What are the best nurseries?

What makes a nursery or garden center a favorite with gardeners.

When I read Rae Spencer-Jones's article in the Telegraph about Britain's 25 best nurseries, I wondered about a similar list for the United States.

Would it be possible to come to some sort of an agreement on the top garden centers in a country that's so large?  

When I poked around on the Web, I found that some Americans had come up with lists for local areas: San Deigo, Boston, and Atlanta, for example. But they didn't always tell me why a particular nursery was on the list, which was frustrating.

So I began to think about what I look for in a nursery. First on the list is what plants it offers.

My favorites are perennials. I love color and like to grow the latest cultivars. I buy some shrubs and vines and look for ones that not only fit my landscape but are either new or have some quality that's unusual. (That's partially because I usually end up writing about what's in my yard and the latest is always "news.")

In the spring, I buy vegetable and herb seedlings. Unless I've just moved, I buy far fewer trees.

So I look for selection: Does this nursery sell the type of plants I want to grow? Obviously, someone who's a peony collector, grows as many heirloom tomatoes as possible, or is in the process of planting an herb garden may prefer a different nursery than I.

Ms. Rae-Jones limited her list to perennials, exotics, bulbs, and rare or specialist plants. It's pretty much for experienced gardeners.

I think that beginners look for different things in a garden center. They often don't know what plants they want or need. They require plenty of advice and hand-holding, as well as a selection of tried-and-true plants.

But good service matters to all gardeners, as does having sufficient knowledgeable personnel on hand to answer questions. And -- one big must -- the nursery has to keep the plants in good shape so we won't have problems when we take them home.

To me, price matters, too. It's not my top consideration, though, or anywhere near it.

What do you look for in a mail-order nursery?

I like complete descriptions in a catalog or online listings. I want to know everything that will tell me if this plant is likely to succeed in my region and my yard. I expect good service and quick shipping, too.

Probably most important is how they pack, because that determines what sort of shape the plants are in when they arrive on my doorstep.

What qualities move your favorite nursery to the top of the list? If a new neighbor, or a new plant enthusiast, asked you to recommend five nurseries, which companies would be on your list, and why?

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