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Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe

Making sure that you take only healthy plants home from the garden center can be daunting. This article is a primer for the basics of selecting healthy plant material.

Contributors: Kerry Meyer

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 there are better ways to choose quality plant material.  Here are some tips for choosing healthy plants.

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.  So, now you have determined the answers to these questions and have decided that you want Supertunia® Vista Bubblegum Petunia, Diamond Frost® Euphorbia Hybrid and ‘Limelight’ Hydrangea in beds around your porch.  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.  I will mention some things that are more specific to shrubs and perennials later.

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.  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 container.  Don't worry, a good garden center won’t be bothered by you checking the root system, they might even help you.

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 container is to squeeze 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 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.  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 them.  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 containers, even gallons or the 2 to 3 gallon containers common for shrubs, will be relatively easy to expose the root system.  Hanging baskets, however, will be difficult to pull the container 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 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.

Fourth, I know it is tempting to choose the plant with the most flowers.  However, you should actually choose the plant with the most branches and the most buds.   To check branching, move the leaves out of the way and take a look at the stems, do you see many branches?  If you do, you've found a great plant.  Plants that are just starting to really get blooming will establish new roots after you transplant them easier than plants that are older.  I know resisting the plant in full bloom is hard.  I’m just as guilty as anyone else of reaching first for the most colorful plant.

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 in the long term when compared to the blooming plant. 

Two, if there aren’t any plants without blooms, cut the blooms off when you transplant.  I know 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.  If you are buying a dormant shrub, you can check to make sure it isn’t dead by gently scraping the bark with your fingernail.  If you see green, then the shrub is fine.  I would also suggest still checking the roots.  Healthy roots will generally mean a healthy plant.

So what happens if you get the plants home and then find problems while you are transplanting?  Take the problem plants back to the garden center, show them the problem and your receipt, and ask them to replace them with healthy plants or to give you a refund.  Most garden centers will be happy to do so.

Supertunia® Vista Bubblegum Petunia hybrid 'USTUNI6001' USPP17,730, Can. 2871; 'Limelight' Hydrangea paniculata USPP12,874, Can. 2319; Diamond Frost® Euphorbia hybrid 'Inneuphdia' USPP17,567, Can. 2830

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