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What size plant to buy? An observation of shrubs

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Do you ever wonder what size plant you should buy? Is that bigger plant really work twice the price of a smaller plant?

I have no clear position on this. Years ago when I was first starting this garden I got very involved in a plant co-op that I purchased dozens (or maybe hundreds) of plant liners through. It allowed me to buy a lot of plants that I never could have afforded, but they were a lot of work. Some of those plants are now important features in my garden but many others didn’t receive the nurturing they needed and failed.

I remember having a discussion about the cost of plants with a gardener many decades my senior once. She quipped that she was too old to buy small plants. 

Two sizes of Gatsby Gal hydrangea

But the point is well taken: When you buy a bigger plant, you’re buying time. And you’re not just buying the time it took to grow a plant to that size, you’re buying the initial pruning and training of it (in the case of some trees and shrubs). You’re also buying the time you won’t have to spend fawning over it when you bring it home. All plants need water and care to get established, but a plant with a bigger root system will be far better off tolerating a little bit of neglect.

On the other hand, sometimes smaller plants adapt better to a new home and they will catch up with that bigger plant at some point. Just how long that will take depends on the plant and the difference age and size, but I have several spireas that started in quart-size pots just four or so years ago that I would say are now fully grown.

Gatsby Gal bloom

It’s an interesting conundrum, and now I’m undertaking a little observation (this is hardly science-based so I’m going to avoid calling it an experiment) with Proven Winners. They sent me two of the same shrub—the beautiful oakleaf hydrangea called Gatsby Gal—in two different sizes. The larger plant is in what they call an 8-inch jumbo pot, which is, by my eye, bigger than a gallon container and not quite as big as a two-gallon container. It sells for $37.99 from Garden Crossings (I did not price it locally). The smaller size is a quart pot, which isn’t much bigger than the pots you buy annuals in. It sells for $20.99. 

Gatsby Gal hydrangea
The larger of the two is offset from the Picea at the front of that bed.
two Gatsby Gal hydrangeas
The smaller shrub in the foreground with the larger in the back (looking perpendicular down the bed).

I planted them in the same area of the garden, about 8 feet apart—they get about 5 to 6 feet tall and wide—and hooked them up to the nearby drip line already running to the hornbeams. They are planted in part sun, getting probably six hours a day or so. This isn’t a test to treat them exactly the same way; the goal is to have them both survive and thrive. I’m expecting the smaller plant to need a little more tending. 

I’ll keep an eye on these two shrubs over the next few years and keep you informed as to how they grow over the next few years. 

oak leaf hydrangea

What would you like to know? Search, or jump to categories below. 

14 Responses

  1. I like the process of watching plants grow. I guess I am not to the age of not having that time. I would purchase a larger plant if I needed immediate impact. I have always thought the opposite about plant size nurturing needs. The larger plant is used to constant watering and perfect soil conditions. The smaller hasn’t gotten used to that and adapts easier to my poor soil. ha… So it goes.

  2. I put in eight Miss Ruby butterfly bushes this June and bought the small pots from Proven Winners. Couldn’t be happier! They started at three inches and are already over two-feet-tall and blooming like crazy. For slow to moderate growers I don’t mind paying for the bigger pots, especially if it is in a high-traffic area.

  3. I still buy things in small sizes but more often that is because that is the only size I can find. With shrubs these days, I want them big enough to make at least a modest impact. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve stepped on a tiny shrub that I’d forgotten about.

  4. This is always an interesting situation. We are lucky enough that our “local” Destination Garden Center always has multiple sizes (even 3 or 4) of every shrub they carry. My general rule is buy big when it is a specimen or one-of plant. When one needs 5 or more (like installing a hedge, like we have done on a number of occasions) we go small so that I don’t do the thing where I skimp on the proper number of shrubs to fill the space because I can see the tally at the register going higher and higher, faster and faster.

  5. I paid to have a six larger Rose of Sharon shrubs put in a couple of years ago. They were beautiful and did well. Last spring’s freeze/thaw in southeastern WI killed them all! The financial investment of larger plants that don’t make it hursts….

  6. I’ve read that this has a big impact on transplanted trees, where the root ball can sometimes be quite a bit smaller than the volume of what’s above ground for larger transplants. I wish I saved the journal article that I read earlier this year, but the authors showed that smaller transplanted trees became larger than the originally larger transplanted trees after about 5-10 years. Maybe the period it takes for the smaller plant to overtake the larger one will be shorter for shrubs – it’ll be interesting to see what happens!

      1. Hi Erin,

        I looked and couldn’t find which youtube video showed the progression of the two hydrangeas. Can you put a link?

        Thanks!
        Mohini

  7. Hi Erin,
    I just subscribed to your YouTube site but I don’t see the update to the hydrangeas planting of different sizes. Can you post the link?

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