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What to consider when buying a plant that will thrive

  • Martha Proctor

    Visiting your favorite garden center can be difficult when you, as I, cannot come away without buying that "must-have" plant that is strategically placed at the checkout counter to catch the eye. Then there are the enticing garden catalogs that arrive during the winter months when there is little to do in the garden. It's almost impossible to turn the pages of a beautifully presented gardening catalog without placing an order.


    Now that the garden is flourishing again, it seems a good time to present some pointers as to what to look for when buying a plant to ensure that it transitions readily from pot to plot and becomes a healthy, pleasing specimen in your garden.
    - Read labels: Plant labels identify the plant as to its botanical name, common name, whether it is an annual or perennial, and the height it will reach at maturity. Using symbols, most labels provide the plant's basic care requirements, such as whether it grows best in the sun or shade, its water requirements, etc. Knowing which species or cultivar to select can be very important as one can be a groundcover, like Arctostaphylos 'Emerald Carpet,' whereas Arctostaphylos glauca, another manzanita, is a shrub that grows to 15 feet. If the plant is said to "naturalize quickly," this may mean that the plant will become invasive and difficult to control.
    - Sunset hardiness zones: The "Sunset Western Garden Book" is an excellent resource as it helps in the choice of the best plants for your microclimate. Sunset has devised a respected system for defining the West's hardiness zones. Plants that thrive in Marin County are in Sunset zones 15, 16 or 17.
    - Resist temptation: Many plants are manipulated so that they bloom at a prime shopping time such as Mother's Day. Forcing a plant to bloom stresses it. A plant with a poor root system and chemically boosted foliage, which has been forced into bloom, is not a bargain. Unless you're creating an instant garden, avoid plants that are in full bloom at the nursery as they don't transplant as well as those that have yet to bloom.
    - Check bloom color: Nurseries use blooming plants to draw you in - check out the gorgeous displays, but purchase plants that are not yet in bloom. Even better, select plants that aren't in bud yet. This way you know what the plant looks like when it blooms, but the plant will bloom in your garden instead of in the nursery pot.
    - Leaf health: Leaves should be a healthy, fresh green unless the plant is a hybrid, has a variegated leaf or naturally produces leaves of another color. Don't buy a plant if there are dark spots, puckered areas, holes, or brown edges on the leaves or if you see crawling or flying bugs. Plants should be pest-, disease- and weed-free. Wilting leaves may indicate a lack of water, root rot or other problems, so check before spending your money.
    - Soil: The soil should be slightly moist. If the soil is very dry, the roots are probably damaged, even if the foliage appears healthy. Young plants, even drought-tolerant varieties, need regular water to stay healthy until they become established in the garden.
    - Roots: Roots should be white and almost fill the pot, but not be a solid mass circling the pot wall. Lift up the container and look at the drainage holes. Are there long roots hanging from the bottom? This is a sign that the roots are crowded and undernourished; a coiled root system eventually strangles a plant. However, if the plant pulls out of the pot readily, the roots are not adequately established. The roots should reach into at least two-thirds of the soil in the container to form a strong root ball.
    - Small versus large: Size does make a difference! Flats of annuals or vegetables may seem to be a bargain, but plants in larger containers have developed better root systems. A healthy root system gives plants a definite survival advantage after being transplanted. However, the "bigger is better" philosophy doesn't necessarily apply to trees. It's harder to do root inspections on larger plants like trees. A smaller, healthier tree will often grow quickly and surpass a larger specimen within only a few years. Look for a plant with strong, well-spaced branches that will perform better than one with a few tall stems. Spindly growth may be a sign of improper pruning, inadequate exposure to light, or being root bound.
    - Well-run garden center: A nursery should be clean, tidy and orderly with different categories of plants (e.g., annuals, perennials, sun-loving, shade-tolerant plants) displayed in separate well-stocked displays. Plants should receive adequate water and cultural care. Sales staff should be knowledgeable about the plants they sell.
    Choose plants carefully - a bargain plant may have unhealthy roots or be suffering from other problems that reduce its chances of thriving in your garden. With proper care, most plants will recover from some neglect. But, choosing the right plant for the right place makes the gardener's life easier and ensures that the plant you choose becomes a lovely addition to your garden.