Kerry Meyer, program manager with high-performing plant brand Proven Winners, on how to find healthy plants in garden centers.
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 reasonable way to split kids into kickball teams, there are better ways to choose quality plant material.
To find the best specimens, you should always take into account 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 three), and decide how many plants will be needed to fill that area.
Now, after you have answered these questions, how do you make sure that the choices you take home are healthy and ready to thrive in your garden?
First, you want to inspect the health of the leaves. 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 leaves 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. If you are unsure if the foliage is correct, ask a garden center employee.
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.
Second, 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.
Third, check out the root system. I should probably put the roots first on this list because, in many ways, they are the most important. 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, so having healthy ones will lead to greater success. To check the roots of a plant you will have to tip it out of the container. Don’t worry, a good garden center won’t be bothered by you checking the root system, they might even help you.
You want to be careful when pulling plants out of their pots so you don’t damage them. The best way to gently remove a plant from a container is to squeeze or tap the outside of the container a few times to loosen the soil and roots from the surface of the pot. Then tip the container over on its side, grasp the plant near the soil line and gently tug the plant. If the plant doesn’t want to come out, squeeze or tap the pot while tugging it gently. The whole root ball (the roots and soil that are contained in the container) 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 container? If half the soil is soggy, wet and still in the container, 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. Color is very important. If the roots are tannish in color, the root system is pretty healthy. If the roots are brown, grey, black, or slimy, then the roots are generally unhealthy. Bottom line: 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 too tightly wrapped around the sides of the pot, since this is a symptom of a plant that is root bound. Although it’s best not to buy root bound plants, you can still have great success with them. The key is to make sure you loosen the roots so that they are encouraged to grow into the soil when planted rather than continuing their round-about ways.
In containers, even larger pots commonly used for shrubs, it should be relatively easy to expose the root system. Pulling plants from hanging baskets, however, is usually much more difficult to do without damaging the plant. You will have to use a bit of faith. If the other plants that the garden center is selling generally have great root systems, then you probably won’t 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 when you transplant them.
I know it’s tempting to choose the plant with the most flowers. However, the best option is to choose plants with the most branches and buds. I know that it’s hard to resist plants in full bloom and I’m just as guilty as anyone else of reaching first for the most colorful plant I see. But plants that are just starting to really get blooming will establish new roots after you transplant them much easier than plants that are already blossoming.
So, what happens if you get the plants home and then find issues? Take the problem plants back to the garden center, show them the problem and your receipt and ask them for healthy replacements or a refund. Most garden centers will be happy to do so.
To learn more about Proven Winners, visit provenwinners.com.
Kerry Meyer is a former plant breeder with Ball Floraplant, a leading producer known for its disease-free plant varieties, and researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Horticultural Science. She holds a master’s in horticulture from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s in horticulture from the University of Missouri.