Selecting Healthy Plants: What to Look For at the Garden Center

plants at the garden center

By Erin Marissa Russell

When you’re admiring the rows of plants at your local nursery or garden center, take the time to consider your choices carefully. Call on your gardening know-how as well as the tips for selecting healthy plants you’ll find in this article, because which flower, baby vegetable, sapling, or herb you choose has a lot to do with the long term health of your garden. However, your selection won’t only determine how well that individual plant will thrive. 

In the greenhouses where nursery and garden center plants are raised, diseases and insects can spread like wildfire. The symptoms of a plant disease, as well as the insects that could hitch a ride home with you, may be as tiny as the period at the end of this sentence. Introducing a diseased or pest-infested plant into your garden could cause an outbreak that takes months to conquer—and in the process, the threat could even kill off some of your collection. 

How to Select Healthy Nursery Plants: Do’s and Don’ts

You’ll want to make sure that your chosen plant is worth the money you pay for it, not to mention the time and energy you’ll invest in caring for your new addition. Here’s the rundown of what you need to know so you can avoid the wasted expense of a sickly specimen and determine which plant is the healthiest option and the best fit for your individual garden.

Know what to look for at the nursery and garden center.

To ensure the health of your whole garden, don’t just pick the plants you like the look of best. There are a few guidelines you should be familiar with so you can avoid bringing home a plant that may be hiding signs of bugs or an illness. A healthy plant will have vivid leaves with an even color, and withering or any brown coloring indicates they haven’t been watered as well as they could have been. While you can revitalize a slightly dehydrated plant with a deep watering, there’s no reason to choose an obviously stressed plant over the healthier ones nearby. Leaves that feel squishy or have yellowed foliage have probably been watered too much. Distorted leaves or those with holes in them, as well as sticky areas, could be a sign of bugs, so these issues would make the plant a risky choice. If the plant seems faded or wilted, it’s undergone some form of stress, which plants don’t always recover from, so avoid these options. 

The stems of your plant should be strong and support the rest of the foliage well. On plants that have woody stems, check for nicks and cuts or other wounds, which could either indicate disease or some type of accident or injury. These scratches or puncture wounds are a perfect place for pathogens and insects to creep in. Next, gently move the leaves so you can see their undersides, which can hide symptoms of infestation or disease such as discoloration, textural problems, insect webs or eggs, and actual bugs (especially mites and aphids, which love to hang out beneath the leaves). 

Next, move on to checking the soil in the plant’s container. You’re looking for any signs of insect life, including live or dead bugs as well as eggs. Weeds growing next to a plant you’re considering are another sign to move on to the next choice. Even though it may be simple enough to remove the invasive weed, because it’s there, you know it’s been siphoning off water and nutrients from the plant you’re looking to purchase. Weeds can be very efficient at doing this, so skip plants that are growing alongside weeds. 

You also don’t want to see roots emerging from the soil in search of space of their own. Roots you can see from the top of the container or ones creeping out of the drainage holes in the bottom mean the plant has gone far too long in need of a larger pot. If you lift the root ball from the container (carefully, of course), you’ll likely find a densely tangled mass that has taken the shape of its container or is in the process of doing so, which means the plant is rootbound. Rootbinding causes intense stress for plants that they may not be able to bounce back from, and at the least it indicates a lack of quality care and should make you think twice. If you do choose a rootbound plant, pick up a container that’s at least the next size up so you can transplant it once you get home.

Inspect plants you order online or from a catalog as soon as they arrive to ensure they’re in good health and weren’t damaged in transit.

Once a plant arrives in the mail, check it over carefully for any signs of damage or other problems. Any time a plant is stuffed into a box for a few days to be shipped from one place to another, it’s deprived of sunlight and water—and it probably hasn’t been transported too delicately. So you can expect a certain amount of stress due to dehydration and travel as well as some fallen leaves or snapped stems. But if a plant is damaged to the point you feel it may not recover, or if it shows any symptoms of a plant disease or signs of carrying insects, you should return it posthaste. Make sure to quarantine all your new arrivals as described in the next section, regardless of whether they come in the mail or you buy them somewhere locally.

Consider establishing a quarantine for new arrivals to protect the rest of your plant collection.

Whenever you’ve bought a new plant, it’s tempting to rush out to the garden to find the perfect spot for iot. However, it’s a much safer practice to quarantine any newly arrived plants away from the ons you already have for 40 days to eliminate the potential of disease or infestations spreading to the rest of your collection. You should also quarantine plants you’re moving indoors from the outdoor garden and any of your current plants with signs of insects or illness.

To quarantine a plant, give it a thorough visual inspection so you’re aware of any symptoms it may be displaying. Make a homemade spray consisting of a liter of warm water and four or five drops of dish soap, and use it to clean your plant and treat it to prevent insect infestation. If you have neem oil on hand, you can add a tablespoon to your homemade spray, and you can also choose to use an insecticidal soap if you prefer. Pull the new plant out of the container to inspect its roots. You’ll normally need to transplant something you’ve just purchased into a larger pot, so do so at this time using sterile soil. Then your plant is ready for quarantine.

Once 40 days have passed without symptoms of infestation or disease, you can introduce your new arrival to the rest of your collection. This does double duty with hardening off any plants that have come from another climate or are used to the indoor life and are moving outdoors. Hardening off, also called heat acclimation or cold acclimation, helps your plants avoid sunscald, cold damage, and other types of plant stress by easing the transition between different environments. Harden off a plant by placing it outdoors in a shady area somewhat protected from wind for a few hours on the first day. Then gradually increase the time it spend \s outside, finally removing it from the protected location and into its permanent spot.

If you aren’t sure where to shop, depend on online reviews and recommendations from other gardeners.

You want to find a place to buy your plants that has knowledgeable staff, wide selection, and will accept returns if you have a legitimate issue with your purchase. If you aren’t sure where to shop, you can read online reviews to see what experiences others have had at stores in your area. Your friends who garden are another good source of suggestions for nurseries and garden centers. 

If nothing local meets your needs, there are also lots of online stores as well as independent sellers on marketplaces like Ebay or Etsy. Gardening forums are a good place to ask about where to find specialty items or find recommendations for sites that sell plants.If you choose to buy a plant online, the need for a good return policy becomes a higher priority, as you won’t be able to look your options over in person. Online, you may wish to avoid brand new seller accounts and check the reviews over to ensure you’re shopping with someone dependable before you buy.

Resist the temptation of beautiful blooms and instead pick up plants with flourishing foliage.

Plants that are producing lots of blossoms are already well into their development and will be devoting most of their energy to flowering, so the reproductive cycle is already underway. Soon they will go to seed. If you want a long-lasting plant that you’ll be able to enjoy throughout its blooming period, don’t grab the one that first grabs your eye with its showy blossoms. Instead, go for a plant with lots of lush greenery and minimal blooms, or even a budding plant whose flowers are not yet open. Plants that are not blooming but have built strong, vibrant foliage are spending their time and energy on a healthy, powerful root system that will support more blooms later on. 

An exception is when you’re shopping for a plant that offers you the choice of flowers in several shades. In that case, make your purchase as soon after the blooming period begins as you can, when the plant has budded and just a couple of blossoms have opened. You may even be able to see what color the flowers will be when just the buds have formed. Then you can enjoy a whole season of blooms in your own garden.

Now that you know how to select quality plants whenever and wherever you shop, you can confidently choose from the options in front of you at the nursery or garden center. Between your newly honed skills and the 40-day quarantine we recommended, your garden will be safer from the plant diseases and infestations that are so easy to bring home with a purchase. 

Learn More About Choosing Healthy Plants

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