Picking, Preparing and Planting the Perfect Plant

Mother’s Day, our official “safe to plant” date, is right around the corner. And with temps getting warmer and the sun getting brighter people are itching to PLANT something. So how do you figure out what, where and how to plant?


First you will need to identify the conditions in your outdoor space. Do you have full sun or full shade? Does your space get windy? Some city gardens are trapped in a “wind tunnel” between buildings. Also, how big is the area where the plant will be placed?

When you get to the garden center look at the plant tag. It will tell you what kind of conditions the plant prefers and also how big it will eventually get… make sure to take note of this part as a ‘cute’ 1 foot round shrub can mature into a 7 foot beast!

City gardens have unique growing environments therefore knowing the plants USDA Hardiness Zone (Jersey City is BOTH 7B and 7A depending on which zip code you live in), won’t always be enough.

So take a walk! Look around the neighborhood at what is growing well. Get up on those tippy toes and take a peak into peoples spaces. Look at what is flourishing in front gardens, side gardens, and window boxes. And plan to spend some time in those Jersey City parks. Hamilton, Lincoln, Riverview, and Van Vorst are few of our local treasures. Some of these parks even have plant markers for easy identification. If they don’t have a marker, snap a picture and Google it.

Decide if you are planting annuals and/or perennials. Annuals are those colorful often-profuse bloomers that you see only through the spring summer and fall. They add a huge amount of drama for only a little bit of time. An annual completes its growing cycle (seed-to-flower which in turn makes seeds) in one season. It lives a very life, and its job during that time is to make seeds in order to foster in the next generation. Therefore, the more you “dead-head” or pop off the spent blooms, the more profuse the blooming of that particular annual will be. If you let the flower head “go to seed,” it won’t have much incentive to make tons of blooms, but you will be able to harvest some seeds for next season. Perennials are plants that come back season after season. They are the “backbone” of a garden. And include not only herbaceous plants but also shrubs and trees.


Your local garden center is another great resource when it comes to choosing the right plant. These guys know what does well and what doesn’t. When you can try to find out the dates of the next plant shipment at your local gardening place (the staff can usually give you an approximate date) then you can go back and select from plants that have not been there long that aren’t picked though or subject to as much damage or bug infestations. We are lucky to have several garden centers located right here in Jersey City. The following are a few of my regular “haunts”:

14th Street Garden Center: 793 Jersey Ave., Jersey City, 14thstreetgardencenter.com

The owners know their plants and are really friendly! 14th Street has excellent planters, specialty perennials, shrubs and trees.

Hudson Farmers Market: 3437 Kennedy Blvd., Jersey City, hudsonfarmersmarket.com

This is a Heights institution and again they know their stuff and their city. They have some great veggies and lots of annuals.

440 Nursery and Greenhouse: State Rt 440 & Clarke Ave., Jersey City

This garden center has a real greenhouse so their veggies, herbs and annuals are in great shape.

Home Depot: Route 440 and Holland Tunnel (roof), Jersey City, homedepot.com

The NJ Home Depots use mostly local plant growers. They also hire the plant growers to take care of their plants onsite, which is good for everyone.

Lowes: Route 440, Jersey City, lowes.com

Lowes has some great annuals and lately seems to have some cute outdoor furniture.

Before I was a professional gardener, I was working in a theatre out in Budd Lake, NJ. The company manager told me about how in that part of Jersey, gardeners visit and buy plants directly from the greenhouse growers! My favorite is Godlewsky’s Farm and Greenhouses (godlewskyfarms.com) in Great Meadows, NJ. One year I even talked my husband into renting a U-Haul, driving out there and packing it with plants! The plants at these locations are in PRIME condition. They are often HALF the price of the plants at local retailers. And it’s insanely awesome to walk through 42+ greenhouses full of beautiful plants!


It’s a beautiful warm sunny day… the perfect day to go to the garden center, right? Wrong! Everyone is thinking the same thing. And chances are the shop will be packed, pickings will be slim and the staff will be too busy to chat. Instead wait for a dreary rainy day. I promise you, you will get much more attention from both the staff and the plants.


Some people feel uncomfortable asking questions at a garden center. Professionals offer a service where you can hire us to plant shop with you. But you don’t have to hire a professional. Chances are you have a friend, family member, neighbor or coworker with a “green thumb.” And I’m betting they can be bribed into spending an afternoon at a garden center for the price of a cup of coffee! Also, don’t forget your smart phone for researching plants on the spot.

Sickly Foliage vs Healthy Foliage

Sickly Foliage vs Healthy Foliage

Dry Root Bound vs Moist Healthy “Loose” Roots

Dry Root Bound vs Moist Healthy “Loose” Roots

Here’s our handy reference chart:

What to Look at Healthy Sickly
Foliage (leaves) Full (lots of smaller new foliage); lush; good, strong color (rich and bright) Brown; burnt or crumbling; wilting, “mushy” to the touch; curling leaves; blotches, spots (that are not characteristic of the plant) or insects
Flowers Lots of buds; not too many flowers (although visually tempting, this indicates that the plant is putting a lot of energy into producing flowers when you want the plant to be focusing on creating a strong root system) Too many flowers or too few flowers. I try to look for a plant with slightly more flower “buds” than open flowers. And more foliage than buds and flowers combined…
Roots (pull the plant out of the container, turn upside down and look at roots) Bright white in color; easily “open” up by gently “teasing” them with your fingers (in other words the roots pull out and away from the root ball with little effort) Sickly smell; mushy; lots of thick roots coming out the holes at the bottom of the container; roots encircled tightly around the plant (so that the plant still looks like it’s in the container even though you have pulled it out)
Soil Dark and Moist Light/ faded and DRY or Soggy


Water the container before planting: So that the root ball is moist and malleable. It helps to get the plant to fit into the pot and also to give the roots the best chance of “settling in” as they are not “searching” for water the minute they are potted.

  • Arrange your planting bed by placing the plants while still in their containers.
  • Dig your hole: As deep as the base of the plant (where the stem meets the soil) and slightly wider than the plants container.
  • Pull the plant gently out of the container: It’s helpful to hit the side of the container and pat the bottom holding it on it’s side so it slides out without damaging the plant.
  • “Tease” the roots: If “root bound” cut the root ball in several places with a sharp knife. Root bound is when the root ball (the mass of dirt and roots inside the container), is wrapped around itself. This is often due to the plant having been in the container for too long and the roots having no where else to go as they grow but around and around themselves and in effect strangling the plant.
  • Push the soil back in and around the plant.
  • “Heel” the plant in: For small plants use your hands and press down on the soil firmly and for large plants use your feet and walk around the plant, pressing on the soil.
  • WATER! Make sure to aim your hose, or watering can at the soil and not the foliage.


Water slowly so the water gets absorbed by the soil.  In the morning is best, although the “worst” time to water is never! I actually find that 99% of the time people under water. The only time I have found overwatering to be a problem is when people insist on using plant saucers on outdoor planters and/or when there is no drainage hole at the bottom. If it starts to pool, walk away and water another plant and go back when it has drained. As far as containers go, you know you have watered enough when you see water coming out of the bottom of the container. Also you know it’s time to water when you stick your finger in the soil and it’s dry. Rain will not be sufficient for lawns or containers (as most of the water lands on the foliage and never gets to the soil- where it needs to be). In the ground plantings, especially shrubs and trees, need a lot of watering in the first few months after planting. My rule of thumb is stand with the hose at soil level of each shrub and water for a count of 30-60 seconds and do this every 1-2 days for the first 2 months (every day if hot).

Sit back and enjoy your garden!

© Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Photos by Emma Lam © Harmony Media, NJ. Catherine Hecht and Jim DeAngelis contributed to this article.

Emma Lam

is the owner of A Small Green Space, a full service urban landscape design, installation and maintenance firm based in Jersey City. From stage actress to horticulturalist, she brings a unique flair to gardening. She lives in Jersey City with her husband, daughter and playful hound dog.