That garden sale down the street may not be such a bargain if the plants are in poor health. Before spending your money, be sure to inspect the entire plant carefully for problems – from the leaves right down to the roots.

Perennials on display

This display of perennials includes lots of healthy plants.

Photo Credit: ©2006 Frank Tansey

Garden cart with geraniums

Load your garden cart with only health plant

Photo Credit: Donna W. Moramarco

Shape (Habit): The overall habit, or shape, of the plant is very important. You want something that’s fairly compact with good basal branching (branching from the lowest part of the plant/trunk). If the plant looks too stretched out or elongated and spindly, it’s been straining for light, so don’t necessarily go for the tallest plant, because that may not mean it’s the best.

Flowers: It’s really tempting to choose the plant that’s covered with countless pretty flowers. But if you’re looking to buy a flowering plant, choose one that’s well-budded with only a few open blooms. Some plants, like impatiens, are fine to purchase when they’re in full bloom, but most plants are better flower producers when they’re bought at a younger age. Plants that are “in bud” transplant better than plants that are “in bloom” because they suffer less transplant shock and develop roots faster.

Leaves (Foliage): Examine leaves to make sure they’re clean, shiny and lush, with no insect or disease damage. (Check the undersides of the leaves as well.) Wilted or yellowed plants indicate a problem, and they may not recover.

When it comes to bugs, you may see the insect itself on the plant, but more often you’ll see some insect-feeding damage (like holes in the leaves). That’s not a good sign. Remember that if you take home a plant with an insect problem, you’re bringing the insects home, too. (And when it comes to buying houseplants, these unwanted insects will spread quickly in your home.)

Fungal growth on leaves appears as concentric rings or dark necrotic spots, and you want to avoid that as well. Diseases usually show up as random spotting on the foliage itself.

Trunk/Stems: If the plant is a shrub or tree, look for marks and cracks on its trunk and stems, as this may indicate prior damage that could have weakened the plant. A healthy trunk would not be scarred and would have the coloring and markings associated with that particular plant variety.

Roots: While you’re at the garden center, pop the plant out of its pot and take a look at the roots. (Also note if there are weeds growing out of the pot – weeds compete with plants for nutrients). A good white root system is usually a sign of a good healthy plant (although there are some plants, like pentas, that have very dark – almost orange – roots). Reject any plant that has brownish, soft or rotten roots.

You usually don’t want a plant that has roots coming out of the bottom of the pot either. Overly pot-bound plants are stressed and need time to recover once they’re planted. Little soil and lots of roots also indicate the plant is root-bound. On the flip side, if you can’t see the roots at all, chances are the plant was recently “potted up” (transplanted into a larger container), so it’ll also need time to take off and flourish in your garden. If buying a shrub or tree, the root ball should be solid and not broken (so the roots are protected).

So once you’ve selected the perfect varieties to meet the needs of your garden – and have inspected them to make sure they’re healthy – get those glorious plants over to your “blah” landscape so they can get to work spicing it up!