7 Ways to Save Money on Plants

Shopping for plants can be an exhausting and bewildering experience, especially if you have a lot of questions. Will these flowers survive a year in my garden? Are clearance plants really that good of a deal? Should I buy a bigger plant or a smaller one? What's the difference between an annual and a perennial, and why should I care? Why are plants so expensive? Before you drive to the garden center with full on spring fever, read this article and learn how to fill your garden beds on a budget by making smart and informed decisions.

Where to begin? Planning before you shop will help you make smart, informed purchases.
Shop with a Plan...
It's a lot easier to get a good deal on a plant if you know what you want and are willing to look for it. If you show up at a garden center without the slightest idea of what you want to do with your garden, you're likely to do one of two things; get overwhelmed, or get carried away. Before you make your shopping trip, decide on what your priorities are. Would you rather first focus on making the garden in your front yard look presentable, or would you rather start replacing the weeds in the abandoned garden out back?

You should also get realistic about what you can really grow in your garden. If it's too dry, wet, rocky or shady for the roses and veggies you crave, start thinking of ways to rectify those problems with irrigation, french drains, raised beds or pruned tree limbs. Better yet, look for substitutes that will thrive in your own unique garden. For example, here in the South I can substitute sun-loving roses with shade-loving camellias and gardenias. If my Florida heat is just too much for hostas, I can replace them with tropical peacock gingers (Kaempfira spp.) or Amazon lilies (Eucharis x grandiflora) instead.

Sometimes garden center associates can help you find gems like these native azaleas.
Don't be Afraid to Ask
Lets say that you read an enticing magazine article featuring the coolest new plants on the market and used them to plan a whole new flowerbed - only to find that your garden center has nothing of the sort. That's okay; just regroup and replan. Ask the garden center associate if she has any good substitutes on hand, or ask if she'd be willing to make a special order. This is where shopping at a locally owned garden center really comes in handy, since the staff is more likely to know the names of the plants they're selling in the first place. Local shops are also better equipped to suit your specific needs by letting you know when a new bulb shipment has arrived, or by telling you when the flowers you've been lusting after all month have finally gone on clearance.

Or maybe you found a great deal on a bright purple iris that you never even considered using in the first place. If you're thrown off track, look beyond those colorful flowers and ask yourself if you have a spot in mind for that last minute purchase. Will it fit in with your color scheme, or will it clash horrifically and distract from the other plants in your bed? Will the plant spread uncontrollably, or will it grow so slowly that it gets smothered by the rest of your plants? If you don't know the answers to these questions, do a little research on your smartphone or ask the staff if the plant will work in your garden. My local garden center has a copy of the Southern Living Garden Book on hand for dilemmas like these, and I can always count on the manager to share her 19 years of experience with me.

Irises are best planted in summer or fall when they're dormant.
Shop for Plants out of Bloom 
It might seem counterintuitive to intentionally walk right past the prettiest plants in flower at the front of the garden center, but hear me out. Flowering is hard work for a plant, so why would you want to put it through the shock of transplanting at its most fragile moment? Oftentimes, the best time to plant something in the ground will be when it has gone dormant for the season, losing its leaves in the process. You can get away with planting while in bloom, but you'll get a better show next year and a healthier plant if you're willing to wait.

The good news is that you might even be able to get a good deal since the other, less informed, shoppers are too busy snapping up snapdragons and other showy plants to even notice what appears to them a boring plant. If you see a plant in bloom that you just can't live without, take it home and leave it potted up until the flowers have finished their show. Trim the spent flowerheads or fruits to help the plant save its energy, plant it in the ground and keep the soil moist for a couple of weeks - or long enough for roots to spread out on their own. Blooming plants might have to work harder to get their bearings, but at least they'll usually survive.

If the plant you want has dull, wilted leaves, ask an associate for a healthier plant.
Get to Know the Plants in your Shopping Cart 
Before you head to the checkout counter, give the plants in your cart the once over. Now would be a good time to kick the tires. Check for any dull, wilted and wrinkled leaves, since they will likely be dead within days. Also keep an eye out for pests like barnacle-like scale insects or cottony mealybugs that might infest your other plants upon their arrival at your home. To check under the hood, tug lightly on the stem or slip the plant out of its pot to make sure that there aren't any dark and mushy rotted roots. If you really can't live without a certain plant, try asking the manager to place an order for you. Maybe she can even give you a better deal to make room for the next shipment.

A big (and understandable) newbie mistake is to buy a lot of pretty flowers, only to find that they only lasted a year or a season. Those are called annuals because they sprout, flower, produce seeds and die within a year. Perennials, on the other hand, can last a lot longer. Annuals are great for filling in beds or empty spots between plants, but it's probably best to plant perennials if you're just getting started and want to see your plants return next year. Some perennials only bloom for a short while or go dormant for a season or two, leaving awkward empty patches where you thought you'd have flowers, so do a little bit of research on the plants in question so that you can plan accordingly. Even if you've been gardening for decades and think you have a good handle on it by now, it never hurts to ask the staff for their opinions and experience before checking out.

The best clearance plants are healthy and long-lasting, such as this assortment of shrubs.
Shop Smart in the Clearance Section 
Those pretty marked down flowers can sure be tempting, but you should only pick plants that will last long enough to make it worth your while. If warm weather is on the way, bypass the scraggly petunias and other bedding plants and instead look for perennials, shrubs and trees with new, healthy growth. Some garden centers (I won't name names) have this nasty habit of putting their clearance racks in the blazing sun and filling them with anything and everything; from shade-grown houseplants to stinky and rotting dead succulents sitting in water. Be sure to keep your receipt if you're taking a chance.

Every now and then you'll come across coupons or other special deals, but don't bother unless the coupon is for the plants you really want. If you want to get the best deals, become acquainted with all of the garden centers in your area and check in every now and then for new plants on the clearance rack. The garden that I planted for my mom was almost entirely composed of plants that I bought on clearance around town. The rest were started from affordably priced bulbs, seeds, divisions from the garden and cuttings shared by friends. If there's a plant that you can get more affordably on your own through these means, save your garden center allowance for something special instead.
Caladiums purchased as bulbs are cheaper and fill in just as quickly as those bought in pots.
Buy Small to Save Big
Whenever possible, try to get a younger plant. They might be small now, but they're also more likely to stay healthy and establish in your garden more quickly. You might even find that a plant purchased in a one-gallon pot will outgrow the rootbound one in a three-gallon pot that you paid extra for! The same could be said for buying seeds or bulbs instead of readymade potted plants. You could easily buy a whole packet of marigold seeds for the price of one or two plants, provided you're willing to wait a few weeks for them to bloom. After the marigolds bloom, save the seeds for next year and you'll have extra money to put towards cooler plants next year!

If you do end up buying a larger and more expensive plant, do so with a good reason. Sometimes it's worth it to get larger trees or shrubs if you're trying to give your new landscape an impression of maturity - or if you need a tall element in your garden immediately to break up the monotony or create a privacy screen. It might also be worthwhile to buy a large pot filled to the breaking point with easily divided perennials like daylilies or irises, especially if you pay the normal price and are willing to divide and replant when you get home.

Some plants, like these hydrangeas, should be kept potted up a bit longer to help them adjust.
Ease Plants into your Garden Carefully 
Your new plants have been growing in the controlled environment of a shadehouse since they were wee seedlings, so break them in slowly. Even if hydrangeas can take a bit of sun, a nursery-grown hydrangea in full bloom is better left to finish blooming in a bright room or porch before it's planted in the garden. To harden off a plant into your sunny garden, start by placing the pot in a shady area and begin moving it a little bit closer to its new digs every day. This will help keep the leaves from getting sunburned.

Your garden's soil can spell the difference between a lush plant and a dead one. Sandy soil tends to dry out quickly while clay soil stays wet - but is also hard for new roots to crack. Unless the dirt beneath your yard is a rich and fertile black loam, it pays to mix in compost or garden soil before planting. This organic matter will help the soil retain moisture, drain better, and loosen it up, all while making it more fertile. Every time you leave the garden center with plants, plan on picking up a few bags of soil or compost while you're there. Think of it as a warranty plan for your plants.

Just remember that the best way to save money on plants is to keep them happy after you've brought them home. A cheap plant isn't always a good deal either; an azalea marked down to one dollar is a great deal, but not if you can't provide the shade, moisture and acidic soil it needs to thrive. The more you plan, the more you save.


  1. Great post!

    Happy Easter to you and your family.


    1. Good information. Even if you are aware we can always be reminded. Thank you.

  2. Super information. I found a white blooming Aloe ferox in the sale section for $22.00. It had a little damage to the leave tips but was otherwise healthy. It will do well.

  3. I've had a little luck recently bargaining people down, which works at independent places sometimes. I went somewhere that had a large, but quite damaged, agave Joe Hoak for $45. I said, "Eh, I don't think I'd pay $45 for this; would you consider marking it down?" They said, I'll do $35. I offered $30 and we had a deal.


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