I was off in San Antonio this last week to visit the grandchildren. While there I made a visit to a nearby nursery. Getting out of town to see new things is always refreshing., even if it is just a trip to central Texas. My younger brother always used to say that while on vacation one should always save a little time to have your hair cut at a local barber. In his view it was a quick way to get insight into and to experience the feel of a community. A woman may not dare to have a stranger cut her hair, but it is something a man could easily brave. Fellows, you might want to try this sometime.
If time permits gardeners should always visit the local nursery when out and about. Parks and public gardens, of course, should be visited, but by all means visit a retail nursery. You will get a real insight into the gardening heartbeat of the community. I’ve been in retail nurseries all over the place, from here to yon! It is always fun.
When visiting nurseries there are a few thing to keep in mind. Avoid chain store nurseries. You know the ones….big box stores that have a nursery connected to them. Big box stores have buyers that purchase plants from wholesale nurseries far and wide. And they often fill their stores with plants that are totally unsuitable for and unrelated to the local area; as a result, you will get a kind of homogenized view of national gardening taste, rather than any local flavor. Find a “mom and pop” nursery, if you can!
If you are traveling out of the country make a special effort to visit a nursery; but, of course, you will not be able to bring plant material home. Custom officials will confiscate any plant material that they catch you trying to sneak into the country. There are good reasons for this. Exotic pests are a real problem all over the world. Plant diseases, invasive plants, foreign insects can have a devastating impact on ecosystems. Decades ago I applied for and received an import permit, but I never actually used it. The whole process is much too involved, and you have to quarantine any plants brought into the country and submit to spot inspections by government officials. So, when you’re out of the country the best you can do is buy seed packets at a nursery. Even then, there’s a risk they will be confiscated at our border. Clearly, when you visit a foreign nursery, it is all about fun and learning, not about plant acquisition.
I was in a retail nursery once in Santorini, Greece. I was surprised to find that the only tomatoes plants they sold were little cherry tomatoes. Now, why is that? Well, water is extremely valuable on the island and rain is scarce. Cherry tomatoes are much closer to the original species tomato plant that we have now much hybridized. Near species cultivars are exactly what they grow on Santorini. A tomato that needs little water to produce a crop. Here in East Texas, buy cherry tomatoes. They are much easier to grow than the hybrid versions. This is something you learn by visiting a nursery on a hot and dry Greek island.
Since there is not much to buy in the way of plants in foreign nurseries, this is how the modern iPhone comes in handy. You can make notes of all you see and touch by merely snapping photos of plant tags. When you get home, you can look up the plants to see if they might be of use in our gardens. The plant tags that have scientific names on them are the most valuable because scientific names are consistent no matter what country you are in. I also like looking around at the hard goods nurseries sell: the kinds of insecticides they stock, the digging tools, the cutting shears, the style of clay pots. In many countries there will be small agricultural tractors, tillers and spraying rigs. All fascinating to any gardener.
Now, back to San Antonio. It is very different from East Texas, so it is refreshing and fun to visit their nurseries. The first thing you’ll notice when you visit a San Antonio nursery is that there are plenty of citrus trees for sale. Oh, how I wish we could grow what they grow, but our winter can get far too cold. The nursery was full of Texas Mountain Laurels (Sophora secundiflora) as well. We can grow these here in East Texas, but they have been iconic in San Antonio landscapes for years. Dry gardens are popular in the Alamo city; so, of course, they like cactus. I took photographs of several that I might try in a dry part of my garden, but buying cactus is an ‘iffy” proposition. Some are cold hardy in San Antonio but will not be in Nacogdoches. Still, it was fun to look.
When you visit a nursery in another part of the country and buy a plant, really think about it. You should read tags carefully and ask questions of the nurseryman. Nurserymen are always enjoyable to talk to and are usually eager to discuss the plants that are their region’s favorites. And since you probably have a smart phone with you, use it. If you’re tempted to buy a lilac tree (Syringa vulgaris) at some nursery in Chicago, your smart phone will tell you not to do it. The lilac will not grow in the hot, sultry and humid South. You’ll be tempted to try; they are wonderful.
Each region has its horticultural treasures. That’s one of the things you’ll learn when you visit nurseries. Some of those treasures can be transported back to your home, but some of them can’t. One way or another, visiting nurseries when you’re out traveling is a lot of fun. Make it a habit.