fifteen-gallon containers were compared to larger specimens grown in a two-foot-square wooden box; the larger specimens cost hundreds of dollars. The results showed the five-gallon specimens caught up to the fifteen-gallon ones in a year or two, which was expected. But the big surprise was that the fifteen-gallon tree overtook the boxed tree and exceeded its height in a relatively short time. Why? Because the root systems of the boxed trees were too compact to allow them to grow quickly once they were transplanted. This tells us that the optimal size of a container- grown tree is fifteen gallons, which provides good size and fast growth for a more moderate price. But trees are sold bare root as well, particularly fruit trees. Bare root is the least expensive way to buy trees because they are dug from the field while they’re dormant and then sold during the right season in your area. And their roots spread out from the base unhindered by containers at any age, which makes them healthier and far more drought resistant.

Standard grow option: Purchase fifteen-gallon containers.
Cheap grow option: Purchase five-gallon containers.
Cheaper grow option: Buy bare-root trees.
Free! grow option: Grow from seed or cutting.

Buying Plants Retail

Every gardener wants to know where to find the best deal on plants. The answer depends on the kind of plant you seek. For that reason, this discussion of plant retailers will be relative to the previously listed plant types and the various growing options indicated for each.

There are two categories of retailer. One is a traditional garden center, which is the old-fashioned neighborhood nursery. The other is the chain store also known as a “big box” store. The vast majority of plants sold at retail are sold through one type or the other.

The Traditional Garden Center or GC

There is nothing more wonderful than finding an independent garden center stuffed with fabulous plants you don’t see every day. These retail stores are managed by real plant lovers who stock ordinary plants augmented by a wide range of less-known specialties. Among these can be exotic food plants, natives, drought-resistant species for water conservation, unusual alpine succulents for colder climates, and strange herbs that only gourmets recognize. Shopping there is dangerous because these options make it really hard to stay within your budget.

The prices at independent stores are usually higher because they are buying from smaller specialty growers. They also can’t get the quantity discounts that chains receive from larger growers. However, they are often the only place to find unusual perennials and shrubs as well as quality trees. These are the special plants that make your garden stand out as uniquely yours.

Independent garden centers are without question the best places to buy trees because the trees will be well cared for. In other retail situations where volume is key, trees suffer the most and are often potbound, broken, or poorly shaped. You want to purchase a top-quality sapling in which you can confidently invest years awaiting its maturation. Buying a tree at discount to save a few dollars just doesn’t pay off in the long run. The chances of twisted roots, pests, and disease are serious consequences that can wipe out your investment.

One benefit of GCs is that they are smaller, privately owned stores. This gives the owner or manager more leeway to negotiate with you in order to make a large sale. Because a GC is the best place to place a special order for something unique, or to order a large quantity of bedding plants in a specific size and color, there is always an opportunity to negotiate for a better deal. Do not hesitate to ask for a quantity discount if you’re spending big bucks. This goes for buying tons of bedding color or plants for a special event such as a wedding or party. Or maybe you’re landscaping a new home and are buying a lot of plants at once. (To learn more about where to shop for plants, see the “Bargain Hunter’s Quick Glance Retailer Guide” in the Image Gallery.)

Green Choices

Many neighborhood garden centers are very conscious of whom they buy from and how those companies use resources and treat the environment. They are the best source of truly organic seedlings for the vegetable garden because you can trust that they do indeed buy locally. They also tend organic plants in their inventory in such a way that does not contaminate them while they’re on display. The garden center also promotes other green practices such as the use of water conservation plants and the planting of local natives that contribute to wildlife and the environment. For those who wish to make socially conscious investments in their plants and are willing to pay for it, support the independent store to keep them from being crowded out by the big box stores.

The Big Box 

We all know the names of the two largest home improvement superstore chains that dominate the American marketplace. They are virtually identical in the minds of the consumer, and both maintain massive garden centers at their stores. These companies are able to take advantage of the quantity purchase, obtaining massive numbers of bedding plants at the lowest wholesale price possible. They sell at such a narrow margin that the mark-up can be minimal, making them the least expensive places to shop for plants, bar none.

The big box stores are a great place to pick up annuals and perennials, but only just after they arrive in the store because care can be unpredictable from store to store. Fortunately, these stores take deliveries every day and their stock cycles in and out quickly, keeping most of it fresh. Their staff may not be as dedicated as an independent GC, and plant stock can languish if there are extremes of heat or cold or unseasonable weather. This can be as simple as failure to close the shade cloth roof because nobody is paying attention, which can burn a whole table of stock in a matter of hours.

But, it is possible to find some really good perennials at a big box store. These one-gallon plants are well developed, blooming, and a great value. Many are even so overgrown they’re ready to divide (two plants in one!). Just be aware some perennials may not be well labeled, containing little to no growing info. If you’re not plant knowledgeable this can be really hit and miss.

With all annuals and perennials sold in six-packs or quarts, be careful to buy only fresh plants. Either special order them or know when deliveries are usually made and plan to shop soon afterward. At a big box store, you can get more plants for less money than just about anywhere else.

Another thing to bear in mind with a big box store concerns trees and shrubs. Sometimes you can find great deals on trees and shrubs because these sell at rock-bottom prices. Many stores are really good at ordering locally suitable plants, and the earlier in the season you shop, the better your choice. However, plants that have been on display a long time, by mid or late season, may have suffered; inspect each potential purchase carefully. Most big box stores carry only the most basic trees and shrubs, and even these can be hit and miss. You really must shop there knowing you may not find the plant you want because their stock of woodies is unreliable. Plus, the larger containers of trees and shrubs are more difficult to water and they are often left to dry out one too many times. Because they don’t grow fast like bedding plants you may find individuals that have been there far too long and have developed overly dense or distorted roots. Sometimes a poor root system will never regain a healthy shape and cannot be expected to grow vigorously, ever.

One thing about a big box store that most knowledgeable gardeners have discovered is that you can find great surprises there. Some plants may be priced that are the result of pricing errors, remnants from the grower, or just a corporate snafu. While shopping for a Japanese maple for a TV makeover show we found an incredible specimen at a New Jersey Home Depot for one-third of the price you’d find at a GC. Here in California I found an expensive, slow-growing succulent tree sold at similar discount. They can be unusually large or rare specimens and sell for an amazingly low price. So keep your eyes peeled for these bargains because they can be the best in town.

Caveat Emptor — Inspect Before You Buy

When you buy a plant, you have the right to a top-quality specimen every time. But in a typical plant display you’ll find some individuals are in better shape than others. A quality plant will be topnotch in three areas: roots, shape, and health. Use these handy inspection tips as an aid in evaluating every plant you buy, particularly the larger and more expensive trees and shrubs.


When buying plants in containers avoid those whose roots appear on the surface, are growing out the drain holes, or are matted together. For balled-and-burlapped stock avoid a dry, loose rootball. For bare-root stock avoid dry, damaged, crushed, and broken roots.


Strive for perfect, undamaged bark. Inspect the trunk for gouges, scars, tears from lost branches, and nicks around the bottom. A trunk should be upright, straight, and evenly balanced, not slanted or twisted.


Select a specimen for perfect size and proportion. Avoid a shrub with open spots in its branching structure, broken branches, oversized branches that don’t conform to its natural shape, or a lopsided form. Shrubs lacking lower branches or those that are poorly shaped at the base will never repair themselves.


Select plants with lush, perfectly colored leaves. Avoid any with discolored leaves, unusual leaf drop, wilted leaves, or curled leaves, which are all signs of pests and disease. Beware if a plant is shedding leaves out of season or if its leaves are abnormally small.

Bedding Plants

Buy young, vigorous seedlings. Slide out a plant to inspect its rootball, which tells you how old it is. Choose those with the largest abundance of soil and avoid any with dense rooting. Avoid plants with spindly stems and elongated growth from lack of light. Poor shape or irregular growth habit rarely corrects itself.


Avoid plants that shed little white flies when you shake them, or those with unusual granular materials coming out of the drainage holes. Inspect the undersides of leaves for tiny spots or webby material.

Dos and Don’ts of Buying Plants

  • Never assume that just because a plant is for sale locally it is suited to your climate.
  • Don’t believe everything you read on a plant tag; one size does not fit all climates.
  • Shy away from “miracle” problem-solving plants; they just have a catchy sales pitch.
  • Don’t assume the salesperson really knows what he or she is talking about.
  • Always know the sun exposures in your garden before you buy a plant for a particular spot.
  • Always select the very best plant in the display.
  • If you can’t plant right away, store new plants in a sheltered, moist location.
  • Know the size of any tree or shrub at maturity before you buy it.
  • If the plant dies soon after planting, take it back to the garden center for a refund.
  • Plants intended as gifts rarely grow well in the garden so avoid buying these as landscape plants.
  • Never remove stakes or supports until after a plant is securely in the ground.

Double Duty Plants

Value is a word that television shopping channels have put front and center. It refers to just how much a product offers relative to its price. A high value product will be one that really works hard for very little cost, and these are among the most prolific sellers. This concept applies to plants in your garden, as well. Most plants give you one primary value, which is beauty, or something more practical such as shade. Other plants give you a harvest of food or fragrance, and even supplies for natural décor and crafts. These are items you’d otherwise have to buy at a store. So when you find a plant that gives you aesthetic beauty and problem solving plus a secondary harvest of food, décor, or craft supplies, it literally doubles the overall value of the plant. Essentially you get two plants for the price of one! That 2-for-1 plant is indeed a real bargain.

Today everyone is waking up to the value of growing their own fruit. With a global food supply, there is no other way to ensure your fruit is free of chemicals or human handling diseases such as salmonella. A bonus of homegrown fruit is the possibility of having a crop large enough to freeze, dry, or can for the months ahead.

Fruit trees are among our best 2-for-1 plants because they live for decades and produce fruit every year (unless a freeze interrupts their blooming cycle). Unlike vegetable crops, you only need to plant a fruit tree once. Plus, you get lots of ornamental value when a stone fruit tree bursts into vivid spring bloom; it rivals the showiest ornamentals. The idea that a fruit tree must be in an orchard or grow separate from an ornamental garden is wrong. Fruit trees belong in our front or backyards and will become the most prolific returns of all your home improvement investments.

Common 2-for-1 Fruit Trees

Some common ornamentals can be substituted by fruiting plants that offer the same beauty and color plus provide a bonus of edible fruit. (See the chart in the Image Gallery for some great varieties.)

Two-for-1 plants are wonderful choices that can turn your home landscape into a treasure trove of beautiful cut material, supplies, foods, medicine, seasonings, fragrances, and decorative items. Unlike seasonal flowers that are here today and gone next year, the 2-for-1 plant is more long-lived and becomes a permanent component in your garden. (See the chart in the Image Gallery for some great varieties.)

Not-So-Big Outdoor Christmas Tree Candidates

The carefully compiled list in the Image Gallery features well tested varieties of otherwise large forest trees. These dwarf forms should not require pruning except for an occasional shaping. Choosing a dwarf variety means the Christmas tree retains its perfect shape and beauty for decades to come without increasing your burden of landscape maintenance.

Buying Seed Firsthand

Nothing is quite so beautiful as a display of beautiful seed packets. Each one of them is like a promise of color or food or whimsical plants we can grow for holidays. The ability to reach out and touch a packet, to feel that living seed inside is what has kept Ferry-Morse in garden centers, supermarkets, and home improvement stores for nearly 150 years. In-store seed sales allow you to buy everything you need all at once rather than splitting your purchases into mail order and local retail. More important, if you did buy seed by mail and forgot to order a particular plant, the Ferry-Morse type of display is the best way to pick it up in a timely fashion. Just be sure that you stick to the seeds on your list as these racks are the devil’s playgrounds for impulse purchases!

Small-Budget Buy

Timing is everything when it comes to bargain shopping. Retail garden centers sell bare-root dormant roses during early spring in most areas. They often buy truckloads of them and heel (bury) the roots into damp sand or sawdust while they’re on sale. Those roses that don’t sell by the end of bare-root season are potted up and sold for a much higher price later on, when they’re in leaf and flower. If you buy bare-root roses when they are in season, you can indeed purchase the very same rose for half the price.

Tightwad Gardening Tip

Never assume that a plant on sale at a big box store is suited to your local climate. Buyers aren’t always knowledgeable and may be placing orders for many stores at once. You are likely to find perennials, shrubs, and vines that are not winter hardy for your area. Similarly, cold-loving species can be sold at warm-climate stores. Know your hardiness zone and that of the plant on sale before making a purchase, because if it won’t make it through the first winter or summer, it’s no bargain at all.

Today’s Branded Plant

Some years ago the United States Patent Office started granting plant patents to hybridizers. This meant these folks would thus own all the progeny of a patented new variety and nobody could grow it without their permission. The idea was to license the plant to a wholesale grower, who would kick back a royalty to the patent holder for each one they grow and sell. Flower Carpet Groundcover Roses, which are promoted by an extensive public relations campaign, are among the most famous patented plants. Now everyone is trying to patent their new varieties and the market is full of them. Are they better? Not necessarily. Do they cost more? Sure. The grower passes the extra cost on to you. With many you can find a nearly identical variety for less because it’s not encumbered by the additional costs of the patent system.

Living Christmas Trees

Every year millions of evergreen trees are cut for the holidays and Americans spend an incredible amount of money for something they use for just a few weeks. Then those millions of trees must be disposed of, which is a nightmare for urban waste management departments. The whole concept of a cut tree is terribly costly in so many ways. It makes sense to rethink having a cut Christmas tree and explore a living alternative.

Living trees can be planted into the landscape after the holidays to become a beautiful part of the garden. The first year it will be grown indoors in its container, then planted out in the garden when spring arrives. When designing landscapes for my clients, I always ask if they would like a pine, fir, or spruce in the front yard to decorate for the holidays. We plant this special tree relative to a window for best enjoyment from indoors. In colder climates real snow on a decorated outdoor tree is always more beautiful than artificial flocking on an indoor tree. And, although an indoor tree is the traditional way to celebrate the holidays, an outdoor tree decorated with weatherproof lights and ornaments can be just as satisfying. It is the green alternative to dead holiday tree consumption that teaches a powerful ecological message to new generations.

A successful living Christmas tree must be a species that is well adapted to the local climate. Many of the most beautiful and symmetrical conifers cannot thrive where the winters are very warm and may gradually decline no matter how much special care you provide. If you’re in doubt, discuss this with a local garden center expert because he or she will carry conifers suitable for your climate.

The species you choose must also be sized so it can easily be decorated without exceeding the height of your freestanding ladder. Conifers can be deceivingly small when they are young, but then mature to monstrous proportions, so it’s vital you select a variety that is sized for your yard and this purpose. City and many suburban homes will find fertile ground among dwarf forms of otherwise large forest trees of America, Europe, and Asia.

Above all, a good living Christmas tree should maintain a naturally conical shape throughout its life span. Some Christmas trees such as Scotch pine are commercially sheared into a more perfect conical shape and are sold as juveniles. This species can reach from twenty-five to fifty feet tall at maturity, which would be far too large for most yards. Scotch pine, as with all forms of topiary, may require you shear them once or twice a year to maintain their smaller size and geometric shape.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Small Budget Gardener, published by Cool Springs Press, 2009.