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Nursery 101: How and why to shop at your local garden center

A four-point argument for always shopping at your local nursery

Carlos Chavarría

Marie Viljoen's first terrace in Brooklyn measured just 66 square feet, yet she managed to turn the tight space into an outdoor oasis with a small grill, a table and chairs, and dozens of plants: roses, herbs, figs, lilies, strawberries, vines, and more. Her micro garden grew into a blog and a book, both named after the tiny terrace’s size.

There are several ways to approach the acquisition of plants for your new or established garden. There’s the web, there’s the big box store, there’s your friend down the road who is dividing his irises, and then there is your local nursery.

As a garden writer and designer, as well as a home gardener, I also need inspiration and advice, despite the plethora of information on the web and on my book shelves. Often, that inspiration is unexpectedly at my feet, when I visit one of my local nurseries. Here are four reasons why you should use that local nursery as your prime plant resource.

1. Local nursery owners offer informed advice


For new gardeners especially, nothing beats the opinion of a person who works with plants for a living. Plants are complex organisms, and keeping them healthy requires knowledge and practice.

No one has more of either than the caretaker who waters them every day for an hour-and-a-half, like Michelle Palladino, who owns the Gowanus Nursery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She says, "I have to be so mentally focused when watering, knowing where the plant is 'at' in its developmental cycle and what kind of soil it's in and water accordingly, rinse and repeat a few thousand times. It’s also the time that I get to look at everything and turn things, and make mental notes about what needs to be addressed…"

Not only do they know everything about the specific plants in stock, but local nursery owners and staff also know your local conditions: your USDA Zone, your brutal winters versus muggy summers, which plants are susceptible to mildew, or just how dry that sidewalk garden will become when water restrictions kick in. They will steer you to the right plants for the right space—crucial to garden success.

Local nurseries also offer solutions to local challenges. Susanne Kongoy, the owner of GRDN, a nursery and garden shop in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, encourages people to think differently about what a garden can be, especially in a city bedeviled by high rents: "You don’t need to have an outdoor space to find a way to introduce nature into your life," she says. "A tree pit or a windowsill can be your garden." And she carries the plants to succeed in either.

Sunny Eckerle

2. They provide thoughtful plant choices

The Gowanus Nursery’s Palladino finds herself increasingly choosing to stock plants that are easily maintained in the city. "It might be pedestrian, but if it's grown well or in a thoughtful container, or juxtaposed interestingly it can still be sublime," she says, "And definitely beats a scraggly, half-dead plant that’s the newest and brightest."

She also understands the pace of urban life. "People don't have the patience or focus to care for things properly any more, it's a reality; so while I love interesting forms, compelling wild plants, and things from far-flung places, sometimes it's the ones just slightly to the left of everyday plants that are the best for everyone."

GRDN’s Kongoy agrees. "I like plants that don't require a lot of maintenance. People are busy and might not have the time they would like to spend in the garden. They don't need plants that require staking, deadheading, and constant watering. Natives, succulents, and other drought-tolerant plants will thrive and keep the customers happy and successful in their gardens."

"You don’t need to have an outdoor space to find a way to introduce nature into your life. A tree pit or a windowsill can be your garden."

Like all space-conscious garden designers, she likes plants that have more than one season of interest: "Blueberries, for example, have flowers in spring, berries in the summer, and great fall color. They grow in the ground or containers and we even have a dwarf variety that has full size fruit."

"With such small gardens," explains Palladino, "we have no space to look the other way, as one famous property owner said when someone asked about his [seasonal] lupine meadow. We're looking at it all the time, so it has to perform even when it's not blooming."

And these plantswomen are not talking about your average prostrate juniper or can’t-kill-it aucuba. It’s the shade-loving ligularia with cut leaves and flower stalks four feet tall, which can survive a hard winter. Or the annual climbing spinach that grows in excess of eight feet in the hot months when no cool-weather green will show its face. Or a prickly echinops that delights bees and can be forgotten in poor soil in full sun. Informed choices, chosen with an eye for drama as well as the bottom line.

3. They work with local growers

Every region has plants that evolved in its conditions. Local nurseries tend to stock them. For Palladino, these native choices are boosted by childhood memories: "My outside life was rich, and I have many, many memories of interactions with plants—wild cherry, sassafras, bloodroot."

They rub shoulders with sumac and golden Alexanders in her beautifully laid out nursery. And at GRDN you are as likely to encounter marsh marigolds as ostrich fern (the source of over-harvested and prized fiddleheads).

The advantage of planting natives is multifold. They are hardwired to your climate; they tend to be low-maintenance, as long as they are planted in conditions similar to the ones they experience in their natural habitats (a beach plum on a sunny and dry rooftop is about as happy as it is on its native and windswept Northeastern shoreline); local pollinators as well as migrating birds appreciate the buffet of local flowers and fruit; and, finally, you are boosting biodiversity by growing plants that are not exotic invasives.

4. Local nurseries carry local plants

Many local nurseries also rely on local growers to supply their stock. The carbon footprint of the massive growing industry is not a small one. Buying from businesses that source locally means you have slashed the ironically high carbon transport cost of your new tree.

A native plant might look pedestrian, but if it's grown well or in a thoughtful container, or juxtaposed interestingly it can still be sublime.

GRDN’s Kongoy sources her plants from growers on the North Fork of Long Island, organic growers in Connecticut, and Snug Harbor Farms on Staten Island, who provide organic herbs and vegetable starters for the store. The Gowanus Nursery buys from a multitude of sources, buying mostly locally, with some specialty items from long-distance Florida or California, and offsetting this by propagating plant material on site.

"We propagate in our spare time all season long," says Palladino. "There's also a bunch of stock plants stowed around the nursery that are impossible to find these days."

Independent nurseries face many challenges. Fickle real estate markets and the constant threat of development loom large. Nurseries sell living stock, susceptible to pests and extreme weather. Hosting and caring for large numbers of plants is physically demanding and time consuming. Big box stores with lower prices, little variety, and less intel lure shoppers unaware of the significant benefits that come with buying from independent nurseries. Next time you need a plant, head for the business that knows its business.