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How to Choose the Best Starter Plants from the Nursery

Not able to grow your own from seed? Here’s how to choose the best vegetable and flower starts.

Though you’ll get the most bang for your buck and have the greatest selection when growing from seed, we know this is not the best for everybody, for a variety of reasons. Of course, the next best option is to get yourself some vegetable and flower starts to get your garden going!

One of our favourite pastimes involves browsing through the endless aisles of a local nursery, picking out plant after plant to add to our little garden. We can’t help but feel like kids in a candy store!

But not all nurseries, garden centers and stores are made equal, and the quality of plants can vary widely between them and even within them. It’s important for the health and future state of your garden to start off on the right foot with healthy and strong plants. Here we’ve gone over what you should look out for when shopping for starter plants, to ensure you get the best your money can buy.

 

Are You at a Good Nursery, Garden Center, or Store?

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As you enter the nursery or garden center, look around to get a general feel for the place. Does the plant selection look healthy and robust, or do many of the plants look weak and sickly?  If everything looks good to go, keep on shopping!

You may have come to the nursery knowing what kind of plant you are looking for, or maybe you came to browse and see what catches your eye. Either way, this is often the easiest part of your decision making!

Just make sure you read the labels on the plant so you get something that grows well in the conditions you can provide it. If you only have a shady location, don’t pick plants that require full sun or you’ll only be met with disappointment. Other things are important too, like the size of the mature plant and care requirements. After all, even though a Japanese maple seedling may only be 3 feet tall when you get it, it might grow to be over 20 feet at maturity! This is no good if you plan on keeping it on your tiny balcony in the city, so learn to always read the labels.

Nowadays, you can buy plants almost anywhere. Plants from nurseries are not necessarily better than those you find outside the grocery store, but if you want advice on growing something you buy, the staff at nurseries are generally the better informed lot. Just something to keep in mind.

So now that you know what kind of plant you want to buy, how do you choose a good specimen from the sea of them in front of you? There are several things you can look at to help you make the best decision so that you go home with a healthy plant of good quality.

 

Choosing Pest-Free Plants

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If the general health of the plants in the nursery doesn’t look to be that great, it might be best to head on to the next place. It’ll serve you well to have the attitude of ‘better safe than sorry!’ when it comes to choosing plants for your garden.

In a nursery, many plants are housed at one time and they are displayed very close together. There is also a large volume of plants coming in and going out as they are sold. All of these factors increase the chances of a plant being exposed to a variety of pests and diseases. Because of this, one of the most important things to do is to always, always, ALWAYS inspect the plants thoroughly before buying. Take a close look at the stems, tops and bottoms of leaves especially for signs of any pests or damage caused by them. If you aren’t sure what to look for, take a peek at our Identifying Pests Guide for the most common pests, what they look like, and what kind of damage they cause.

Skipping this step can be devastating to your whole garden, as pests that have been brought in on new plants can spread very quickly! We’ve personally had issues with a single jasmine plant we bought that had a scale infestation. As scale can be difficult to detect (they’re well camouflaged), it eventually spread to several of our other plants before we finally took noticed. In the end we had to dig up and throw away several plants in order to put a stop to the madness.

 

Selecting the Healthiest, Strongest Plants

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Once you’ve eliminated the possibility of pest infestations and disease, it’s time to determine which plants are the strongest and healthiest. You should analyze each part of the plant if you can in order to come to the best decision:

 

Stems and Branches

Avoid tall or spindly plants. Short, stout and bushy plant are often the strongest, and will handle transplantation well and grow into healthy mature plants.

Plants with thicker stems and trunks will normally be the strongest. Thick stems lead to bushy and full plants.

A plant with many main stems that have a few branches each is often better than a plant with a single main stem that has many branches. After all, if a main stem is damaged and the plant only has one, that’s it for the plant! If the plant has many, it has a better chance of recovery and survival.

Look for damage. Breaks, abrasions and tears to the stems or branches leave the plant more vulnerable to disease.

 

Healthy Roots

A healthy root system is one of the most important parts of a plant’s anatomy. The roots bring up food and water to the main body of the plant, and so they are essential to the overall health of the specimen. Roots should be light in color, and the root ball should fill or nearly fill the planter it is in.

On the other hand, you don’t want a root system that is ‘root bound’. This occurs when the roots have outgrown the container and begin to circle around the bottom or walls of the pot. Eventually, tightly bound roots will become so compacted that roots in the middle are choked out. This will weaken the plant over time, and can eventually kill it. When planting something that has become root bound, you may be able to trim the roots or gently tease them out so they grow outwards again into the soil of a new, larger container. But keep in mind that not all plants can handle this. There are those that do not like their roots disturbed, and will grow poorly after this has been done. In these cases, it is best to avoid plants that are root bound altogether.

The problem here is that this isn’t always something you can check, as it is frowned upon to remove the plant from the pot yourself while at a nursery or store. If you have concerns about the condition of the roots you may be able to ask a nursery worker to do it for you. If you don’t want to go through the trouble, you can take a look at the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot to get a good idea.

If there are a few roots beginning to poke through the drain holes, you likely have a healthy root system within. If there are many roots poking through the drainage holes or if there are roots visible above the surface of the soil, you are probably looking at a root bound plant.

 

Foliage

The foliage should be clean and healthy looking, with no signs of wilting, mildew, insect damage or disease.

The leaves should appear to be strong and healthy, with bright colouring that is not yellowing or browning.

Inspect leaves for common problems. If the plant’s leaves are covered in spotting, or have brown tips or edges, choose another plant. These are signs that the plant is under some distress, whether from environmental factors or disease. If it’s just a leaf or two that is affected the plant may be fine, but we think it’s best to avoid the potential for problems, just in case.

 

Flowers

When buying flowering plants, it can be tempting to go for the ones with the most flowers… but wait!

Though it’s nice to see the plant in full bloom when you buy it, some of these flowers won’t last as long once you get them home. It’s best to buy flowering plants when the buds are just forming, so when they do bloom you’ll get to enjoy the whole show! If the plant you buy is already flowering, you may only get a few days or weeks to enjoy it, and then you’ll have to wait until next year to see it bloom in your garden.

However, this is not true of every flowering plant. There are several perennials and many annuals that have an extended blooming period. These varieties may bloom all spring and summer long. In this case, whether the plant is already flowering or not is of no concern, since they’ll produce plenty of flowers throughout the growing season for you to enjoy. For example, we love marigolds and blanket flowers for this exact reason! The flowers just keep on coming.

 

Bringing Your Plants Home

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And that’s it! If you follow the guidelines above, you should get home with an assortment of healthy plants that will grow up big and strong in your garden.

We’d just like to mention a few things to keep in mind once you get your new plant babies home.

If your plants were housed indoors at the store or garden center, allow them to acclimatize to the outdoor environment by placing them in the shade for a day or two. Gradually bring them into their proper lighting over the next few days so they don’t get sunburnt or stressed.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on the soil moisture until you can plant them in the ground. Nursery pots and those little six-cell containers aren’t very big and can dry out surprisingly quickly!

It’s best to plant your seedlings in the garden on an overcast day if at all possible, as transplanting is a stressful time for plants and the sun can be an added harshness factor.

 

This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. My wife has wanted to make in indoor farm for a while now. I think it’s a great idea to buy pest free plants when looking for starters. I wouldn’t want to buy a plant that is covered in pests that could harm the plant.

  2. You mentioned that a healthy root system is one of the most important parts of a plant’s anatomy. DO most nurseries have a variety of plants for different types of terrain? My wife and I moved into a new home and she wants to build a flower garden in the backyard. Checking out some of the local nurseries could be a good idea.

  3. Thanks for the informative read. My mother loves to garden and was wondering what to look for in choosing plants. You mentioned choosing short, stout, and bushy plants because they are the strongest and handle transportation the best. I’ll have to recommend this to my mother as she looks for a nursery to buy the plants from.

  4. Thank you for this article about what plants to choose at a nursery. It is good to know that selecting the healthiest and strongest plants is the best way to go. I did not know that one should avoid tall or spindly plants. Something to consider would be to ask for care tips before purchasing the plant to ensure that it stay healthy.

  5. My wife has been thinking a lot about her flowers lately, and told me that we need to figure out what plants we are going to buy. I really like that you say to avoid tall or spindly plants. It would be nice to have something a little smaller that will last longer.

  6. I really liked your advice about being sure you can read the labels on the plants at a local nursery or trade market to make sure you are buying something that will grow well in the conditions you can provide it. I am sure that talking with the workers and gardeners there would be a good way t o make sure that you are interpreting the labels correctly. This would seem to be an extra plus of using local nurseries as well, since you would be able to go back to them to get help on other projects.

  7. It was great to know that you don’t want to buy a plant where the roots begin to curve around the bottom or walls of the pot. My sister bought a plant once and its roots were popping out of the soil just a tad. Needless to say, the plant didn’t last very long. I will be sure that the ones I buy don’t do this as well!

  8. I appreciate the information on how to choose the best starter plants from the nursery. I agree that it is important to look at the plants and find out whether or not they have pests on them. I would imagine that pests can be a huge destroyer of plants and gardens and if you transport a pest to your garden it could destroy your whole garden.

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