Garden Life: Shop the spring plant sales with a plan



Now that spring is in full sway, plant sales will begin to proliferate like dandelions in an unmown lawn. What the plant loving gardener really wants to do at this time of year is to run over to the nearest nursery or spring plant sale and load up a garden cart with every plant that strikes her or his fancy. Spring is the time of year when all of our desires come to the surface. The idea of filling the spring garden with flower color is intoxicating.

If we give in to this urge without a plan, the result may not be as enchanting as we imagined it would be. As if in a trance, we buy the first flat of brightly colored, mixed petunias that catches our eye, a red and orange geranium, a large fuchsia and a terra cotta striped New Zealand Flax. Last year, a dear friend of mine bought a flowering cherry tree with no name tag because of its opulent, shell pink blooms. Another picked up a lilac bush, remembering his childhood and the luscious scent of its purple blossoms.

It’s not until we get our cache of treasures home that we question our sanity. What were we thinking? Nolan already had a purple lilac bush and had promised for the last five years to cut it to the ground before it overtook the entire west corner of his house. My other friend had decided two years before that the one space she had left for a tree would be perfect for a red leaf, Japanese maple. The only area left in the garden to plant a cherry tree was in the shade and had wet soil.

When the time is right to buy plants for your gardens, you should begin by refreshing your memory. What plant have you already decided would be perfect for the conditions in your garden? What plants have you already decided you have to have in your garden? Make the effort to create a list of the plants that always catch your eye when you see them in another garden. Better yet, devote a section of your garden journal to plants that fit the style and personality of your garden. This simple garden habit is one that will reward your efforts tenfold.

Check the space

Go outside, into the garden and make a physical review of the planting spaces available. Measure and make a note of what areas you will be planting, as well as the requirements of plant size, flower color and any other features relevant to the location as it exists today. Before a big plant purchasing trip, visit a full service nursery as research, without the intention of buying but of discovering what plants you really want in your garden. Write down the names of plants that complement each other.

At the nursery, take the time to move plants around, seeing how your favorites look with other plants. The most aesthetically pleasing gardens combine one third evergreen plants, one third deciduous trees and shrubs and one third seasonal ornamentals. Picture an island bed in early spring with the emerald green foliage of a dwarf Hinoki Cypress as a central, year-round feature. Above, Malus ‘Sugar Time’, a prolific flowering crabapple tree, blooms in a cloud of pure white blossoms and at their feet a floral carpet of purple, gold and white Dutch crocus bloom.

In retrospect, all of this information sounds quite logical. Anyone who has ever shopped for groceries at the supermarket knows that shopping without a list can be a frustrating experience. If you have made a list, you can compare the details of the plants you would like in your garden with the specifics of your garden and give those that match up a big gold star. When a major plant sale is on the horizon, review your list and take it with you when you go shopping.

Gardening is a passionate endeavor. We should leave room in our garden lives for spontaneity. Any one of us might buy a purple and hot pink fuchsia in a hanging basket even if it wasn’t on our wish list. That flat of petunias that caught your eye at the plant sale will light up empty spaces in the garden with color through spring and summer. Plant the flax in a highly glazed planter and place it on a deck or near a walkway. Move both lilacs to a far corner of the yard and let them fill the garden with their heavenly scent every spring. The flowering cherry? I’m still waiting to hear the end of that story.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at