Garden Bargain or Bust?

How do you know if that clearance plant is a bargain or a waste of money? Follow these steps to assure that your bargain purchase will survive the winter and thrive next spring.
Garden Bargain or Bust? - Articles


Photo credit: Lois Miklas

When summer season draws to a close, garden centers prepare for winter by discounting prices on in-stock nursery items, such as perennials, shrubs and trees. How do you know if that clearance plant is a bargain or a waste of your money? Follow these steps to assure that your fall bargain purchase will survive the winter and thrive next growing season.

Nurseries and garden centers discount their stock for numerous reasons.

  • Over-wintering stock is costly and time-consuming to maintain. Discounting and clearing out merchandise eases the winter workload for nursery staff.
  • A particular item may not have sold well, and the nursery has overstock that needs to be downsized.
  • Perennials, shrubs and trees may have been damaged or stressed during the growing season and are not pristine. While still healthy, this stock can be a bargain when sold at a discounted price.
  • Plants may have been brought in that are not conducive to growing in our United States (USDA) plant hardiness zone.

When strolling through the clearance or discounted stock, observe the overall care given to the plants. Discounted plants should be watered and cared for similar to the regularly-priced merchandise. Plants that appear stressed or neglected may not survive the remainder of the year or return next year, making their discounted price not worth your money. Assess the overall health of the plant. New or maintained growth should be visible. The overall structure of the plant should be strong; avoid purchasing trees with double leaders or multiple dead branches. Observe for insects and signs of insect damage, such as holes in the leaves. Diseases such as fungus can be obvious. Ask the nursery staff to verify the absence of pests and disease. Plants in need of pruning are acceptable to purchase; prune dead material now and shape during dormancy in winter or early spring. Read the plant label and check that the USDA plant hardiness zone includes Pennsylvania zones.

Summer bulbs, such as daylilies, typically are cut to about one inch or so; the leaves should be firmly attached to the bulb. Assure that the plant marker is in the pot to avoid surprises next summer. Woodland plants, such as trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) or jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), are dormant now, and their stems and leaves have died off. Purchasing plants such as these may be risky, because the viability of the rhizome or corm cannot be guaranteed. If the price is right, and you want these lovely spring bloomers, take a chance!

Special rules may apply when purchasing clearance plants. The nursery warranty will most likely be void and the plants are not returnable. Therefore, be sure that your purchase is healthy and is likely to survive the winter.

Purchase plants within your budget and your garden design. Even $1.00 is not well spent if you do not need the plants or will not install them in a timely manner. Site and install your bargain plants in their recommended location. Mulch with compost or shredded bark, but do not fertilize. Identify your purchase with a garden marker.

Despite these guidelines, gardeners like me enjoy the challenge of growing plants that were destined for the compost pile. As long as the plants are pest- and disease-free, purchasing distressed plants at a discount is the gardener’s prerogative. And, they may surprise you and surpass their full-price counterparts!

Take advantage of end of growing season nursery and garden center clearances. Check nursery websites, sign up for loyalty programs and save coupons. It never hurts to ask the nursery staff for a discount, either. Disease and pest-free plants that you yearned for all season can be yours at bargain prices. Happy shopping!