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How to shop for plants online

The internet can’t replace a nursery, but it can make plant shopping much easier

A row of plants brings a bit of nature to a midcentury gem near Philadelphia.
A row of plants brings a bit of nature to a midcentury gem near Philadelphia.
Photo: Heidi’s Bridge

Megan Hansen is a self-described "plant nerd."

"My favorite thing to do in the world is to go to the nursery," she says. In 2009, Hansen, a user experience consultant based in Portland, Oregon, merged her love for gardening with her tech background to found Plant Lust, an online encyclopedic guide for plants. The site started as a spreadsheet that Hansen was creating for her own reference.

"Then I just decided, we should all have this database," Hansen says. "We should all have a nice website that's easy to use and that doesn't feel like you have to know a lot of Latin to be able to ogle plants."

The site's tagline is "a seriously simple search for plants," and on it, users can search 78 plant catalogs, browse by plant types (like tree, shrub, etc.), and refine their results by zones and growing requirements. More recently, Hansen added a shopping feature, which will eventually tap the inventory of 100 independent nurseries around the country to deliver their goods with the click of a button.

Hansen started Plant Lust because she found online plant shopping "harder than it should be," she says. And while shopping online doesn’t replace visiting nurseries in person, it does make it so that many more plants are available at our fingertips, no matter where you’re typing. "We just want people to fall in love with plants and spread the love," says Hansen. She shared her guidelines for doing just that.

Know your site

Hansen says that she often hears the same refrain from newbie gardeners: "People will say, ‘I can't grow plants. I have a brown thumb. I don't know what I'm doing.’" And she can sympathize with the notion. "Every time I hear that, I think, I've got a brown thumb for certain things too," she says.

However, with time and experience, she's learned that it's not so much that she’s has a brown thumb, but that her plant is incompatible with its site. "I like sun plants but my yard is shade," she says. "I needed to come to terms with growing things that will naturally thrive in the conditions that I have to offer them."

Before browsing, assess your site to make the best match. Also, know that in the process, mismatches will happen. When that happens, take heart and just relocate the plant. "I have the hardest time ripping a plant out," says Hansen. "But every time I do it frees up this whole canvas to put in something more appropriate."

Find out the plant's needs

For the first-time gardener, plant names and the corresponding descriptions—complete with Latin not seen since high school—can be downright intimidating. As such, it's tempting to just skip them and buy something because it’s beautiful.

However, while that can be a fun way to experiment, there are some basics that are best checked before a purchase. These include the plant's zone and its water, soil, and exposure requirements.

"You can get by without reading the description, as long as you [know] the things that are going to make this plant happy and make it thrive," says Hansen. On Plant Lust, these conditions are listed at the top of each plant page, so they can be ascertained at a glance.

For Hansen, the write-ups are a favorite part of the plant buying experience. "Descriptions are so beautiful. Some descriptions are just like poetry," she says. "I think that was the first thing I fell in love with before I even fell in love with plants was reading all these wonderful things about them."

Picture the "whole story" of the plant

When Hansen first started shopping online for plants, she quickly developed a singular frustration with the sites she visited. "I noticed that most plant-focused websites had a single photo," she says. "And if it was a flowering plant, it was a close-up of the flower."

Since could not see the plant in person, she wanted to be able to see the plant from all angles, to "see the whole story." She wondered: "What’s its shape and what’s its leaf texture? What do the buds look like? What does it look like coming up out of the ground?"

Plant Lust provides answers to these questions by collecting multiple photos of each plant from contributing photographers from all over the world. That way, shoppers can see the plant from all sides and in different contexts, to get a sense of how it will fit into their own yards.

Try out plant combinations with Pinterest boards

"It’s so wonderful to be able to see things in person, touch the leaves, stick them in a basket together, and see them side by side," says Hansen. "That is one thing that’s definitely harder to do online."

To get around that obstacle, she creates inspiration boards on Pinterest to try out different plant combinations and develop themes for her planting beds. Although the context is digital, it still works for seeing how your picks will look alongside one another.

Assess your risk tolerance

Although we might well know the conditions we have to offer plants, it still doesn’t deter us from wanting to grow the things we like the best. "Some of us want to grow things that don’t necessarily grow where we live and so we gamble," says Hansen, who prefers Zone 9 plants—like agaves—despite the fact that she lives in Zone 8, which has an average climate too cool for the sun-loving plants.

Before check out, assess your level of comfort with risk. "I’m very comfortable with those gambles," she says. "But if you don’t have that risk tolerance, pick something that’s going to be more of a sure thing."


For those that want to explore, don’t feel as though "special knowledge" is needed before you can get started. "Everybody has their own weird niche in gardening, and I love that," says Hansen.

She thinks people just need to give themselves permission to experiment. "Realize that you might get a whole bunch of things that you fall in love with," she says. "Or you might decide something's not for you and rip it out. That's really part of the gardening learning experience."