How to select the best plants when shopping at a nursery

GROWINGAGREENERWORLD.COMJune 12, 2014 

Looks can be deceiving, even at nurseries and garden centers. When it comes to plant buying, some of the best looking can be just the ones you don't want to bring home. True, it's hard to walk away from those plants in full bloom or the biggest shrub of the lot. But over the years, I've learned some important buying tips that help me resist the urge. The results have been a much healthier and more productive garden.

Allow me to let you in on a little industry secret. Plant growers and retailers know most of us cannot overcome the compelling urge to purchase plants in full bloom. In defense of the industry though, it's very hard to sell a nonblooming flowering plant to most retail consumers. However, plants already in flower require a lot of energy to sustain those blooms, robbing valuable resources needed to look their best in your garden. Yes, the nursery wants plants at their peak of color, but so do you, but not until they're planted and well established in your garden. By the time that happens, the blooms that sold you at the nursery are long gone.

BUYING TIPS FROM PROS

Over the years, much of my fortune, or lack of it, has gone to plant buying. I've purchased countless plants to feed my personal obsession as well as for clients through my design and consulting practice. Fortunately, I've had many years and mentors to sharpen my plant buying saw. Here are some of the most important considerations to make sure you get the best results.

BUY PLANTS WITH THE FEWEST BLOOMS

Taking this approach allows you time to get the plants in the ground and settled in first. If you're really brave, pinch off the flower blooms completely before you plant them. They'll grow back soon enough and you'll have a more established plant that has the staying power to look even better.

CHECK THE ROOTS

Don't be afraid to pull plants from their container while at the nursery. Sure you'll get some funny looks from some, but knowledgeable employees will know exactly what you are doing. This is especially important for woody ornamentals, trees and shrubs. Healthy plants typically have roots that are light in color. Stay clear of plants that have dark roots or ones that have roots that have formed a tight spiral around the inside of the container. These plants are pot bound and often have a difficult time establishing in the landscape. A noticeable odor coming from the roots is a sign of root rot. These conditions can't be detected without removing the plant from its container.

INSPECT EACH PLANT FOR SIGNS OF PESTS

Many pests first make their way into your garden hitchhiking on the plants you bring home from the nursery. Pests usually hide on the underside of the leaves. Before you buy, look closely. Clues to their presence include leaf stippling, small black flecks or sticky residue on leaves, especially on the underside.

AVOID PURCHASING PLANTS THAT APPEAR TO BE LEGGY OR STRETCHED.

Your goal for great looking plants that will thrive in your garden is to purchase those that don't exhibit any apparent signs of stress. Plants that are leggy or appear stretched have been growing in light that was insufficient for their needs. Although they may recover, their growing conditions have been less than ideal. Look for full, compact alternatives.

PASS ON BUYING ANY PLANTS WITH FOLIAGE THAT IS ABNORMALLY LIGHT

It may be an indication that it was over or under watered. Ironically, these extremes exhibit similar symptoms adding unnecessary stress on the plant. Either case is undesirable.

DON'T BRING HOME PLANTS WITH ANY SIGNS OF DISEASE

A great deal from the markdown shelf is never a good reason to bring a potentially diseased plant into your garden. As an extra measure of protection, purchase plant varieties that are disease resistant. These are especially common with vegetable plant varieties. Although "resistance" does not ensure that plants will be immune from a particular disease, it does indicate the plant displays genetic characteristics that minimize the impact of certain specified risks.

Joe Lamp'l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television.

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