Shopping for Landscape Plants

Spring is here! The birds are all coming back, the buds have broken and in Colorado spring blooms are right around the corner. In California, the roses are just starting to enter full bloom and everyone is enjoying the mild spring temperatures before the heat of summer sets in.

You’ve probably caught a bit of the planting bug yourself, tempted by the ads on the radio and are eager to get your garden going. Before you impulse buy some new plants, check out our tips below to ensure your spring fling planting matures to a lasting investment.

One of the most important factors to consider before purchasing a plant is “right plant, right place”. Try to resist the urge to grab whatever is most eye catching at the nursery or garden center and carefully read the labels. Key factors you need to consider before adding a plant are mature size, water needs, soil requirements, and sunlight. You want to make sure that your new resident will have ample space to thrive in your garden over the years. What starts out as a small cute little shrub in a nursery pot could easily mature into an 8’ x 8’ beast if you’re not careful! In addition to mature size, also keep in mind water requirements and soil types. It may be tempting to sprinkle in annual flowers in your shrub beds, but unless you’re planning on giving them extra TLC with a hose almost every day in the summertime, they will not thrive on the regular irrigation schedule of your shrubs. Also, plants such as hydrangeas will not perform well in heavy clay soils. They’ll need to go into a highly amended planting bed to perform their best. Sunlight requirements are also something you can observe at the nursery. Do they have this particular plant you’re eyeing under a shade cloth? If so, that particular variety probably won’t do well in the blazing southern sun of your garden. Conversely, something a nursery has grown in full sun won’t be well suited for the north side foundation of your home. After you’ve done your research on plant size, irrigation, soil, and sunlight, you’ll be able to make the best decision for the plant to bring home.

Now that you know what type of plant you’re going to purchase, how do you pick the most suitable specimen out of the hundreds at the nursery? What about the largest plant? Not necessarily! When you’re selecting an individual plant be sure to separate it from the group so that you can examine it.


Check the plant for the following:
  • Branches:
    • Are they mostly intact and growing out relatively symmetrically?
    • Avoid specimens with lots of breaks or lopsided growth
  • Leaves:
    • Are they healthy-looking?
    • Avoid specimens with curled, brown, or otherwise discolored foliage
  • Roots:
    • Are there lots of roots bursting out of the bottom of the pot? If you lift the plant out of the pot what do you see?
    • Avoid specimens that have outgrown their pots or those that have roots that are other than white or brown in color.
Landscape plants in a nursery with rows and rows of ornamental grasses in Longmont Colorado


Special notes for picking trees:
  • Trunk Flare:
    • Which is where the base of the tree fans out to meet the soil and form the root system. Excavate soil if you need to find the first roots.
    • It is very important to the tree’s health and an indication of where the trunk ends and the root system begins.
  • Roots:
    • Are there lots of roots bursting out of the bottom of the pot? If you lift the plant out of the pot what do you see?
    • Check that the roots have not grown tightly in circles around the trunk. Those are called girdling roots and can be lethal to young trees
  • Branches:
    • Select specimens that have branches spaced relatively evenly throughout the tree, wide branch angles are always better than narrow v shapes
  • Strong Leader:
    • If you’re picking a standard (single trunk) specimen, pick one with what we call a strong central leader.
    • This is a specimen that has a clearly defined main trunk as the thickest one coming up from the base growing as straight as possible up to the top.


Rows of young sapling trees ready for purchase and planting in Colorado
Bright floral blooms of small starter snapdragons ready to be planted.
5 gallon buckets of three species of small bushes featured in front is one of Helios designer's favorites, a Norwegian spruce

Alright, so you know what kind of plant you’re going to buy and how to pick an individual specimen. Where are you going to go to buy it? You needed to pick up some stuff at Home Depot anyways for the kitchen so why not pick some plants from there? …. Not our first pick. We recommend against buying from box stores as your go-to source for landscape plants. While they offer convenience and sometimes even a fair price point, you’ll find a much better selection at your local nursery. Nurseries have to stock plant material that they can keep alive and sell over multiple seasons. This means they’ve done a lot of planning and research on what will do well in your area, even your microclimate. Most often what is sold at box stores is shipped in, even from out of state, and is just kept alive with water until it is sold. Plants at nurseries are cared for by horticulturists and are on fertilizer schedules as well as schedules to move them into the next size up pot to keep them at their optimum health. Aside from a better selection and healthier plants, you are also supporting local business owners when you purchase from nurseries. This helps support your community and is more sustainable as the plants you purchase have been grown close to home.

If you need any help deciding what plants to plug into your garden this year or even help sourcing plants from various nurseries and pick out the best specimen for your garden, learn more about our Add-On Design Management option on our Services page.

Below is a list of retail (or wholesale open to the public) nurseries you should check out!

Northern Colorado : Longmont / Boulder

 (Ask us if you are looking elsewhere along the Front Range!)
Kristen Whitehead

Founder + Lead Landscape Designer of Helios

Your go-to crew for help finding creative outdoor solutions for your landscapes, plants, and so much more!

Ready to make your dream yard a reality?

We specialize in landscape design to help you visualize your dream faster & install with a company that fits your budget.

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