I don't think shopping is ever out of season, but the next few weeks are prime shopping time for the gardener. We have excellent garden centers in and around Seneca County, and buying locally means the plants offered are right for this area.
There are many decisions to be made, and to a great extent wisdom comes with experience. But not always. On this topic, I do not always practice what I preach.
It is good to have a list of "must haves," and shopping around for the best selection and the best price within those choices is to be recommended. But don't take the fun out of shopping. Those irresistible bargains and interesting mystery plants add the element of surprise to the garden, and as you tour the neighborhood suppliers, you are sure to find some of both.
It doesn't hurt to take a chance.
One of my very best finds was one late fall a few years ago when I spotted a star magnolia on top of a discard pile at a garden center a hundred miles or so south of here. I had been looking at the expensive varieties, and decided I'd have to wait another year to buy one of these beauties when I saw the heap behind a greenhouse.
I found a worker who told me to help myself, with the advice the magnolia would not prosper. Well, it did, and every spring when those fat buds open, I think of the shrub's humble origin.
But discard piles are not the best place to shop, and late fall generally is not the best time to plant. Sometimes, you just get lucky.
When buying annuals, look for healthy plants with no yellowish, pale or browning leaves, with strong stems and compact form. Plants that look too tall may be root-bound.
Be aware plants in full flower early in the season may not have been given enough time to develop good root systems, and after those blossoms die, they may take a while to produce a later flush of flowers.
It is helpful to see the color and size of blooms on a plant you are buying, but beware of those baskets overflowing with enormous bright clumps of flowers. They may have spent their best days in the greenhouse. I have heard them described as "bouquets with roots" and they are wonderful for a special occasion, or to provide color and excitement while less showy specimens gear up for summer.
Just consider what you really need - instant beauty or long-term, consistent flowering. You probably want some of each.
When shopping for perennials or shrubs, be sure of what you want. Even when shopping locally, it is a good idea to do some early research in illustrated catalogs so, when you find what you are looking for, you will know it is right for your garden.
Bare root roses and other plants will take longer to settle in than the container-grown ones, but may be significantly less expensive. Forsythia, lilac and other flowering shrubs may seem sparse when you see them for sale, but they soon will fill out and give you many years of pleasure.
Shop early for vines.
One stem growing up a stake can be unwound fairly easily, but it takes fortitude to untangle a thunbergia or a mandevilla with dozens of stems twining around one another. I know!
But then serendipity comes into play. If you are in the right place at the right time for something wonderful, snatch it up. You won't be sorry.