UNITED STATES – The differences between nurseries and garden centers within big box type home improvement centers should be more obvious. Contrary to all the fancy marketing, a big box garden center really is just another of many departments within a larger home improvement center. A good nursery specializes in plants, and only plants. A sales representative in a big box store might have been selling paint or refrigerators last week. A nurseryman in a real nursery works regularly and more exclusively with horticulture.

It is probably safe and most likely significantly less expensive to obtain common and resilient plants from big box garden centers. Crape myrtles (ick!), oleanders, pittosporums, junipers and photinias seem to be healthy regardless of their respective origins. However, more unusual varieties of more unusual plants, or plants that are likely to be damaged by a bit of neglect, are either unavailable or likely to be of inferior quality in big box garden centers. Only the most common and resilient cultivars (varieties) of rhododendrons, flowering cherries, flowering dogwoods and fuchsias are marketed. If they get damaged, the damage may not be noticed by the possibly undiscriminating staff.

Nurseries are not only able to maintain their stock better, but can maintain a much more extensive selection of different types of plants. The more finicky types of ferns, columbines, azaleas and Japanese maples are no problem. Experienced horticulturists are familiar with the plants that they work with, and can make recommendations for those who might need help with selection. The prices are often more expensive, but are justifiable to those wanting specific plants that can not be found elsewhere.

A few wholesale nurseries that procure nursery stock for the landscape industry are open to the public for retail. Their retail (not wholesale) prices can be comparable to those of big box garden centers. The selection is different, which means that they lack many plants, but have a few others that the big box garden centers lack. They have plenty of horticultural expertise, but not much sales staff.

Highlight: Columbine

Colorado must really like blue. Not only is the state tree the Colorado blue spruce, but the state flower is the Colorado blue columbine, Aquilegia caerulea. However, the flowers are not always blue, and in fact, are often white or various shades of pink or soft yellow, or a combination of two colors. The many other specie and hybrids of columbine add even more shades and combinations of richer shades of blue, red, yellow, orange and purple. The distinctively lacy foliage is somewhat bluish. A few varieties have chartreuse foliage.

Although potentially perennial, most columbine do not reliable regenerate after winter dormancy, so are instead grown as spring and summer annuals. Flowers are not as abundant as those of other annuals, but are interesting close up, and very attractive to hummingbirds. Mature plants stand about a foot tall, so work nicely in pots surrounded by lower and more colorful annuals like lobelia and alyssum. Columbine prefers partial shade and rich soil. Plants in full sun tend to be more compact and seem to be a bit faded. Incidentally, some parts of the plants are toxic. Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at lghorticulture@aol.com.