When I encountered this masterwort (Astrantia major ‘Roma’) in a greenhouse several years ago, I wasn’t familiar with it. The plant tag told me it was cold hardy in Zones 4-7, likes part shade, and tolerates wet soil. Sold!

This is an exhilarating time of year as we visit garden centers and stroll the smorgasbord of fresh new plant offerings. The winter has been long, and its recent return visit, while discouraging, has us chomping at the bit even more, to just get out there and dig in the dirt.

When we choose plants to purchase, the garden centers help us out a bit in the perennial department by only carrying those plants that are hardy to our USDA zone. The stores that have a one-year plant guarantee don’t really want plants coming back to them dead the following year. There will be more tender plants for sale, but those are usually house plants or annuals.

According to the latest USDA plant maps, we are in Zone 6, specifically Zone 6a. While it’s true that the climate is gradually warming, which precipitated the updated map, there’s a sliver of Zone 5b snaking its way through part of Paulding County. Based on past experience, I’m sticking with the 5b, unless I’m feeling adventurous and reckless.

Hardiness zone is just one bit of information about a plant that is listed on its identification tag. It’s the first thing I look at because if it’s not cold hardy to my area, I’m going to be buying it every year. It won’t survive our winters. Zone 6a indicates that the plant has been tested and has survived at temperatures as low as -10°F. Zone 5b means hardiness tested to -15°F.

There are other things to be taken into consideration though, besides temperature. Your soil type can influence survivability, too. Some plants are more suited to a particular soil pH – acidic, neutral, or alkaline. For example, blueberries do much better in acidic soil. If you want healthy blueberry plants, but you have alkaline soil (our garden does), you can buy a soil amendment to apply regularly to push the pH in a more acidic direction.

Drainage is another factor to consider. Plant tags will often indicate whether the plant grows best in soil with good drainage (this is most plants, actually) or whether it can grow in areas that tend to stay wet. This is definitely a consideration with our heavy clay soil.

Light exposure is usually listed on the tag. Some plants require full sun, which is at least six hours of direct sun per day, while others require full shade, to prevent burning of the leaves. Many plants can do well in a mix of those conditions, although afternoon sun may be too harsh for some.

Plant tags also can give you an idea of how large the mature and established plant could be. This is helpful for siting your plantings. It may look small in the pot, but be sure to see how large the plant will be when it’s fully grown and plant accordingly. If the plant has any special needs, those may be indicated in a description on the plant tag too.

If the plant you’re considering buying doesn’t have a detailed plant identification tag, be sure to consult with a store employee. You can always google it, but the best source of information about a particular plant can be the garden center employee. You’re much more likely to receive solid advice from an independent garden center (IGC) rather than a big box store.

Plants purchased at an IGC are also generally healthier plants since they’ve been cared for by knowledgeable staff, and they are a business which stands to lose more if the customer isn’t happy. Big box stores almost always are not the monetary losers when a customer brings back a plant on a warranty claim. The grower usually bears that loss, in spite of the care (or lack of it) that the plant receives once it reaches the big box store.

Don’t ignore the information that may be available to you on a plant’s tag. No matter how pretty the plant may be, if it isn’t suited for your garden, you won’t end up being a happy gardener.