For many, when walking into a garden center or greenhouse, time seems to slow down and it’s easy to slip into an almost hypnotic state amidst all the enchanting flowers and the fragrance of moist soil. Nevertheless, don’t let this atmosphere lull you into buying the first plant you encounter. It is important to keep in mind that the best looking plant is not necessarily the healthiest plant.
First, when creating a new garden or adding plants to an existing garden space, always have a plan or an idea of what you are looking for. Doing a bit of research on what will perform and survive in the chosen space will save you a lot of heartache and frustration. Arrive at the shop with a small plant list. Each garden center has different varieties of the same plant, so be informed about the mature size (height and width), leaf color and flower color so you are able to find something that will suit your needs. Be willing to search multiple greenhouses for the desired plants.
When you enter the shop, survey the entire place. Do the plants look healthy? Is the shop neat and tidy? Dirty pots and floors lead to plant health problems. The condition of the shop is a good indication of the company’s attention to the general health of the plants.
Upon inspection, the top of the plant, stems and shoots should be thick and healthy and small branches should have leaves. Look for physical damage in the form of abrasions on the bark and broken stems, as these weak areas are an easy spot for diseases and insects to enter the plant. Carefully consider the foliage. The leaves should be a solid green color unless they are variegated or naturally yellow or chartreuse. The plant’s leaves should be about the same size all over so avoid plants that have small leaves at the top and huge leaves at the bottom; this is a sign that it has been watered and fertilized unevenly. Check for insects, aphids, and spider mites. Avoid cell packs or containers where some of the plants are brown and wilted or where the leaves have a disease or fungus problem. In cell packs these problems can easily spread to other plants.
The overall shape of the plant should be even, with branches and leaves on all sides. This is particularly important when selecting a tree or shrub as these plants take some time to become even and “round.” Annuals can and will, with a bit of help by pruning, even themselves out.
Select plants with flower buds, not blooms. It is of course preferable for the plant to bloom in your garden instead of the garden center. One flower in bloom will let you know exactly what color the flowers will be, but more than that is not beneficial in the long run. Plants that are in bud tend to grow roots faster and become better established.
Look at the plant’s roots. As the garden center may not appreciate customers unpotting plants, ask for assistance and have an employee gently pull the plant out of the pot. A vigorous root ball will fill or almost fill the pot, but you do not want a root ball that is dense and circling with roots. Dense roots mean that the plant has been sitting for too long and may be strangling itself. If the plant is large simply look at the bottom of the pot at the drain holes. It is acceptable for a few roots to be emerging from the bottom of the pot, but none should coming up at the top. Reject plants with roots that are dark black or brown, feel soft, or have a bad odor. The root ball should smell clean and earthy.
The plant’s container should not be broken or cracked. Larger trees and shrubs might be balled and burlapped and the root ball on these should be solid, round and intact. Avoid balled and burlapped trees that appear to have been dropped or loose. A lot of damage can be done to tree roots by dropping the root ball.
Once you get the new plants home acclimate them to their new environment by putting them in a slightly shady spot in the yard and avoiding the hot driveway or the sun scorched deck. Be sure to give them a good drink of water. Plus, getting them into the ground in a timely manner will help the plant’s overall health, as plants in pots dry out faster than plants in the ground.
Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.