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Master Gardener Journal  

S P E C I A L   F E A T U R E

Choosing a Good Nursery

by Lisa Dubas,
Master Gardener Intern

A common question asked of Master Gardeners is what are the best nurseries in town? This is a particularly significant issue with newcomers to the Phoenix area, since our soils and climate are different and we don't have the same growing seasons. So how do you decide whether a nursery or garden center is worthy of your patronage? By the end of this article, you should be able to answer that very important question for yourself.

One of the first things you should assess is the visual quality of the plants. Is the nursery trying to sell plants that look bad? Are plants out of season (e.g. annuals), not watered enough, not getting enough sun, getting too much sun, or infested with insects? You can refer to Maricopa County Cooperative Extension publications such as AZ 1100 (flower planting guide for the low desert) and other low-water-use landscaping books for information concerning the life cycle of the plants you intend to buy. Also remember that insects prefer weaker plants, so if a plant has an insect problem it may be of poor quality. Examine the leaves, bark, and dirt for the presence of insects. If many of the nursery's plants fail to meet these criteria, go to another nursery.

What about the staff at this nursery? Are there Arizona Certified Nursery Professionals or Master Gardeners available to answer your questions? Do the employees know enough about the plants? Can they tell you about the water and sun needs of the plant without reading the label? Can they tell you the common and botanical name for the plant? Can they tell you if a plant is poisonous (for those of us with curious children and pets)? Are they trying to sell you products you don't need? Do you feel like you can trust them? If the quality of the staff is in doubt, go to another nursery.

Does the nursery carry a wide variety of plants? Is most of the stock from local growers (already adapted to our climate), or were many plants grown out of state (may require more care and time to establish)? Does the nursery have a large selection of low-water-use/desert-adapted plants? Will the nursery order plants for you if asked? If the answers to these questions are no, go to another nursery.

Carefully assess the nursery's pruning practices. Pruning actually causes wounds to trees and shrubs, making them more susceptible to pests. Refer to the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension publication AZ 1139, and “Desert Landscaping for Beginners,” for more information on proper pruning. If the nursery's pruning practices seem consistently poor, go to another nursery.

Do the plants look too large for their containers? Do you see 5-gallon containers holding 10-gallon trees, and 1-gallon containers with 5-gallon shrubs? Are there roots visible in the holes at the bottom of the container, or do you see signs that protruding roots have been trimmed at those holes? If you can, take the plant out of the container and see if there are roots circling around the plant (root-bound). If it isn't possible to pull the plant out, move some soil away from the top of the plant to see if the roots seem to be growing in a circular pattern. Every nursery or garden center may have a few root-bound plants, but if you answer yes to these questions with many of the plants you look at, go to another nursery.

What about the nursery in general? Does the store have a return policy? Do they sell everything you will need (pots, soil, fertilizers, mulch, etc.), or just plants? Are the plants clearly labeled with the common name, botanical name, light requirements, and water requirements? Have you heard mostly good comments from people, or just complaints about that particular nursery? Is the staff helpful? Do the prices seem reasonable? Do they sell low-water-use reference books geared specifically for helping customers grow plants in the desert? Do they give out information pamphlets, such as the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension publications?

Please remember that any nursery can have a few bad days. It's a good idea to visit several times throughout the year just to look around, before forming an opinion. However if you plan ahead, know what to look for, and know what questions to ask, you will easily find the best nurseries in town.

Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated April 29, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092