Plant Shopping Dos and Don’ts by Thomas Christopher

Plant-shopping is a hobby for most addicted gardeners, but it’s also a craft. Years ago, when I wanted to sharpen my skills, I consulted with the buyer for a busy Long Island landscape installation company; this company depended for its reputation on installing only first class plants. The buyer generously shared his checklist for plant evaluation, which I still take with me to the nursery whenever I go.

  1. When shopping for deciduous trees or shrubs, look for leaves that are torn or brown along the margin – this is likely to be a sign of trauma the plant experienced during shipment from the grower to the retailer. If handled carelessly during shipment, a plant may experience dehydration, scalding sun and hurricane-force winds in the back of an open truck. Sure, the plant may recover from this, but why take a chance?
  2. Check for yellowed leaves – these are commonly a sign of damaged roots. This can happen if the nursery help is less than conscientious about watering or if the plant is left in a too-sunny, too-hot spot. If the nursery staff will allow it, slip the plant out of its container – the root tips at the outside of the ball should be crisp and white, not brown or black.
  3. When shopping for trees, check the trunk. There should be neither bruises or cuts in the bark or the scars of old injuries. Such an injury, the legacy of rough handling, is an entry point for diseases and decay.
  4. Check for stubs of cut-back branches. At best this is evidence of unskilled pruning and symptomatic of poor care while the shrub was grown. At worst, it suggests that at some point the shrub or tree suffered some sort of die-back and the grower simply hacked it back rather than discarding the unhealthy specimen.

    Plant Shopping 2

    Branch stub is evidence of poor pruning and dieback

  5. When shopping for conifers, run a hand over the needles. If they feel dry, that’s an indication that the plant has been allowed to dehydrate at some point and the roots were damaged. Conifers rarely recover from this kind of stress.
  6. Check the rootball of B&B (balled and burlapped) trees or shrubs.   A sagging or flattened ball, or rotting burlap, suggests the plant has been sitting in the nursery yard for a long time, which dramatically reduces its chance of surviving transplanting.

    Plant Shopping 3

    Rotting burlap and dead roots are clues this plant has been in the nursery yard too long

  7. Buy young. Large, bargain-priced specimens may be appealing but they suffer more from transplanting and even if they don’t die subsequently they are likely to sulk. Younger plants tolerate transplanting better and will recover and resume growth much faster so that within a few years they are likely to outgrow the larger specimen. This makes the smaller plants a double bargain, as they are also cheaper, typically, at the time of purchase.

If you have any favorite shopping tips, please share!

Plant Shopping Dos and Don’ts originally appeared on Garden Rant on April 18, 2016.


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