So, you walk into your local western garden center…
And you see row after row of flowers. You may find yourself thinking one of two things:
- “Ahhhh, I’m in my happy place.” You feel like a kid in a candy store.
- “HOLY. CRAP.” There are sooooo many choices. You suddenly feel a strong urge to breathe deeply into a brown paper bag.
Both are natural reactions!
Here are 5 tips to help you navigate your local garden center and make awesome flower choices.
Tip #1: Western garden centers may not sell the flowers you recognize from other parts of the country or from magazine photos
And that’s actually a good thing.
Colorado and similar western states are tough on plants.
It’s dry here. Windy. Our high-altitude sun is more intense on our plants. Our soil lacks nutrients. We get hail and 60-degree temperature swings.
Down at our lower elevations (3500-6000 feet), our summers can get H-O-T with very little rainfall.
And up at our higher elevations — like in our mountain valleys — we can get frost in the summer.
(Aren’t you glad you’re becoming a gardener here? 😃 )
The point is, we need hardy-plants that can handle these types of conditions.
Typically, the pin-worthy flowers from Southern Living magazine and other lifestyle magazines prefer a lot of moisture, different soil, a more temperate climate, etc.
You’ll be much more successful and have to replace fewer plants in states like Colorado and Utah if you’re planting flowers that do well in our crazy, western conditions.
So, get ready to discover some new types of flowers as you browse the aisles!
Tip #2: Flowers are often arranged together based on whether they grow for one season or return every year
In other words, there is a method to the colorful madness.
You want big, showy color all summer, particularly in your flowerpots?
You’re probably looking for annuals. Annuals give you a lot of color for one growing season, but they don’t come back the next.
You want pretty flowers in the ground that come back year after year?
You’re looking for perennials. Perennials return every year, but they typically bloom for a shorter window of time — often, only a few weeks.
The good news is your garden center likely has organized its annuals together and its perennials together.
The annual section usually has a lot of flowers together with bright, showy color.
If you aren’t sure which section is which, please ask. People are happy to help. 😉
In addition, in the perennial section, plants that love sunshine are often separated from plants that prefer shade …
Though, not always. (I’m looking at you home improvement stores.)
In outdoor garden centers, the shade-loving plants will likely have a screen or a cover over them. This is always a helpful clue that they prefer less sunlight.
Tip #3: Perennials bloom at different times of the summer, so it’s helpful to return to the garden center every 2-4 weeks to see what’s blooming
When I planted my first garden in Colorado, I was so excited to buy flowers.
I went to the garden center in early June, and I bought a variety of colorful perennials (the flower plants that come back year after year).
Over the next few years, my garden looked GOOD … in May and June.
But by the time July arrived, everything would stop blooming.
I had very little color for the rest of the summer.
Perennials bloom at different times during the summer — usually for 2 to 3 weeks at a time.
I bought the perennials that looked pretty at the garden center in the early summer. They were the flower plants that bloom in May and June.
I didn’t realize that I needed to pace myself.
If you’d like color in your garden across the w-h-o-l-e summer, it’s helpful to return to the garden center to see what blooms during different months.
Your garden center will likely be getting new plants in.
Plus, plants you didn’t notice before may be blooming now.
Don’t have time to make multiple trips to the garden center to look at perennials?
In that case, be sure to look at the plant tags (tucked in each pot) when you buy your flowers.
The plant tags should tell you when your perennial will bloom.
Look for perennials that bloom at different times of the summer. That means you may need to look for plants that aren’t flowering at the time you’re at the garden center.
If you live at a high elevation in a western state like Colorado, you’ll have a shorter growing season. You may want skip the “early fall” bloomers. Your growing season may not be long enough for those flowers to bloom. You also may have more summer options if you start flowers from seed.
Tip #4: The size of the flower plant in the store isn’t its final size
Perennials take up to 3 years to reach their full size.
So, when you see a pretty perennial at the garden center and it’s flowering and you can totally picture the perfect spot for it in your garden …
Pump the brakes.
Read the plant tag (tucked in the pot) to find out how big the plant will grow and how much space it needs.
When you read the tag, you may find yourself thinking:
“This adorable little plant needs 24 inches in width and is going to be 3 feet tall? Nah!”
It just may take a few years to get there.
Here’s what this means:
Your garden may not look “full” in the first year or two, but this is totally normal.
You can always fill in with flowerpots of annuals.
Putting each plant in the right place for its needs will help you keep your plants from competing for water, nutrients and sunlight.
Translation: You’ll have happier, healthier plants and less work for the long term.
By the way, almost every gardener has ignored a plant tag and had to move — or remove — a plant when it’s gotten too big (myself included).
So, if you’ve done this, you’re in good company!
There’s nothing like planting a perennial in the front of your garden, only to discover that your plant has turned into the tall kid in the school class picture — and you have it standing in the front row.
And if you like having the tall kid in the front row, great!
Nature is wild and unruly, and it can be part of the fun of gardening too.
Just make sure your tall kid isn’t crowding out your other plants (for example, blocking their sunlight or water).
The other thing to keep an eye on is whether your tall kid’s roots may be growing into other plants and taking their nutrients.
Tip #5: A big flower plant growing in a small container can be a problem, so look for containers that are proportional to the plant
As plants grow bigger above the soil, their roots are elongating below the soil.
So, when you see a big plant growing in a small pot — for an amazingly low price, no less — you may not be getting the deal you think you’re getting.
Because when plant roots have nowhere to go, they start circling around the inside of the container, growing tighter and tighter.
The plant’s roots will begin to strangle and kill the plant.
This is known as: “root girdling.”
Sometimes, there are things you can do to loosen up the roots when you get your plant home, but these steps take extra work and you can end up damaging the roots.
Your flower plant may not recover.
What’s another sign that the roots are too big for the container?
You may notice a lot of roots growing out of the bottom of the pot.
Poor lil’ dudes are trying to escape!
Root girdling is a bigger issue in perennials (and shrubs and trees), than in annuals. After all, your annuals are only going to last for one season.
Nonetheless, be wary of plants that have outgrown the size of their containers.
You may be buying a problem.
Being observant can help you set yourself (and your plants) up for more success in your garden. And cheers to that!
Hey, do you know your flowerpot personality?
Take this fun, 2-minute quiz to find out! You’ll also get personalized ideas for flowers, so growing flowers is relaxing — not taxing.