How to pick healthy plants

How to pick healthy plants

Last updated on March 4th, 2024 at 07:00 am

Buying plants at the big box stores

How to pick healthy plants. This post is about perennials, annuals, and plants that come in 4 or 6 pack, 4″ or 6″ plastic containers.  Larger plants, shrubs, and trees will be discussed in a future post.

Local Nursery Versus Big-Box Stores

First a little about purchasing plants from the big-box store versus local independently owned garden centers.

In early spring the big box stores will have plenty of plants for their customers.  They usually purchase these plants from local or out-of-state wholesalers.

Caring for and maintaining these plants is not a big concern of management and the main reason is “the plants are basically there for other “incidental sales” and the profit margin is low or non-existent.

The management and staff in the big-box gardening stores are generally small and most cannot tell the difference between a blueberry bush and an Oleander.

From my observation, the plants start out nice but quickly die out or look bad due to non-existent watering and or care.  Most big-box, nursery department workers are not well-versed in the care and maintenance of their plants.

Purchasing plants at a local garden nursery

It’s always best to purchase plants from a local independently-owned nursery.  For one thing, it’s good for the local economy.

Purchasing plants at a local garden nursery
Beautiful Bougainvillea and pansies at a local nursery

Plus, they will care for all plants far better than the big-box stores.  There is a lot to think about… too much water, not enough water, fertilizer, shade conditions, insects, diseases, placement, and much more.

The owners, managers, and employees of local nurseries do their best to train staff and workers in the proper care of their plants, bad or poor-looking plants throughout the nursery, and it will only be a matter of time before they are out of business.

How to pick healthy plants

Local nursery plants will cost more.

Why? Not always, but in general yes. The answer is simple, big-box nurseries will have more bulk plants and usually at a lower cost.  As mentioned earlier the plants are there for incidental sales with low or non-existent profits.  The big trade-off is that the local independently owned nurseries will do their best to have plants that are free of insects, disease, and ideal watering.  Their plants are the heart and soul of their business.

How to pick healthy plants

The best way to tell if you are picking a healthy plant is by observing the plant.  Here, you can truly judge a book by its cover. If a plant has been treated correctly and has no diseases or pests, you can always tell by how nice it looks. If a plant has grown up in improper soil or has harmful bugs living in it, you can tell by the holes insects produce or the wilted look from over-or-under watering.

What to look for?

One of the biggest problems is aphids.  These insects will produce a clear sticky substance mainly on the stems and underneath the leaves. Caterpillars will make holes towards the end of the leaves.  Snails and slugs tend to make holes in the middle of the leaves. Yellowing leaves indicate over-watering.  Small dark red spots are normally fungus.  Dry wilted droopy foliage usually means the plants need water.

How to pick healthy plants
Snail Damage on Leaf

How to pick healthy plants
Small yellow aphids on the leaf stem.  Aphid insects have many colors yellow, brown, black, and pale white.  They will suck the life out of plants.

Spider Mites are hard to see but their damage is noticeable by small dark brown foliage or brownish appearance many times they will produce light webbing that covers the foliage.

Spider Mite Damage on Rose Leaf.

Should you pick a plant with flowers?

Most folks will pick plants that are flowering and this is ok but you may want to think this over with anything that has lots of flowers. Why? Plants are less traumatized when you take them home to plant.  What you need to be looking for are plants with lots of buds.

It’s best to find ones that just consist of buds the more buds the better.  However, if all you have to choose from are flowering plants, then go for it you can always sever them off or wait until they expire and deadhead them for future flowers.  I’ve done this a thousand times and they always bounce back with an extra profusion of flowers.

One big exception is if you are having company over and want flowering plants when they arrive.  Or you want instant color to help sell your rent your home. Ok… let us continue.

Check the root system

All nurseries will let you turn over small potted plants to check on the root system of flowering plants. You should check the roots before you fork out the money to purchase the plant. Of course, if the roots are in bad condition the rest of the plant stems, foliage, and buds will also look bad.

They will look leggy and or droopy.  If the roots are just slightly out of shape, then you won’t be able to tell just by looking at them.  Most perennials, annuals, and flowering plants come in 6-pack, 4″ or 6″ plastic containers.

What about the roots?

Here are a few things to look for.  Brittle roots indicate poor and or no watering.  Soft dark brown slimy roots are a sign of root rot… too much water. The roots should always be a firm, perfectly well-formed infrastructure that holds all the soil together.

Yellow Pansy Roots
Pansy plant out of its container. Good soil to root system ratio.

One can easily tell if the roots are before or past their prime, depending on the root-to-soil ratio. If there are a ridiculous number of roots with little soil, or a bunch of soil with few roots, you should not buy that plant.

If you find any abnormalities with the plant, whether it be the shape of the roots or any irregular features with the leaves, you should ask the nursery employees. While usually, these things can be a sign of an unhealthy plant, occasionally there will be a logical explanation for it.

Always give the nursery a chance before writing them off as horrendous. After all, they are (usually) professionals who have been dealing with plants for years.

How to pick healthy plants
A customer about to purchase plants at a local nursery.

So, if you decide to take the easy route and get a plant from a nursery, you just must remember that the health of the plants has been left up to someone you don’t know. Usually, they do a good job, but you should always check for yourself.

Also, take every precaution you can to avoid transplant shock in the plant (when it has trouble adjusting to its new location and therefore has health problems in the future). Usually, the process goes smoothly, but you can never be too sure.

When to transplant?

It is important to plant your plants ASAP.  Do not wait until tomorrow, or later in the day.  Do it now! I can’t tell how many times I have brought home perennials/annuals to the garden, plopped them down go inside, and forgotten them.  Days later they are dead from neglect.

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