Garden centers provide a value that other stores and online sources cannot. They have first-hand knowledge of which perennials, grasses, ferns, flowers, and trees will thrive in your local environment.
Look for plants that are native to your area or closely related. Those from a different ecoregion may not be well-adapted to your climate.
Check the Labels
With concerns about climate change, invasive species, and declining biodiversity, many gardeners seek native plants to plant in their gardens. Fortunately, most garden centers like Lindley’s now sell native shrubs, perennials, and trees. However, some retailers and growers may need to label their plants accurately.
Ideally, when shopping for native plants, look for a label that specifies the geographic area or full scientific name to remove ambiguity. For example, Spirea japonica is not a native of New England; instead, look for the Latin names “sylvatica” or “salix aquifolium.”
When possible, seek out wild seeds collected in your ecological region (also known as your ecotype). These plants will be better adapted to your soil and climate than those sourced from elsewhere. Alternatively, consider joining a local seed-collecting organization with the appropriate licenses and training to harvest your native seeds. This approach also supports the local economy.
Ask the Experts
It’s always a good idea to ask the staff at your garden center for recommendations for native plants. They can offer helpful information on local climate conditions like rainfall, soil conditions, and other environmental attributes that affect plant performance.
For example, some native plants require a specific amount of sunlight or soil moisture to thrive. They might also have specific watering or nutrient requirements that must be considered in a garden design plan.
In addition, it is important to know if the plants you purchase are true native species or cultivars. Cultivars (species selected for certain traits such as size, color, heat, or cold tolerance) aren’t much different from native plants and can still provide the same benefits.
Preparing the planting area well is crucial once you’ve purchased the right plants for your site. Adding organic materials such as compost or peat moss can help improve soil quality and weed control and promote healthy root growth. Removing existing vegetation by digging or using black plastic to kill grass and weeds before planting is also helpful.
Look for the Right Plants
A sage piece of advice from naturalist John Muir still holds: “The restorative power of nature can only be found in a living, pulsing ecosystem.” Incorporate native plants into your garden for a healthy landscape that supports wildlife and helps restore balance to the local ecosystem. Native plants are also easier to maintain, requiring fewer pesticides, less fertilizer, and little or no supplemental water.
Ask your nursery if they sell locally grown native plants. If they do, look for indigenous species in your area (not a cultivar or horticulturally enhanced variety). These plants have been selected for larger flowers or sturdier stems at the expense of genetic variation and may not perform as well in your garden.
Some conservation organizations, public gardens, native plant societies, and other community groups take seed sharing one step further and grow native plants for the community. Their products often have a better price tag and are more acclimated to your specific ecological region than those sold at garden centers.
Check the Temperature
A gardener may want to purchase a native plant from a local nursery for its aesthetic value or because it will attract pollinators. Still, a local grower has other reasons to be interested in selling you that seedling. Small-scale growers are likelier to sell well-adjusted plants for your region and climate.
A nursery that specializes in growing native plants can also provide helpful advice on how to best care for the species you are purchasing. Native plants have specific conditions for optimal growth, such as levels of sun and water, soil types, and temperatures. Choosing the right plants will make it easier for them to survive and thrive in your garden.
It is important to avoid buying wild-caught native plants because harvesting them from the wild diminishes natural populations and puts pressure on organisms that rely on those species. Instead, visit your local botanical gardens or natural areas to find species that occur naturally.