12 Insider Tips Garden Center Employees Want Shoppers To Know

Shop for plants like a pro! As a former garden center manager with 20 years experience, here's the insider advice I wish all gardeners knew.

For many gardeners, visiting the garden center or plant nursery makes you feel like a kid in a candy store! With rows upon rows of plants bursting with vibrant colors, and the sound of buzzing bees and the gentle rustle of leaves in the breeze, each step is filled with excitement and anticipation as you envision all of the possibilities for your own garden.

But with each step through the aisles of plants, tools, soils and supplies, even an experienced gardener may become overwhelmed by all of the options. Plus, the presence of busy staff may create additional pressure to ask the right questions and make informed decisions.

As a former garden center manager with 20 years of experience and an avid gardener myself with plenty of dirt under my fingernails, I understand the anxieties that can arise from both sides of the plant shopping experience. That’s why I want to share the secrets garden center employees wish shoppers knew–and how to make your next trip to the nursery the best one yet.

Top Garden Center Shopping Secrets

The staff at your local garden centers love what they do and are gardeners just like you. They simply want you to succeed.

By learning a few of their expert tips and money-saving hacks you can simplify the shopping process, learn how to buy plants that fit your space, avoid impulse plant purchases, and have more productive interactions with staff.

Here are my top tips for gardeners to ensure a successful shopping trip:

1. Don’t Shop on Weekends

The first secret is when to shop. Weekends and holidays can be hectic, to say the least. If possible, consider shopping on a weekday.

Visiting during the week allows you to avoid the crowds, experience shorter wait times at checkout, and garden center staff may have more time to provide expert advice. Plus, trucks typically deliver plants during the week. So your best selection may also be during the week.

2. Pay Attention to Plant Placement

Rows of plants in a garden center

(Image credit: arinahabich / Getty Images)

The garden center may seem overwhelming with plants spaced in even rows in all corners of the lot. But most of the time the placement of these plants indicates a clue as to their light requirements. For example, if you need shade tolerant plants, look for sections under black shade cloths, pergolas, or awnings.

Plants placed in hot, blazing sun all day can typically tolerate those same light conditions in your garden. By carefully examining these cues, you can make informed decisions about which plants will thrive in your garden’s light conditions, ensuring the happiness and health of your plant.

3. Read the Tag

Many plants have an informational tag full of plant care abbreviations attached to the pot or hanging from the foliage. It often indicates light requirements, mature size, soil preferences, and special care requirements.

This is crucial information you should review before purchase. For example, you don’t want a large shrub in a space under a window as it might block your view. Plus, nearby signs may offer additional information not found on the plant tag. The same goes for the information on seed packets. These are valuable details about how to properly grow the plant.

Likewise, do not be afraid to analyze a plant. Gently pop it out of the pot to take a look at the root system. If a plant is severely root bound or has a very minimal root system, you may want to select a different plant.

4. Buy in Bulk

Filling a raised bed with soil

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Many garden centers offer soil and mulch in bags as well as in bulk by the cubic yard. If you need a large supply of one of these materials, buying in bulk is a great way to save money. Simply calculate how much soil or mulch you need before heading to the garden center to decide whether buying in bulk is right for you.

For reference, the typical bag of soil or mulch is 2 cubic feet (.02 cubic meters) and one cubic yard of soil or mulch equals 13.5 bags.

Getting a delivery of a large pile of anything can seem daunting, but opting to purchase soil or mulch in bulk rather than individual bags can yield significant savings, even with the added delivery fee. You may even save enough to pick out a few more plants. Plus, bulk purchases minimize plastic packaging and reduce the number of trips needed to obtain all your supplies.

5. Get Expert Advice

We’re all accustomed to salespeople getting that extra dollar out of us by suggesting add-on products at the checkout. It may seem as though garden center employees are trying to upsell you, but do take heed of their advice. These local experts know your climate and native soil and can tell you exactly what your plant needs to thrive.

They may suggest compost or peat moss to improve the condition of your soil, especially in areas with heavy clay or large amounts of sand. They may also suggest a specific fertilizer for acid-loving plants, such as azaleas and certain hydrangea varieties, to help maintain the correct soil pH.

These products may seem like an unnecessary expense, but can provide essential nutrients and improve soil structure which may otherwise hinder healthy plant growth.

6. Go Native!

You may be attracted to the flashy, highly-promoted plants in fancy pots, but don’t overlook native flowers and plants that look great and are good for the environment.

Garden center staff know and love native plants because they are well-adapted to the local climate and soil conditions, making them low-maintenance choices for gardens. Native plants are less prone to insect and disease issues and can benefit local wildlife and the pollinator population.

So, on your next shopping trip be sure to seek out native plants over newer cultivars and hybrids, especially if you prefer a hassle-free landscape with minimal upkeep.

7. Ask for Design Ideas

Garden design sketches

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Another secret garden center employees want you to know is that they can actually help you design your landscape, even if you don’t want to hire a landscape designer. However, they will need a bit of information from you first.

Gather important details about your space and sketch your garden with dimensions of the planting beds, location of windows and sidewalks, and most importantly, which direction is north. Knowing which way is north is crucial as it determines the amount of sunlight and shade different areas of the garden, or different sides of the house, will receive throughout the day.

Garden center experts can offer guidance on plant placement, arrangement, and spacing as well as which plants you should grow for winter interest, extended blooming, and color contrast.

8. Three Plants Are Better Than One

If you ask a garden center employee if one or two plants is enough, they will probably tell you to buy three of the same plant instead. Don’t worry, they’re not trying to upsell you. This is one of the fundamental principles of good landscape design.

Odd numbered groupings offer a sense of visual interest, creating a balanced and visually pleasing design. They may suggest buying three or five of the same plant to add a natural balance to your landscape. Sure, you may only need one tree or one single specimen as a focal point but smaller shrubs and perennials look best when you plant in drifts of odd numbers.

9. Save Money With Perennials

Garden fence and gate with pink roses, salvia, catmint, lady's mantle bordering house entrance

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Annual flowers are the backbone of many garden center businesses. However, like you, garden center employees have limited free time and understand the time-consuming and costly nature of planting the same plants every year.

For this reason, they may suggest gardening with perennials to help maximize your budget. You can plant them just once and they will return year after year, eliminating the need for yearly planting the associated expenses that come with annuals.

Many perennials offer a diverse range of bloom times and boast attractive foliage that provides texture and contrast throughout the growing season. You can also divide perennial plants after a few years of growth to expand your plant collection for free. Not only will you save money over time but you’ll create a sustainable landscape with minimal effort.

10. Buy Buds, Not Blooms

Your eye may be drawn to a plant in full bloom, but it’s always wise to buy plants with buds rather than blooms. Blooming plants offer instant gratification, but plants with buds will bloom longer once you plant them in your garden. That means you will enjoy an extended period of flowering as the buds open gradually over time.

So, while at the garden center, take a moment to admire the blooming plants (you can even take a picture!) but choose the ones that are full of buds, not blooms.

11. Save Your Receipt

Just like shopping anywhere else, be sure to save your receipt. Many garden centers offer a return policy or a generous warranty policy.

If you get home and realize you made the wrong choice, you may be able to return the plant for a refund or store credit. Or if your plant suffers or dies within the warranty period, your receipt may guarantee you a replacement.

12. Watch Out for Aggressive Growers

Butterfly lands on a purple flower of buddleia davidii - or butterfly bush

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Some plants come with a warning right on their label. If you see the words "vigorous," "aggressive," "robust" or "needs room to grow," that’s an easy way to identify invasive plants or plants that could become problems in your garden.

If you’re looking for a petunia to fill a large container, the word “vigorous” may be beneficial but if you’re in need of a small patch of ground cover and you pick up a bugleweed that is listed as “aggressive,” you may have an out of control plant in a short period of time. These plants are not necessarily considered invasive but they could spread rapidly and smother their neighbors.

Mint is a popular example of a vigorous plant that you should only grow in containers. Never plant mint in the ground as it spreads by underground runners, quickly dominating garden beds and potentially requiring constant vigilance to prevent it from spreading beyond its designated area.

Employees can help steer you away from invasive plants that are common in garden centers and show you which alternatives you should grow instead.

Amy Draiss
Digital Community Manager

Amy Draiss, Digital Community Manager at Gardening Know How since 2021, seamlessly blends her hands-on gardening experience with a digital green thumb. With roots in family landscaping and management at a garden center, Amy has cultivated expertise in plants, supplies, and customer relations. Residing in the Midwest, Amy tends to her two-acre haven, showcasing a diverse range of trees, shrubs, and perennials. As the Hydrangea Queen, she shares her love for these blooms and imparts gardening wisdom through videos and social media. Beyond gardening, Amy enjoys quality time with her family, travel, and theme parks. Amy's mission is to inspire and advise plant enthusiasts, fostering flourishing gardens for both seasoned and budding gardeners alike.