I'm often asked about where I buy plants, and of course the answer is that I very rarely buy plants, I propagate my own from seed and from cuttings.
However, when doing a planting plan for a new bed, or when a Client wants a specific plant which I don't have, then they have to be bought in.
This particularly applies to cheap summer bedding - Clients often ask if it is really necessary to go to a proper Garden Centre: can't they just take advantage of the very cheap plants which they sell at our local supermarkets?
On the face of it, it seems like an excellent idea: they are close to home, you were going there anyway, the plants are cheap and look very cheerful, and big shops like that would not want to sell duff plants, would they? They know they need to keep their shoppers coming back.
However, I would say that "buyer beware" is the phase you need: you (“one”) can get excellent bargains, but on the other hand, supermarkets (and the “sheds” such as B&Q and Homebase) are famous for not watering the plants until they are on the verge of death.
This means that often, you buy a plant that looks fine, but has been repeatedly stressed, to the point where it fails to flourish once planted out.
Also, they usually import their stock, so it is not fully hardened off to our climate - if you look up, you will notice that the "garden" section is at least partially roofed. Worse, supermarkets usually have the plants actually inside the store!
This means that you will have to take care to harden off any plants which you buy, before planting them out: if you just take them home and plant them, they will probably gasp in horror at the lack of central heating, and die.
So, how do you ensure that your bargain plant is really a bargain?
Firstly, check the weight of the plant. Pick it up, does it feel proportionally heavy enough? If your hand flies up into the air with the plant, ie if it is a lot lighter than you were expecting it to be, then it has been under-watered and the compost has dried out. If the plant is not already drooping, it soon will be!
Next, look closely at the plant, and check for dead leaves in and around the base of the plant. If it's been stressed to the point of dropping leaves, then it's going to take a while to recover, even if it now looks superficially healthy.
Third, check for dead sections within the plant: if part of it is already dead, there's no point buying it, even if it's cheap!
Fourthly, check the foliage: are there any holes in, or damage to, the leaves? If they've already been munched, then there is a very good chance that you have some hitchhikers along with the plant, and that's never a good thing.
Fifthly (still not sure if that is a real word), if no-one is looking (bearing in mind that they usually have cameras all over the shop) de-pot the plant and check the roots. This means tipping the plant upside down, with the other hand ready to catch it, in order to gently get it out of the pot so that you can see the roots.
You are looking for three things:
a) is there a good strong network of roots?
b) is the compost dark and a solid mass (ie wet, which is good) or very light-coloured and crumbly (ie has not been watered properly, which is very bad)?
c) are there any vine weevils or other nasties to be seen?
d) is it pot-bound, ie are there great chunky roots circling round and round, or is there a glazed mass of fibrous roots with no soil to be seen? Either of which are bad signs.
e) does the plant refuse to be tipped out (if the plant is welded to the inside of the pot, this is a sign that it is thoroughly pot-bound and will struggle to establish itself)?
OK that was five things, I like to be thorough.
As soon as you have finished checking, ease the plant carefully back into the pot, and make sure it is pressed well down into the pot: the reason we plant growers don't like people de-potting plants is that it can be very damaging to the plant, especially if they knock some of the soil off, or push it back into the pot at an odd angle, or spill the mulch on the floor and don't bother to pick it up and replace it. So do please have the decency to make the plant comfy again, even if you decide against buying it.
If the plants passes all these points, then it's probably ok for you to buy it.
There is just one other point I would like to raise about buying plants from these outlets - and this includes garden centres - and that's the risk of neonicotinoids. If you haven't heard this name before, let me tell you that neonicotinoids are a group of insecticides which are routinely used in the production of commercially-grown plants, and which are devastating for bees.
Don't take my word for it, look it up for yourselves. They are sprayed onto the plants at commercial nurseries to prevent insect damage, making them look lovely for sale, but the chemicals saturate the plants and remain in their tissues, in their flowers, in their pollen, and they then affect the central nervous system of all pollinating insects (especially bees), resulting in their paralysis and death.
Even the RHS had to admit recently that they could not, with any degree of certainty, confirm that any plants in their range of so-called “bee friendly” plants, had not been treated with neonicotinoids, which is pretty disgraceful.
So instead of buying plants from big suppliers, it really is better to collect seed, take cuttings, and propagate your own plants: then sell or swap plants amongst friends and neighbours.
If you've never tried growing from seed before, give it a go, it's really satisfying! Taking cuttings is a little more complicated, but there are tons of books, articles and videos on the subject, and trust me, there is a huge thrill in growing something from a tiny cutting.
Best of all, this always results in you having far more "new" plants than you actually need, so you can then get together locally to swap the spares with friends, with neighbours: you might even like to contact your local gardening club, who are always welcoming to new members, and then you can join in with their plant sales.
You can also check out nearby allotments, as there is often an unofficial club or group there, who would be most willing to have a plant swap or plant sale; look for people nearby who sell plants outside their houses; and if you have a lot of excess plants, you could consider doing something similar - you might even make a few pounds!
This reduces plant miles to pretty much zero, it reduces plastic waste - as you will be re-using plastic pots instead of buying plants and ending up with stacks of unwanted plastic pots - and you are guaranteed to get plants which will flourish in your local climate.
This can cut out the risk of neonicotinoids in your garden altogether, quite apart from saving you a lot of money, and making you a lot of new friends!