Four Tips On How To Choose The
Right Plants


Have you ever stood in a garden center and felt that using "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" was as good a method as any to pick out plants to take home? While "eeny, meeny..." might be a reasonably good way to split kids into kickball teams but there are better ways to choose quality plant material. Here are some tips for choosing healthy plant material.

The first steps in shopping for plant material will always be to choose the location the plants are going, determine whether that spot has sun or shade, choose the color scheme that you want to use, determine whether you want to use annuals, perennials or shrubs (or all 3) and decide how many plants will be needed to fill that area. How do you make sure that the plants you take home are healthy and ready to thrive in your garden?

Here are some general guidelines for all plant material.

  1. You want to inspect the health of the foliage. Look at the foliage to make sure it isn't discolored, spotted, dried out, wilting or curling. Brown spots can mean insect damage or in some cases viral or fungal diseases. Curling foliage can mean the plant has been drought stressed or can also be an indication of disease or insect damage. Brown and/or crispy foliage is another indicator of drought stress. Wilting plants can either mean the plant is drought stressed or if the soil is wet the roots might be diseased (more about roots later).

    Discolored foliage can mean that the plant hasn't been receiving proper nutrition. However, before you completely pass on a plant make sure the foliage truly isn't the correct color. Read the label and other point of purchase materials to see if the plant you are inspecting is supposed to have yellow (chartreuse), variegated (variable colors splashed on the leaves) or dark colored foliage. Colored foliage can be a huge plus in the landscape since it is attractive regardless of flowering.

    Don't look at just the upper surface of the leaves, some disease and insects will show up first on the back of the foliage. If there is white fuzzy fungus or rust colored spots on the back of the foliage move on.

  2. Look for insects. Aphids, scales, white flies, mites and other insect pests can affect the health of your plants. Look at the stems and both sides of the leaves of the plants. If you see small green or whitish bugs covering the stems walk away, the plant is infested with aphids or scales. If you see what seems to be spider webs with brown or black dust spots walk away, the plant has mites.

  3. Check out the root system. Much of what makes your plant healthy is based on having a thriving root system. Roots are how the plant gets its water and nutrition. Having a healthy root system will make success much easier. To check the roots of a plant you will have to tip it out of the pot.

    You do want to be careful when pulling the plants out of their pots, that you don't damage the plant. The best way to gently remove a plant from a pot is to squeeze the outside of the pot a few times to loosen the soil and roots from the surface of the pot. Then tip the pot over on its side, grasp the plant near the soil line and gently tug the plant from the pot. If the plant doesn't want to come out, squeeze the pot while tugging it gently. The whole root ball (the roots and soil that are contained in the pot) should come out together.

    So now you have a naked plant, what should you look for? First, did all of the soil and roots come out of the pot? If half the soil is soggy wet and still in the pot, the plant hasn't fully established its root system and you should consider getting a different plant. If all of the soil came out with the plant the next step is to check if the roots are healthy.

    Healthy roots should be white and clean looking. The actual size of the roots isn't of much importance. Plants will naturally vary on how large the roots grow. The color is very important. If the roots are tannish in color you still have a pretty healthy root system. If the roots are brown, grey, black, or slimy then the roots are unhealthy. So if the roots are white to pale tan, buy the plant. Brown, grey, black or slimy roots, pass it up.

    Ideally roots shouldn't be wrapped around and around the sides of the pot. This is a symptom of a plant that is root bound. It is best not to have root bound plants but you can still have great success with root bound plants. Simply make sure you loosen the roots so that they are encouraged to grow into the soil rather than continuing their round about ways.

    Small pots, even gallons or the 2 to 3 gallon pots common for shrubs will be relatively easy to expose the root system. Hanging baskets, however, will be difficult to pull the pot without damaging the plant. You will have to use a bit of faith. If the other plants that nursery is selling generally have great root systems, then you won't be likely to have problems with the baskets.

    If you just don't want to deal with pulling the plants in the garden center, be sure to inspect the plants as you transplant them.

  4. You should actually choose the plant with the most branches (move the leaves out of the way and take a look at the stems, do you see many branches?) and the most buds. Plants that are just starting to really get blooming will establish new roots after you transplant them easier than plants that are older.

    These guidelines work, in general, for all types of plant material. I do want to give you just a couple of additional tips when selecting perennials or shrubs.

    Perennials often have a shorter bloom time than annuals. However, retailers know that gardeners are more likely to buy blooming plants than non-blooming plants. Often, perennials that bloom in the summer are tricked into blooming in May so that they are more attractive to gardeners. If the tag says that the plant blooms in July and it is on the bench blooming in May, you should do one of two things.

    One, look to see if there is another plant of the same variety that isn't blooming and buy the non-blooming plant. It will grow better and be a stronger healthier plant, long term than a blooming plant will.

    Two, if there aren't any that are non-blooming cut the blooms off when you transplant it. This seems wrong, but it will actually reset the plant material, cause it to put more energy into growing roots, and you will get a healthier plant. If you just can't stand to cut off the blooms, at least deadhead the old blooms off as they age.

    Shrubs are often bought in early spring at a time when the plants are still dormant (before they have begun to show leaves or flowers). If you are buying a dormant shrub, you can check to make sure it isn't dead by scraping the bark with a fingernail. If you see green, then the shrub is fine, still check the roots. Healthy roots will generally mean a healthy plant.


- Proven Winners

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