by Erin Marissa Russell
Going to your local garden center and want to make sure that the plants you choose are healthy? When you’re knee deep in blooms and foliage at your local plant nursery or gardening center, every plant you decide to bring home presents you with the challenge of choosing which will be yours. Hint: The best choice isn’t the prettiest plant with the most blossoms.
Of course, you want to make sure the plants you spend your hard-earned money on and do the work of planting in your garden are the strongest and most long-lasting they can be. But you may be wondering just how you can tell if a plant is healthy while you’re shopping. Gardening Channel has you covered with this checklist of things to look for when you’re buying plants so you can shop smart and end up with a beautiful, healthy garden.
Of course, at times you may decide to settle for a plant that’s less than thriving because it’s been discounted or is the best available plant of a variety you really want. Most of the time, though, you’ll want to choose the strongest and hardiest options a store offers. Healthy plants will require less care and upkeep from you since you won’t need to address illness or pest infestation. They’ll also make themselves at home in your garden quicker, giving them more time to grow and to bear fruit or vegetables for you. Taking the time while you shop to run down this checklist will save you lots of time and hassle later in the growing season.
Choose plants with flourishing foliage.
The most obvious indication of a plant’s health is evident in its foliage. That means the first thing you should look over when you’re considering prospective plants are the leaves. There’s a lot a plant’s leaves can tell you about the plant’s overall health.
The color of the leaves should be even, bright, and vivid. Leaves that seem dried out or browned indicate insufficient water. Mushy or yellowed leaves are a sign of the opposite—overwatering. Foliage that droops or wilts can indicate a plant that’s shocked or stressed, whether from being moved, going through a transplanting, or from some other upheaval in conditions, and stressed plants don’t always bounce back. It can take up to a month for a plant to return to a healthy state once it’s in your garden at home.
If the leaves look good, check the plant’s stem for signs of good health.
Once you’ve checked the leaves and a plant has that stamp of approval, move on to examining the stem. Thick or woody stems should have a smooth surface without cracks or other markings that indicate healing. The site of a previous injury can remain vulnerable to insects or infection.
Avoid plants that show these telltale signs of disease and pests.
The last thing you want is to bring home an epidemic or infestation along with your new purchases. That’s why it’s important to look over each new arrival, plant and container, to be sure they don’t show any signs of disease or symptoms of insect infestation. Don’t forget to look at the soil and the undersides of the leaves. Red flags to look for include holes in foliage, wounds, nicks, discoloration (such as black or white spots), texture issues (like squishiness or stickiness), visible insects or insect eggs or webs, and distortion of the leaf shape. Any of these signs is bad news in general and may point to a larger problem.
Think twice before purchasing a plant with weeds growing in its container.
While it’s easy enough to pull out weeds you may find growing along with the plants you want to purchase, their presence should give you pause. These competing sprouts will have siphoned water and nutrients away from the main plant. If there’s a specimen available that hasn’t given up a portion of its resources to weeds, it’s bound to be stronger.
Check the roots to choose the healthiest plants.
Give the bottom of the plant’s container a quick look to check for root tendrils poking out through the drainage holes. How about the soil—are roots snaking out of the surface? Plants with roots overflowing the container like this are probably rootbound and at the very least would benefit from being transplanted to a larger container. Rootbound plants may have suffered enough stress to prevent them from ever making a full recovery, and it’s hard to tell just how badly a plant is damaged. To be on the safe side, avoid purchasing rootbound plants completely.
Another sign of a rootbound plant is girdling. If a plant’s roots have wrapped around the stem or base of the plant, that’s girdling, and it’s a sign of roots that are desperately seeking space to call their own. Definitely pass up any plants with this symptom. Girdling can prevent plants from taking in the water and nutrients they need to grow strong and perform their best. A girdled stem also has a weak spot that may break or bend as the plant grows.
Trees that are sold with burlap around the roots should have a solid-feeling root ball. Those with roots that appear broken aren’t a good choice, as the roots may have dried out from the damage. Damaged roots can stunt the growth of a tree or even cause its eventual death.
A plant that’s shallowly rooted or has a thin, sparse root system may have been recently transplanted. These specimens can be a risky bet, as a recently repotted plant may not yet have begun to show signs of the stress it’s feeling. If you’re heartset on one of these, at a minimum you’ll want to give the plant plenty of time to adjust before moving it into its new home.
Get hands-on to ensure plant health.
Now that you’ve given your prospective new addition the visual once-over, it’s time to use your sense of touch to assess its health. Touch the plant here and there to ensure leaves don’t detach and break off, which would indicate ill health. Feel free to even give the plant a gentle shake. Healthy specimens will hold together without losing foliage (with the exception of spent blooms).
Buds are better than flowers for the future of your garden.
Yes, plants with lots of mature blooms are the most attractive, and therefore it’s tempting to choose plants that already look the way you want them to look in your flower beds. However, consider opting for plants with lots of buds instead of those with bunches of blossoms. Why? Plants that are budding will be easier to transplant and tend to recover from moving better than flowering plants. Also, those buds will become blooms on your turf, where you can enjoy them for their whole lifespan in your own garden.
Don’t forget to consider the big picture when you’re shopping for new plants.
After all those details, don’t forget to take a step back and look at the situation as a whole. What about the entire plant? Do all the available plants have just one stem, or do can you choose a container that holds more than one stem instead? Is the shape of the plant you’re considering bushy and filled out? Resist the urge to buy the tallest plants, as when light is insufficient, plants will stretch to get what they need and become “leggy.” Plants that shoot upward like this may topple with the weight of blooms when they flower, fail to branch like healthy specimens, or just underproduce. Obviously pruned areas may be a sign that the plant suffered some disease or infestation and lost part of its bulk.
If your head starts spinning once you’re in the shop and you can’t remember all the items on this checklist, just go with your gut instinct. Sick plants tend to look wan, shriveled, or pale, while healthy ones will be vividly colored, with glossy foliage and strong growth. And if all else fails garden center staff are usually knowledgeable and will be on hand to help you. Don’t be afraid to call an employee over so they can help you select the healthiest plants for your garden.