As warmer weather arrives, gardens and landscaping move up on our to-do lists. Even the greenest of thumbs sometimes needs help — sometimes, lots of it. Which plants to buy? How to plant them? Where to plant them? How to nurture them?

The best-run garden centers have the answers. They employ experts and — maybe most important — emphasize quality.

Selling plants is not like selling power tools or lumber. Plants are alive, each one unique and each vulnerable to disease, injury and death. Running a good garden center or nursery takes knowledge, experience, organizational skill, and a strong commitment to quality. And since most garden centers buy — rather than raise — most of what they sell, there is room for tremendous variation in buying ability and standards.

Nonprofit Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook's ratings of area garden centers for quality and price can help find the right one for you. For the next month, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings to Inquirer readers at Checkbook.org/inquirer/garden-centers.

The opinions Checkbook collected from area consumers on the garden centers they use reflect the big variation in quality among retailers. Some stores were rated "superior" for "quality of products" by at least 80 percent of their surveyed customers; several others were rated "superior"  by fewer than 40 percent.

Home Depot and Lowe's received very low marks from their surveyed customers for quality: Their stores scored, on average, lower than almost all the independent stores. But for the selection of plants they sell, the two big chains do very well on price. Checkbook's undercover shoppers found that Home Depot's prices averaged 26 percent below the all-store average for comparable items, and Lowe's prices averaged 16 percent below the average.

Unlike most services and stores Checkbook evaluates, paying more for plants at garden centers does slightly improve your odds of getting better advice, service, and product quality. Many of the stores rated highest for quality charge higher-than-average prices, but some that rate high for quality also have below-average prices.

For specific plants, Checkbook found enormous nursery-to-nursery price differences — perhaps more variation than in any subject we cover. For example, for six liriope in one-gallon containers, prices ranged from $36 to $240; for a creeping phlox in a one-quart container, prices ranged from $9 to $45.

Before shopping, make a plan. Consider your yard's soil type, acidity, drainage patterns and sunlight exposure, and match plant types with areas where they are likely to thrive. Your plan should show how your property will look right away, and how it will look years from now, when your plants have grown.

Without a plan, you could wind up with plants that do not complement one another in size, shape, or color. You might end up with shade where you want sun and with the view from, or of, your house obscured. And you might pay for expensive plants when inexpensive ones would do just as well.

Seek advice from gardening websites, friends with attractive gardens, and experts at local botanical gardens. If you want professional help, you can hire a landscape designer.

When making plant purchases:

  • Check roots to be sure they have not dried out. Probe with your finger or look through container drain holes to make sure roots are whitish, not brown.
  • Check shrubs and trees for weak or broken branches. Bark should not have scars or holes; pruning cuts should be flush with the branch or trunk.
  • Examine plants for browned or grayed areas or spots on leaves or stems, all signs of disease. And check for insects.
  • In growing season, be sure there is new growth.
  • Get a receipt that shows the common and the Latin names of plants and the size, number purchased, date of purchase, price, and guarantee. You should also receive instructions on how and where to plant and on what pruning, feeding, and spraying will be needed.

Ask what guarantee you get. Even though many plant deaths are the result of improper planting or care, Checkbook found most garden centers offer broad guarantees.

_______________________

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine (Checkbook.org) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. Access Checkbook's ratings free at www.Checkbook.org/inquirer/garden-centers.