Buying Plants Online Checklist

Buying plants online checklist

Last Updated on December 31, 2023

Buying Plants Online Checklist

Buying trees or shrubs online can be exciting.  You’ve got so many more choices than you could ever imagine at a local garden center. But that can also be overwhelming. I call it the paralysis of analysis. There are so many choices that you can’t make a decision! Then there’s the question of who to buy from.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when making your decision on what to buy and where. If you can’t find answers to your questions on a nursery website, call them!  I strongly encourage everyone to call the online nursery. 

Here are some things you should keep in mind as you make your decision about what to buy.

Avoid disappointment: Northern nursery plants take a little longer to flush out & start growing simply because winter lingers a bit longer say in Michigan or Wisconsin. If you’re in the south, don’t expect a tree or shrub coming from up north to be as full as what you would find locally.  It’s not a deal breaker, just slightly lower your expectations.

Moving to a different climate:  I got a job moving from near Buffalo, NY to Orlando, FL many years ago. That first summer was brutal. Imagine how a tree or shrub that grew up in the upper Midwest will adjust to southern heat & humidity. And the opposite is also important to understand. You may not want to order trees & shrubs grown in the southeast in fall if you live in the northeast or upper Midwest.  

Approximately how old is the plant? This is a tough one to get answered. A few online nurseries are starting to list age, especially fruit trees. Age is more important than height. People calling about the height of a particular tree or shrub was by far the most common question when I worked at online nurseries.

Poor rootsWhat does height or container size really tell you? I ordered a 3-gallon container rose a few years back. It arrived about 6 inches tall with mostly dirt, and not a lot of roots. It had recently been transplanted from a smaller container into a larger pot and they didn’t give it enough time for the roots to grow before they were selling these roses. They needed at least 3 more months, if not longer before they should have been offered for sale.

So, would you prefer a tall, barely branching 4-5 foot tree with a small root system or an older tree that is fuller, has a stronger root system but may not be as tall.

When will the plants ship? If you’re ordering more than one variety, will your entire order ship at the same time?  Some sites keep it vague (ships spring), while others give you a range (7 to 10 days). Others claim your order will ship the next business day. Just know that March through May is their craziest time of the year. Call them and ask if they are experiencing any shipping delays for your products. It’s better to know upfront if there might be delays to avoid disappointment.

I hope this helps. Whether you’re spending $20 or $2,000 you need to be comfortable with what you’re buying, where you’re planting it, and who you’re buying from. 

Buying Plants Online Frequently Asked Questions

What is my grow zone?

View the USDA Hardiness Zone Map at You will find grow zone maps for every state.

What is the grow zone range of the plants I’m looking to buy?

Make sure the grow zone you’re in is within the recommended range for the plants you’re going to buy.

What are the sun requirements?

Afternoon sun, especially in summer, puts a lot more stress on plants than morning sun.

What is my soil like?

You can get it tested for free. Learn more here. Is your soil hard packed clay, sandy or normal?

Does the soil in your planting area stay wet or dry?

Too much of one or the other might alter what you should be planting.

How long & wide is your planting area?

Helps determine how many plants you need.

How easily can you water your new plants?

I’ve been guilty of not watering as much because it was just out of the reach of my hose. Not watering regularly for new plantings is risky.

What size plant should I get?

Do you want results sooner or can you wait a few years? Also, keep in mind a larger root mass will take longer to get established in the new plating hole. It could take 2 or 3 times longer than a smaller size root system to get established for new growth to emerge.

What is the growth rate?

Fast, medium or slow. If it’s fast, maybe consider a smaller size.

Are you buying potted or bare root?

Just make sure you are buying what you want. Some sites are coming up with fancy names to mask that they are shipping you a dormant bare root tree or shrub. If you’re not sure, call them! There's a reason why some prices seem so low.

Where will the plant(s) ship from?

Not all online nurseries ship plants where they are located. If you’re in the southeast and your plants are coming from California, they will spend 3 to 5 days in a dark box, in a shipping truck. Depending on the time of year, that could end badly. There are also issues to be aware of if you are ordering either early in spring or later in fall.

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About the author:

Doug Hall