Visiting a Garden Center This Spring? Be Strategic.

Proceed at your own risk — and please, bring a list. That’s my best advice for spring visits to the garden center.

Do not misunderstand: I am all in on shopping for plants anytime, just not on making buying decisions based on the giddy madness of pure impulse.

Instead, consider strategically delayed gratification, which probably means skipping the showiest of-the-moment plants in favor of those that might not be in peak form yet, or even have fully awakened.

On the ride home from such a well-tempered shopping expedition, the car won’t be stuffed with color. But in its aftermath, the garden will be — and at less expected times, when it may otherwise be lacking. I admit to pacifying myself with a flat of violas on the passenger seat (oh, the scent). But as for the springtime perennials and shrubs, I mostly leave them behind.

Smart merchandising means the nursery staff will have stocked up heavily on spring plants and staged the showiest stuff up front, where its powers of seduction will be strongest.

“While there are no hard stats that I have seen,” said Chris Beytes, the editor of the greenhouse trade magazine “GrowerTalks” and the companion “Acres Online” newsletter, “most garden centers I talk to will throw out the 80-20 rule: that 80 percent of their business is done in what the industry affectionately calls ‘the 100 days of hell.’”

Understandably, he said, “they want to maximize that excitement when people come into their stores, and fill them with what will most appeal right then.”

The peak period: Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day in the warmer zones; March into May a bit farther north; and April, May and the first half of June in the states where spring starts latest.

In other words, everywhere at the moment.

Combine that marketing savvy with the reality that many customers shop only once a year — now — and it’s no wonder our landscapes tend to be spring-heavy.

Showing restraint in that sea of early bloomers is never easy. This spring and last, it has been especially challenging, as an additional impulse-fueling factor has been at work.

“In this pandemic time,” Mr. Beytes said, “there is the worry that if you don’t buy it, you might not get it a week or a year from now. And there are, in some cases, shortages, since growers can only produce so many of something. There is some of the you’d-better-buy-it-now thinking at work, on top of the usual spring excitement.”

Uh-oh. Ready to take a deep breath and adopt at least a semi-strategic approach?

One of the most creative gardeners I know was visiting many years ago, and after a day outside puttering together, we had come inside to make supper. He was at the stove stirring something, and I was at the counter beside him, chopping — both of us facing a window that looked out at the top of the driveway.

“Do you enjoy the view of your car doors?” he asked in characteristic deadpan, never missing a beat with the wooden spoon. It wasn’t exactly impolite, but there was no room for misunderstanding.

The next morning, we hatched a plan with a local excavator to shorten the driveway, ending it just below the house, and extend a stone walkway in its place. That changed everything: The view out the kitchen window is now of a shapely magnolia and a succession of herbaceous treasures beneath it. Much better.

My friend had reminded me that a big part of our enjoyment of the garden is from the inside out. The following day, we spent time looking out each key window for subtler fixes — to the views from the desk, the dining table and the like. He helped me imagine which plants could bring better views to life.

Maybe a gold-leaved tree or a large shrub planted in a distant spot would draw the eye, creating a sense of openness, he suggested, with some gold perennials and shrubs punctuating the sightline leading to that beacon. Could a favorite color be used more emphatically, by repeating it in various layers (perennial, shrub, vine, tree) and in different months, making it a signature of the garden? And would some existing element be better if it were bulked up? Perhaps multiples would add to its impact and lend visual continuity.

Plants that solve such issues — those that can create or enhance key axial views in each season, extending the garden well beyond spring — are the ones that go on my shopping list.

Try another simple assignment: Write down what you look forward to in the garden during each month of the year, whether it’s flowers, foliage or some structural effect.

Inquire at the counter: Where are the plants that looked good from February to March, like those pussy willows or the hybrid witch-hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia)? And what about those that will look good come November?

The least showy stars of early shopping may be the edible ones, like asparagus, that are often sold bare-root. Last April, I renovated my 30-year-old asparagus bed with new bare-root crowns. Rhubarb and strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are often sold this way, as well. (Mail-order vendors may still have inventory, if your garden center is out of stock.)

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