Where to Buy Plants

Where to Buy Plants

Specialty Nurseries vs. Big Box Retail Stores

By Published August 11, 2016 Updated July 31, 2023

Shop for Perennials On Sale at Plant Delights Nursery

The following article is part of a series geared toward entry-level gardeners. For deep dives into a variety of perennials that we have sold over the decades, visit our archive of in-depth perennial articles written by Tony Avent, Dr. Patrick McMillan, and other Plant Delights and JLBG experts. We also have transcripts of our Gardening Unplugged videos, recorded during our Open Nursery and Garden Days, that have great information for gardeners of all experience levels.

The allure of bringing greenery into our lives is undeniable. Whether you're an experienced gardener or a budding plant enthusiast, choosing where to buy plants is a crucial decision that can significantly impact your gardening journey. Two popular options are specialty nurseries and big box retail stores. Each option has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and in this article, we will explore the pros and cons of each, helping you make an informed decision when purchasing your next plant.

Buying Plants from Specialty Nurseries

Specialty nurseries are establishments dedicated to cultivating and selling a wide variety of plants. They often focus on specific types of plants, such as rare species, exotic plants, or particular categories like succulents, orchids, or native plants. Here's what you need to know about buying plants from specialty nurseries:

Some small nurseries tend to specialize in native varieties that do especially will in their own backyard. Some, like Plant Delights, also hybridize varieties from all over the world that thrive in our USDA Zone 7b conditions.


Expertise: Specialty nurseries are staffed with knowledgeable plant enthusiasts who can provide valuable insights and guidance on caring for specific plants. Their expertise can be invaluable, especially if you're a beginner or seeking to expand your plant collection with more challenging species.

Unique Selection: One of the most significant advantages of specialty nurseries is their wide array of unique and rare plants. If you're looking for something distinct to make your garden stand out, specialty nurseries are the ideal place to find extraordinary and hard-to-find species.

Healthier Plants: Since specialty nurseries focus on cultivating specific plant types, they tend to have a better understanding of their needs, resulting in healthier and well-cared-for plants.


Higher Prices: The specialized nature of these nurseries often translates to higher prices compared to big box retail stores. Rare plants and unique species typically come at a premium.

Limited Range of Non-specialty Plants: While specialty nurseries excel in their niche, they may have a limited selection of common plants like houseplants or basic garden staples.

Finding Specialty Nurseries

Each year Plant Delights Nursery and Juniper Level Botanic Garden partner with the JC Raulston Arboretum to sponsor a rare plant auction and symposium where speakers from specialty nurseries and botanic gardens from all over the US share their wealth of knowledge of rare plants. A few of the specialty nurseries presenting during the 2023 symposium included Hoffman Nursery, Spring Meadow Nursery, and Bailey Innovations; All great nurseries worth visiting. Chances are, there are also fantastic specialty plant nurseries in your area that stock amazing plants that do great where you live. Go ahead and give them a try!

Big Box Retail Stores

Big box retail stores, such as large home improvement centers or general merchandise stores, have become popular destinations for plant purchases. They offer a more general approach to gardening and cater to a broader customer base. Let's take a closer look at the pros and cons of buying plants from big box retail stores:


Affordability: Big box stores often offer plants at lower prices due to their ability to source in bulk. This makes them an attractive option for budget-conscious gardeners.

Convenient Locations: Big box retailers are typically found in easily accessible locations, making it convenient to purchase plants during regular shopping trips.

Diverse Range: While not as specialized as nurseries, big box retail stores provide a wide selection of common plants, suitable for various gardening needs.


Lack of Expertise: Unlike specialty nurseries, big box retail store employees may not have in-depth knowledge about specific plant care, making it challenging to get detailed advice.

Plant Health: Due to the high volume of plants, some may not receive the individualized care they need, resulting in lower overall plant health compared to specialty nurseries.

Limited Unique Varieties: Big box retailers prioritize common plants, so if you're looking for rare or unusual species, you might not find them here.

Tips for Buying Plants from Larger Retailers

Even though we are a specialty nursery ourselves, we know better than anyone that there are some great deals on plants to be had from the "big boys." Selecting traditional garden staples from big box retailers like Wal-mart or Home Depot can be a real money saver as they offer a wide range of common plants, often at bargain prices. Here are 8 tips to help you make the best choices when purchasing plants from these retailers:

You can often find good deals at the big box stores but be sure to do your research and stick with the seasonal staples in your area.

1. Research Before You Go: Before heading to the store, conduct some research on the types of plants you want to buy. Consider factors such as sunlight requirements, water needs, mature size, and any specific care instructions. This knowledge will help you make informed decisions and select plants that are well-suited to your garden or indoor space.

2. Check Plant Labels and Tags: At big box retailers, plants are often labeled with useful information about their care requirements. Look for labels indicating whether the plant prefers full sun, partial shade, or shade. Additionally, check the watering needs and any other specific care instructions mentioned on the tag. This information will help you determine if the plant is a good fit for your garden and whether you can provide the necessary care.

3. Inspect Plant Health: Examine the plants closely to ensure they are healthy and free from pests or diseases. Look for signs of damage, discoloration, or wilting. Avoid purchasing plants with yellow or brown leaves, as this may indicate stress or poor care. Choose plants with vibrant, green foliage and strong stems, as they are more likely to thrive in your garden.

4. Consider Seasonal Availability: Big box retailers often stock plants according to the seasons. During the spring and early summer, you'll find a wide selection of annuals and perennials suitable for outdoor planting. In colder months, focus on indoor plants and cold-hardy options for outdoor planting. Consider the current season and select plants that are appropriate for the time of year.

5. Buy from Fresh Shipments: If possible, inquire about the store's delivery schedule for plant shipments. Buying from a fresh batch of plants will increase the chances of getting healthy and robust specimens. Avoid selecting plants from batches that have been sitting in the store for an extended period, as they may have received less care and attention.

Don't be afraid of "root-bound" plants. This is actually a healthy root system ready for planting!

6. Check Plant Roots: For potted plants, gently remove them from their containers to inspect the roots. Healthy roots should be white or light-colored, not brown or black. Avoid plants with a dense mass of roots circling the pot, as this indicates they might be root-bound. Plants with healthy roots are more likely to establish and grow well once transplanted.

7. Ask for Assistance: Don't hesitate to ask store employees for help or advice when selecting plants. While they might not be experts on every plant type, they can often provide general information and guidance on common gardening questions.

8. Avoid Invasive Species: Be cautious when selecting plants, especially if you live in an area where certain species are considered invasive. Many plants can spread quickly in one area but be perfectly well-behaved in another. Check with local gardening resources or extension offices to identify invasive species in your region and avoid purchasing them.

By following these tips, you can ensure a successful plant shopping experience at big box retailers, bringing home healthy and vibrant traditional garden staples that will enhance the beauty of your garden or indoor space.


Deciding where to buy plants is a personal choice that depends on your specific gardening needs and preferences. Specialty nurseries offer a wealth of expertise, unique selections, and well-cared-for plants, albeit at higher prices. On the other hand, big box retail stores provide convenience, affordability, and a more general range of plants but may lack the specialized knowledge and rare varieties. Ultimately, a successful plant purchase boils down to what you value most in your gardening journey. If you're seeking unique and rare plants and are willing to invest more, specialty nurseries are the way to go. However, if budget-friendly options and convenience are your top priorities, big box retail stores will likely be more suitable for your plant shopping needs. Whichever route you choose, with proper care and attention, your plants will flourish and bring you joy for years to come. Happy gardening!

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