I can't hide my disappointment at my local nurseries. I often lament the fact that the range of cheap plaster ornaments made in China is greater than the variety of vegetable seeds, that the sheer number of sweets available outweighs the diversity of compost or that the cafes have more people in them than the plant sections. Untempted by the masses of the small variety of generic plants they have on offer that week, I often find myself heading straight to the discounted section to see if there's anything I can save with a little bit of love. But lately I've been overwhelmed by just how much goes into this section and the terrible condition of the plants: they've been starved, dehydrated, restricted and badly hacked at so that they continue to entice by flowering repeatedly in their tiny vessels to the detriment of the plant itself. I used to love a trip to any of my local nurseries but the more I know about plants, the less impressed I am.

These days I find myself ordering specific plants from a variety of online catalogues. Or, if I'm after something very specific because of situation or soil I'm working with, I will try to find a specialist nursery that is relatively local. So when I wanted a flowering, evergreen climber for a heavily shaded, north-facing fence on heavy clay, I did a bit of research and found some possible solutions available at Langthorn's Plantery. I was further encouraged to find some very old tags from the same nursery around a variety of plants already in the garden that were doing well.

Evergreens are great for nesting birds and the flowers are great for my bees. Ivy, for example, is a vital late-season food for my bees as well as for the wasps and flies. These lovely flowers then turn into berries which are a great source of food for the birds in the winter.

I promised myself that if I finished my PhD corrections then I could treat myself to an afternoon at the nursery. So once I sent my corrections off to my examainers, I hopped in the car and drove to Essex. And what a beautiful nursery it is! I found my climbers easily: the self-clinging climbing hydrangeas, Pileostegia viburnoides and Hydrangea anomala. The former is evergreen and flowers in both summer and autumn, the latter flowers in summer but loses its leaves in the winter. I then spent hours walking up and down the aisles, filling my trolley with goodies.

My partner and I both really like the winter garden at Anglesea Abbey. Our winter garden is brilliant in terms of structure but not so great in terms of colour, excepting the greens and yellows of the conifers. So into the trolley went 3 different types of coloured-stemmed cornus to compliment the conifers and another dogwood that I brought from our small garden in Cambridge. I also found a flowering cornus that likes shade so I popped that into the trolley, despite its rather haggard look, for the shade garden.

Next on my list were Solidago (goldenrods). I have been building up my prairie-ish gravel garden at the front of the house but was after something with a little more height than the heleniums and rudbeckia to complement the frankly hapahazard mix of ornamental grasses that were thrown in when we moved. I had spotted some goldenrods at Beth Chatto's garden in August and was a bit enchanted with them. So I picked a couple of different varieties, hoping that maybe one would stick in my deceptively wet and clay-ey gravel hotbed. To be continued.

My very favourite purchase by far was one I had not planned: Pulmonaria Majeste. It just goes to show that my impulse-purchase mechanism is still intact. In fact, the variety of shade-loving plants on sale was astounding and I've since trebled the size of my shade garden so that I can make the most of the variety on offer, so it was literally inspirational. From the shade section I also picked up a Mahonia eurybracteata Soft Caress, whose foligae I fell in love with although was tempted to forgo due to the outrageously high price tag attached, and a white wood sorrel (Oxalis articulata Alba) which has since looked rather stick-like due to the flowers and leaves being eaten.

My final impulse purchases were my favourite plants, the salvias. In the very sandy soil and in the enormous number of pots I used to have in our central Cambridge house, my saliva collection was thriving. On the heavy clay here in South Cambridgshire, it is looking very sad. The salvias really struggled in the gravel garden out the front. Those in pots have done OK but in such a large garden with so much room, a mass of pots seems a waste of water and compost. So I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that I was just going to have to find a new favourite plant. But then I saw the beautiful blue flower of Salvia uliginosa Ballon Azul, with its splayed-starred leaf clusters, and I just had to have it. I've since put it in one of the island beds, in front of a lime-green conifer for a fantastic contrast, and it's doing OK. I should have cut its flowers off to encourage root growth but they were so beautiful and have added some much-needed calm and texture to a rather fussy border. I also picked up another blue salvia with lovely scented, glacous, grey leaves: Salvia chamaeryoides. I took cuttings from this and potted it on as I need to think carefully about where I can make full use of its greys and blues without sacraficing the plant.

I was also tempted by a eucalyptus but was talked out of it by one of the staff who assured me it would grow to its intended 20m, no matter what I wanted. I was also after a winter or an early-flowering clematis for the bees and will go back in early spring to take another look at their large clematis range. On this visit, they had mostly the summer-flowering types.

If you are after something special, or just need some inspiration from some really lovely plants, I can't recommend Langthorn's Plantery enough.