Master Gardener: What to look for when buying spring plants

Master Gardener: What to look for when buying spring plants

Master Gardener: What to look for when buying spring plants

It will soon be planting time in the garden and that means buying plants!  Part of the fun of gardening is adding new plants to the garden or trying new varieties of annuals and vegetables.
It is always tempting to rush out and buy plants once the weather starts to warm up.  Once you have found the perfect plant(s), take some time to make sure that you are taking a healthy specimen home.  When selecting quality plant material there are several things to consider.  Here are a few tips to help you do that.
Look for plants with strong, healthy growth, plenty of flower buds and a thriving root system.  Look at the shape and the size of the plants.  They should be uniform, not lopsided.  The plant should fill the pot or cell pack.  Choose plants that are more compact rather than tall and spindly.  Plants should have leaves with a bright, rich color.  Avoid those that are wilting or yellowing.  Stressed plants may or may not recover.  Look for plants that have a well-branched structure typical of the species.  Plants should also have lots of healthy shoots and buds.
Plants that you purchase in containers should not have weeds growing in the pots.  Weeds compete with garden plants for nutrients and water.  You also do not want to take the chance of introducing a new weed into your garden.  Where there are weeds there may also be weed seeds.
While we all want instant gratification and lots of blooms, look for plants whose flowers are just starting to bud out, with perhaps one or two blossoms (so you can be sure of the color).  Plants suffer less transplant shock and develop roots faster without flowers.  If you have a choice of two plants, one with tight buds and one in flower, pick the plant in bud.  If the only healthy plants are in flower, consider cutting off some of the blooms when you get home.  New buds will appear in about two weeks.  You will also be rewarded with fuller, bushier plants later.
Carefully check the roots.  If an established plant does not have a good root system, do not take it home.  To check the roots, gently tap the plant out of its container and look at the roots.  Check with a garden center staff person if you are not comfortable doing this.  What you should find is a well-formed network of whitish roots binding the soil together.  If the roots are brown, soft or rotten reject the plant.  Avoid plants that are “root bound.’’
These plants have restricted root growth and you cannot see any soil.  The roots may also grow out of the drainage holes.  If you take a root bound plant home, you will need to trim away larger roots circling the pot and tease out roots before planting.  Root-bound annuals start putting their energy into producing flowers.  Tomato and pepper plants will do the same thing, flowering and even fruiting on the store shelf.
The other extreme is plants that lift out easily, with soil that falls away and few roots.  This plant may have been recently repotted.  These are plants that have not yet reached their prime.  If you take this plant home, let it grow in the container for a few more weeks before transplanting.
Always check plants for insects and diseases.  When buying from a reputable garden center, it is unlikely that you will encounter problems.  Hold the plant up to the light; check the stem and both sides of the leaves, particularly the new growth.  Black deposits on the leaves can be an indication of sooty mold, so check the plant for aphids or scale.  Discolored leaves may be an indication of a nutrient deficiency, insect damage or disease.  Other signs can include things like brown spots, mushiness and holes from chewing insects or even slugs.  Webbing is a sign of spider mites.  Many insects feed on the bottom of young, tender leaves and may go unnoticed.
Bedding plants (usually annuals) packed too close into flats may have increased insect and disease problems.  Avoid cell-packs containing tall spindly plants with flowers.  They have been in the packs too long.
Before you leave the garden center make sure that your plants are labeled.  Beside the name, plant tags have a lot of helpful information on them including growing conditions, spacing recommendations and how big you can expect the mature plant to be.
Employing these simple tips when you are out plant shopping will save you time and money in the long run.  They will help you bring home healthy plants and avoid introducing new problems into your garden.