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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.

    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.

    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!

Posted by

Thomas Christopher
on April 18, 2016 at 9:41 am, in the category It’s the Plants, Darling, Taking Your Gardening Dollar.

9 Comments

  1. More consumers should take heed of these tips. Plants that don’t thrive in home gardens are one of the big reasons why gardeners, especially novices, do not come back for more plants. A plant is only a bargain if it thrives when you have it planted in the ground at home, and have given it good care and nurturing.

  2. It’s become difficult to find b&b that are grown properly. Way too often, soil has been piled up around the trunk as the tree is root-pruned every year. I’ve removed 6+ inches to find the flare. On one red maple, there were literally no roots left by the time we reached the flare, a foot down. It’s a huge waste of time to have to return a crappy plant, and hope the replacement isn’t as bad. I’ve stopped buying b&b for that reason and stick with container-grown. At least in a container you can usually find the flare. In the nursery, instead of on-site.

  3. Here’s a DO: nurseries do an incredible amount of business Mother’s Day weekend. I always tell my clients to try to get there mid week before Mother’s Day; they’ll benefit from great selection, staff will have time to help, and they’ll beat the crowd. Then Mother’s Day can be spent installing and/or spending time in the garden instead of at a crazy-busy garden center.

  4. I used to be tree and shrub sales at an independent garden center. Weekday afternoon/evenings are often the quietest time to shop and you can easily claim sales staff’s undivided attention. Ask them a lot of questions and get their opinions as they can be fonts of knowledge. Before you walk in the door, analyze your sun and poke around your soil. That will help narrow your choices and make sure you get a plant that will thrive in your conditions. Be realistic about your maintenance style (how much pruning are you actually going to do) and if you are a formal or informal garden person.

  5. One good DO: Pick some plants that you are know that will really survive. One thing to consider and to look for is a set of thick or stocky stems. Thick stems are a sign that the plant is strong and healthy and more capable to survive during its transition from the pot and out into the ground. Plants with thin and frail-looking stems are definitely not a good choice.

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