How to buy olants

How to Buy Plants

Jennifer NicholsField Notes

Now that spring is here it seems like potted plants are everywhere. Grocery stores, big box stores, and produce stands all have plant displays front and center to entice you into buying. If you are like me and find these green gems difficult to resist, here are a few guidelines to ensure that you make wise purchases.

Garden Centers vs Other Stores

In general, garden centers are set up to care for plants. Staff is trained to water properly, identify and remove diseased plants, and treat plants with care. Therefore, it is usually safer to buy plants from garden centers than other retailers. For bargain hunters however, there can be very good deals at chain stores because of their purchasing power. Regardless of where you shop, check to make sure the soil in the pot is moist. Plants that are stressed and are not as likely to perform as well as plants that have received good care. Also, if the plants are new arrivals, they are likely to be less stressed than plants that have been on the shelf or a cart for a long time.


When it comes to plant shopping, bigger is often better, but there is a caveat. Plants are usually sold by pot size, height, or caliper of the trunk, so make sure you are comparing similar sizes when shopping. Also remember, because plants grow, smaller plants can quickly fill in your garden spaces, so you can save money by purchasing plants in smaller sizes. And never sacrifice plant health to get a larger plant.


One of the most important but overlooked considerations when buying plants is the health and vigor of their roots. Plants with roots that do not fill out space in the pot are a poor value, while plants with encircling roots, or roots that are too crowded may be stressed or have difficulty getting established. Encircling roots can actually kill a tree over time, so make sure this is avoided. Do not be afraid to pull the plant out of the pot in the nursery, being careful not to disturb the soil. You should see roots along the sides and down to the bottom of the pot, but they should not be too crowded.

Buds vs Flowers

It is always tempting to grab the plant in the nursery with the most flowers in bloom, but sometimes that isn’t the wisest thing to do. If the plant is an annual and will bloom most of the summer, by all means, pick the one with the most flowers. If however, the plant blooms for a short period of time, choosing one with buds instead of open flowers will allow you to enjoy the full bloom time once you get the plant home.

Damage & Disease

Always be aware of the overall health of plants when you shop, and look for signs of disease and damage. Problems can occur in every phase of plant production; growing, shipping, and care at the retailer. Make sure leaves are free from excessive spots, are an appropriate color, and branches have not been broken. Mildews can occur on leaves when there is too much moisture and not enough air circulation; this too should be avoided.

Finally, look at the trunk of any trees or shrubs. Damage to the bark of trees is especially harmful, and trees may never fully recover from this damage. For this reason, make sure to select woody plants that appear to have been transported with care.


It is amazing how many different plants of a single species you may find in a nursery. These cultivated varieties, or cultivars, have different characteristics, so it is important to know what you are purchasing. For example, purple coneflowers have now been bred to come in oranges, reds, whites, with both single and double blossoms, and can be so striking that the latest variety is hard to resist. I have found however, that overbred varieties often lack the vigor of the species and can be poor performers in the garden.

Cultivars can also vary greatly in other ways, such as size. A ‘Red Sprite’ winterberry holly, for example, may grow to 3 feet tall, while ‘Winter Red’ may reach 8 feet. These two plants of the same species are not interchangeable in the landscape! So when I am not sure of the difference between a ‘Harmony’ and ‘Snowflake’ oakleaf hydrangea, I pull out my smart phone in the nursery and do some research before I buy.


Another consideration when plant shopping, especially when it comes to annuals, is brand name. Several years ago, as a plant buyer for a local nursery, I was given the task of streamlining inventory. We seemed to have hundreds of varieties of angelonia, petunias, and verbenas, and my job was to determine which ones were the best. I went through the inventory, and routinely found that the Proven Winners™ plants were strong, healthy performers. There are other reputable brands out there, and if you find one consistently reliable, by all means shop by brand name.

Start with a Plan, Leave Room for Impulses

As a designer, I am a huge proponent of starting with a landscape plan. This will ensure a cohesive design and can save you a lot of money in the long run. However, it is always fun to leave room in your landscape design so that you can fill in your landscape with impulse buys. Who knows, that latest purchase may be just the right plant to add that special something to your garden!