Tips for Buying the Best Perennial Plants

Perennials are sold both as seeds that you sow and grow yourself, and as already-sprouted seedlings that you transplant into your garden.

Buying Seeds vs. Seedlings

Whether you should buy perennials as seeds or as seedlings depends on your preferences about:

  • Cost: Seeds are significantly less expensive than seedlings—when you buy seedlings, you’re paying not just for the plants but also for the labor that went into growing them.
  • Variety: Seeds usually come in a larger variety of species and colors than seedlings do.
  • Time and effort: Growing perennials from seeds involves more work than it takes to transplant store-bought seedlings into your garden. Also, many perennials grown from seeds can take more than a year to grow, fill out, and bloom. Buying seedlings cuts down on the time you need to wait before your plants begin to flower.

How to Buy Perennial Seeds

Perennial Seeds

Perennial seeds are sold in seed packets and can be found at nurseries and home and garden centers, as well as through online and print seed catalogs. Seed packets for perennial plants will be clearly marked with the word “perennial.” Seed packets generally provide the following information, either on the front or back:

  • The species and variety name of the plant
  • A description of the plant and its flowers
  • A photograph or illustration of the plant when flowering
  • The plant’s spread (width) and height at maturity
  • The plant’s sunlight or shade preferences
  • The time of year during which you can expect the perennial to bloom
  • Planting instructions
  • A USDA Hardiness Zone rating
  • The net weight of the seeds within the packet
  • The price
  • A packing date (seeds grow best when packed in the current calendar year)

Beyond the information they display on the outside, most seed packets also contain additional information on the inside about how to plant and grow the seeds.

How to Buy Perennial Seedlings

Seedlings are sold at nurseries and home and garden centers and can also be bought through catalogs or online for delivery by mail.

How to Buy Perennial Seedlings from Nurseries or Garden Centers

When you buy perennial seedlings from a nursery or garden center, you get the chance to inspect them and pick and choose the ones that look healthiest. The seedlings are typically sold in trays of four, six, or eight small, individual containers that each contain one seedling. When looking for seedlings to buy, consider:

  • Size: Most nurseries sell seedlings that have been grown to different sizes. These seedlings are categorized by pot size. For instance, a seedling in a 6″ pot will be bigger than a seedling in a 2″ pot. Larger seedlings will make your garden look full from the get-go, whereas smaller seedlings will need time to grow. Larger seedlings are considerably more expensive than smaller seedlings, though.
  • Size relative to container: Avoid any plant that seems too big for its container or that has roots growing out of the bottom of the container. It’s best to buy plants that look stocky and compact in their containers.
  • Color: Look for plants with bright green leaves.

In addition to inspecting the plants themselves before buying, pay attention to how the plants are displayed. In particular, make sure that the nursery is giving the plants the proper amount of sunlight.

If the nursery where you’re buying your plants has shade-loving plants on display in direct sunlight for hours at a time, it’s a good sign that the nursery may not treat its plants well.

It’s also a good idea to ask a staff member at the nursery whether the seedlings have been hardened off when you buy them. If they have, you can transplant them right into your garden. If they haven’t, you’ll have to harden them off first before you can transplant them into your garden .

How to Buy Mail-Order Perennial Seedlings

Buying perennials through a mail-order or online nursery can be more convenient than taking a trip to your local nursery—and in some cases it may be the only way for you to get a perennial that’s rare or not native to your region. Shipping is stressful on plants, though, so you need to order from a reputable nursery.

How to Find a Reputable Mail-Order Nursery

Running a web search for “mail-order nursery” will bring up hundreds of companies. When choosing a nursery, look for one that guarantees its plants and offers a free catalog full of planting, cultural, and design information about the flowers on sale. Some top mail-order nurseries include:

How to Order Perennials by Mail

  • Make sure to buy only perennials that can survive in your USDA Hardiness Zone range. If a catalog or website doesn’t list a perennial’s preferred zones, you may want to look for a different vendor.
  • Choose the fastest shipping option to minimize the time the plant spends in transit.
  • Try to arrange the shipment so that you’ll be home to receive it. You want to get the plant out of its shipping container and into the ground quickly.

What to Do When You Receive Mail-Order Perennials

Mail order perennials may be shipped either as bare-root perennials or in pots. The way the perennials are shipped affects how you should handle them once they arrive.

  • Bare-root perennials: Bare-root perennials are in a dormant or semidormant state, which means that when you open up the shipping package, you’ll see what looks a lot like a dead plant. But the plant will begin to grow once it’s in soil. It’s best to plant bare-root perennials as soon as you receive them. If the date of the average last day of frost in your area hasn’t yet passed, plant the plants indoors in a container. If the date has passed, you can plant them right into their bed outside .
  • In pots: Perennials shipped in pots can be transplanted right away, though it may be gentler on the plant to put the potted plant outside in a spot out of direct sunlight first. Keep the soil in the pot moist but not wet, and then transplant the perennial into its permanent spot a few days later.

Always keep any paperwork and receipts that you receive along with the plants in case you have any problems.