It's the Plants, Darling, Shut Up and Dig

Shopping for Annuals and Perennials

A few weeks ago, I posted a list of tips concerning shopping for trees and shrubs. I promised at that time to follow up with a list of shopping tips for annual and perennial transplants, so here goes.

Shop at a well-run garden center. I am leery of big box stores; these days they often offer good quality plants and sometimes at bargain prices, but I have found their care of the plants is often poor. In particular, the staff is usually untrained and often underwaters or overwaters the plants. Either way, such treatment stresses the plants and has a permanent effect of their vigor and health.

transplant 1

Healthy transplant: Note compact size and well-developed, but not over-developed, crisp white roots.

Make sure you don’t bring home any problems — check carefully to make sure any plants you purchase are pest-free. Check the stems and leaves, and underneath the leaves, too, for insects or insect eggs. Stippling of the leaves, little spots of discoloration, is often an indicator of insect infestation. Bringing home infested plants can start a plague in your garden.

Avoid overly large plants, ones that have clearly outgrown their pots, or which have a beard of long roots emerging from the bottoms of their containers. Such plants have been in their pots too long — they are “pot-bound” –and are likely to be stunted.

Another way to tell if a plant is pot-bound is to slip it out of its container. Examine the roots – these should be crisp and white and just starting to enclose the ball of soil in which they are growing. Brown roots thickly covering the exterior of the soil are a definite sign of a “pot-bound” plant.

transplant 2

Pot-bound transplant: note long, thin stem and dense cover of brown roots

Many shoppers are attracted to plants in full bloom, but I prefer stocky transplants that are just coming into bud, not yet in flower, because I find these recover from from transplanting and resume growth more quickly and are generally more vigorous. Actually, flowering can be yet another sign that a plant is pot-bound.

Good labeling – a label that offers information not only about the plant type and culitvar but about its hardiness and the degree of sunlight it prefers — is not only a convenience, I find that it is commonly a mark of a quality plant.

transplant 3

Pot-bound plant: in full flower, note beard of roots emerging from bottom of pot

If you have other tips to share, please do so.


Posted by on May 16, 2016 at 6:41 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling, Shut Up and Dig.
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16 responses to “Shopping for Annuals and Perennials”

  1. Diana says:

    Check under the top 1/4″ of potting medium for any fungal growth before buying a plant.

  2. Diana says:

    Martha, that’s really cool. It is one thing to sell native plant species; it is another thing to sell local genotype native species. Often this is not well-understood by garden center customers, who may genuinely care about planting a healthy native garden but naturally presume that native is native is native. Local genotype native specimens are more likely to succeed in gardens, guaranteed to be helpful to native wildlife, and actually help restore the local landscape. Unfortunately, sometimes it can be difficult to find a store with a variety of healthy, native plants- and local genotype native plant garden centers, sadly, are quite rare.

  3. carolyn says:

    I often shop the clearance rack and have done quite well with perennials – often they just go on clearance because they are done blooming. Sometimes I have no idea what it’s going to look like until the next year, but I am thrilled with all my blooms so far this year so I call it a success.

  4. I recently shopped at both a box store and then at a local nursery. The varieties available at the local nursery surprised me. Many choice plants were there for the taking. The box store had limited plants, but good prices. I try to go there early in the morning when new plants arrive. I even bargained for one that looked like it needed immediate attention or it would die. Got that plant at a discount.
    So I guess you could say I shop at both sources for different reasons.
    Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate it.

  5. Laura Bell says:

    I’m a sucker for the bargain basement plants – those sitting on some rack in the back, just a light shove away from going into a trash bin. It’s a trait I got from my mother who could not resist a bargain, an orphan, a hopeless case. Over time I’ve come to realize that if the problem with the plant isn’t readily identifiable and curable (too dry: water it; too wet: let it dry; root-bound: set it free, etc) then I shouldn’t take it no matter the price. Those are usually the infested plants & I don’t need to import pests.

    It’s not for newbies, nor for those who need specific species or cultivars or who aren’t willing to take a chance. But I have found some real treasures, including a gorgeous 1-gallon mandevillea for less than a $1, and a 5-gallon 4-graft fruit tree for $2.

  6. I’d advise to examine the surface of the soil in the pot carefully. “Big Box” stores “pot up” plants in larger pots to sell them at higher prices, but often, what I find are root balls of a smaller, pot-bound plant in a larger mass of new potting medium. It has often been done so recently that the roots haven’t even grown into the new medium. You can often discern this by observing how far surface roots stretch out across the surface or by changes in the structure or color of the potting medium.

  7. Laura Munoz says:

    Everything you’ve written is so very true.

  8. Thomas Christopher says:

    Very interesting, thank you. I’ll have to re-calibrate when I shop for natives.

  9. Martha says:

    I sell local genotype native plants. Native plants have vigorous deep roots and we use open-bottomed pots for the roots to grow down, instead of around. In this case, roots coming out of the bottom is intentional and a sign that they are not pot-bound. (An exception to the rule.) I also pop the plants out of the pot to show customers when they are concerned about top growth and blooms.

  10. Thomas Christopher says:

    You are right, the bargains at the big box stores can be pretty irresistible. When I shop at one of them, I try to find out when a particular plant was delivered — if it’s just off the truck, then the poor care probably hasn’t had an effect.

  11. Diane S says:

    I have to add a few more reasons to shop the independent garden center.
    One huge, great reason to shop at the smaller stores is they carry plant varieties that the boxes will never have. Without the independents stocking these plants, the smaller growers would go out of business and we would all be left with only the same common box store plants grown by the huge growers. No more geeky varieties we all love to discover!
    Secondly, the huge growers who stock the boxes use more pesticides since the greenhouses are so huge and pests are more prevalent. Many smaller growers use more beneficial insects and smarter, cultural ways to grow their plants.
    And lastly, the waste I see at the boxes makes me feel sick. Carts and carts of unwatered, wilted or dead plants, all to be tossed away. Think of the energy used to start, grow, feed, transport, unload and then throw away all those plants. Boxes treat these plants like garbage. If they do not sell fast, they are doomed and will end up in a landfill. Have you seen the completely different way some independents care for their plants? They are brought in and cared for like family-watered properly-not too much or too little, transplanted into larger pots if needed, not smashed together on benches (which helps curb disease) and only tossed if beyond hope. Waste is a huge drain on a small independents bottom line and is thought of from the time of purchase. The boxes seem to have no bottom line and the waste is enormous. It’s shameful to see.
    The smaller places need your business-please support them.

  12. Carol says:

    One must be diligent to shop at Big Boxes, but I often go to one close to my home. They have a mark-down area (normally would make me shudder) and often put perfectly healthy plants there because they don’t have a bloom on them. (Often just what we want to find on a young plant.) Oh, there are horrors there, too. And yes, they hire people with no training to water. But this particular store gets slammed with so many carts of plants, nobody could possibly take care of them all during a busy spring. Sort of the “throw the spaghetti on the wall and see if it sticks” approach to plant marketing. The losses make you sick, but the bargains are nice. Again, diligence.

  13. Mary Apodaca says:

    Because I live in Florida, I don’t have to buy many plants anymore — after about five years of tending to my garden in my retirement.

    I’ve found what thrives and is mostly perennial–and stick with those plants. I transplant (or have stronger people transplant) our plants rather than buy new stuff except for a few annuals.

    Overgrown potted plants is rampant. I bought ferns five years ago at a trusted local nursery. I stupidly (rather than take them back) bought a saw and cut them out of their pots and dug into the roots. They’re doing great but they were old and should not have been sold like that.

    Tell me it’s just here — where growth can be vibrant — but I doubt it.

  14. Steve says:

    A few years ago I found apple trees for sale at a big box store. No cultivar information at all. This was in USDA Hardiness Zone 4 where very few readily available apples are hardy. In my opinion, this is unethical at best.

  15. Laura Munoz says:

    I like to buy my plants from Mom and Pop nurseries (spent over $200 at a local store this spring) but unfortunately even they sometimes stock root-bound plants that came that way from their suppliers.

    I agree Big Box store employees often don’t know what they’re doing or even the names of the plants they have. (I recently had a Big Box employee confuse a trumpet vine with a red honeysuckle vine.)

    Regardless, if the roots are bound, I cut them loose so they don’t retain their circular or square pattern, but I don’t know if inexperienced gardeners would know to do this.

    Again, while I prefer to shop at the Mom -n- Pop places, the bargains to be found at the Box stores are pretty significant. Bargain plants may not have been watered correctly or may look scraggly because they’re going out of bloom but for the price, they’re worth a chance. Bought seven quart-size perennials for $17. last week, which can’t be beat.

  16. skr says:

    Horribly pot bound trees and shrubs are a complete waste of money. They require too much work and time to fix their roots and even proper root correction is no guarantee. I see too many people with dead shrubs that when yanked out have a root ball that is exactly the same size as the container it came in even after years in the ground.

    Another indicator of a horribly root bound tree is the heigh of the potting medium in the container. I’ve seen 15s and 24s where the tree had been stored in the container so long that the container was only half full of medium. Just walk in by those.