Tips for Shopping and Selecting Quality Plants

In spring, many gardeners will be at nurseries, greenhouses, and garden centers looking to buy plants. Selecting the right species and cultivar of a plant for the landscape by matching sun, water, soil, winter hardiness, and other growing requirements is important. Equally important is selecting high-quality plants. Below is advice on how to purchase high-quality plants from the garden center.

You can buy plants in a variety of ways, including containerized, balled and burlapped (B&B), bareroot, seed, or bulbs. Most gardeners purchase containerized plants from the garden center.  

Potted plants on a cart at the garden center
When shopping for plants, check form, habit, leaves, and roots to ensure you buy high-quality plants.

Evaluate Habit and Form

The overall habit or shape of the plant should be well-balanced and not too big or small for the container. Trees should have well-spaced branches with no double leaders. Perennials, annuals, and vegetable transplants should be sturdy, robust, and compact. Bigger is not necessarily better – spindly or lanky plants, especially with annuals and vegetables, do not transplant well.

Look at Condition and Quality

Leaves should not be discolored or mottled, and the plant should not be missing or dropping leaves. A few brown leaf edges or minor spots are not necessarily a problem and are sometimes unavoidable as plants growing in containers are under a lot of stress. Plants with excessive leaf damage, however, should not be purchased. 

Plants with overly dry or wet soil are often an indication of poor care and should be avoided. Perennials, annuals, and vegetables should be firm and upright – not limp or wilted. Trees and shrubs should be free from scrapes or damage to the trunk or stems, and there should be no broken branches. 

Inspect the Root System

One of the hardest things to evaluate is the root system, but it is one of the most important. Don’t be shy about slipping the pot down to inspect the root ball. The roots should be firm and white, not mushy and brown, and there should not be an excessive amount of circling roots in the container. This can lead to big problems down the road – especially with trees and shrubs.

There should not be an excessive number of roots coming out the bottom of the pot. This indicates that the plant may have been in the container too long. Conversely, avoid buying plants that have been recently bumped up in pot size. These plants will have the soil ball readily fall apart when slid out of the container. Buying these plants is just paying more for some extra soil!

The roots of balled and burlaped (B&B) trees can be difficult to evaluate. Root balls should have a minimum diameter of 10 to 12 inches for every inch of stem caliper. For example, a two-inch caliper tree should have, at minimum, a root ball that is 20 to 24 inches across. B&B trees are often stored at the nursery heeled into mulch or soil piles. While some roots may extend out of the burlap into the surrounding mulch, an excessive number of roots, or burlap that has begun to break down, is an indication that the tree has been in storage for too long.

Check for Insects, Diseases, and Weeds

Inspect all plants for signs or symptoms of disease or insect pests. You do not want to bring home pests or diseases that can negatively affect your new plant or other plants in your landscape. Look under the leaves and near the crown of the plants. Do not purchase plants that show signs of insects or disease. 

Additionally, avoid containers that have excessive weeds alongside the desired plant. Often these weeds will become a problem in your landscape if they are transplanted. Algae is also sometimes found, especially in container-grown plants. Typically plants with a lot of algae on the soil or pot surface are old stock.

Considerations when Purchasing Seed

Check the date printed on the seed packet. Purchase seeds packaged for the current growing season. Germination percentage of seed goes down each year at a varying rate. Seeds more than two years old often have much lower germination rates.   Avoid purchasing seeds sold in wet or damp locations, as well as those that are exposed to extreme hot or freezing temperatures. These conditions could lower the germination rate of the seeds.

Considerations when Purchasing Bulbs

Bulbs, tubers, corms, and other geophytes should be firm and relatively heavy for their size. Check to be sure they are not soft, mushy, or excessively dry as these bulbs are typically not viable. Only purchase bulbs packaged for the current growing season. Older bulbs tend to be dried out and usually do not grow well.

Considerations for Bare Root Plants

Bare root perennials and roses are frequently found in garden centers. Bare root plants should be in good condition with firm, heavy roots that are not dry or brittle. The packing material around the roots should be damp, not dripping wet or completely dry. Buds and growing points should be green and firm. There should be no obvious signs of mold or freezing damage. Plants should not have mushy roots, foul odors, or many broken stems or roots. 

Bare root plants are best purchased and planted early in the growing season while plants are still dormant. Those purchased later in spring or summer and fall months rarely transplant successfully.

Don’t Be Swayed by Flowers

Remember, while flowers are pretty, they are not required for the purchase of your plants. Buying only plants that are in bloom often creates garden spaces with heavy spring bloom and little interest later in the season because you do most of your plant shopping in spring.   Pretty flowers are nice, but they are not a universal sign of good health and high quality! It is better to focus on purchasing plants with good habit, form, leaves, stems, and roots with no insect or disease problems. 

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Last reviewed:
April 2023