Buying Plants

Once you have readied your garden soil, you can begin to plant. Knowing your type of soil, your growing zone, and whether you'll be planting in sun or in shade will be of great help when choosing your plants. But there are a few other things to keep in mind. Nevertheless, buying plants for your garden is relatively simple once you know what to look for.

Picture of a greenhouse.
Many plants you'll buy for your garden will have been raised in a greenhouse.
See more pictures of greenhouses.

Depending on the type of plants you are buying, you will want to look for different tell-tale signs that the plants you bring home will be healthy, have an easy transition from their present condition to your garden conditions, and thrive in the long run.

On the following pages, we will discuss typical bedding plants and perennials, annuals, plants grown in containers, bare-rooted material, potted material, and mail order plants. We'll cover the basics and some additional details on the following pages.

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Buying Great Plants

Landscape plants available in the United States and Canada are generally of high quality. Whether you make your purchases through a local greenhouse or nursery, a mail-order specialist, a chain store, or a roadside stand, you'll usually find vigorous, insect- and disease-free plants. What's more, with rare exceptions, these offerings can be relied upon to be correctly labeled.

Sometimes the size of the plant is not indicative of its quality.
Sometimes the size of the plant is not indicative of its quality.

Because of this consistently good quality, it's possible to buy plants wherever you find the best price on the variety you want. Bedding plants and perennials are generally sold in packs and small containers. Unless you need to evaluate the color of the flowers, the presence of blooms is unimportant. In fact, annuals that are not flowering in the pack tend to establish root systems quicker than those that are in bloom, resulting in side branching and abundant flowering. To ensure an easy transition from the greenhouse to the garden, purchase plants at nurseries or garden centers at the proper planting time. Good plants are stocky, not leggy, and have healthy green leaves. They are not root-bound (having matted roots and too big for their pots), so the roots are ready to stretch out and grow in your garden. One way to check is to see if roots are already growing out the bottoms of the market packs.

Although plants are usually grown well, they are not always treated well at supermarkets and other places that do not specialize in live plants. Try to get them shortly after delivery from the greenhouse source, or purchase only from stores that keep tabs on the needs of the plants.

Annuals, trees, and landscape plants all require different treatment. Go to the next page to learn how to best pick and handle them.

High Speed Gardening: Handy Herbs
Herbs need a little space in the sun, not much more. You can find a rectangular container with matching liner that fits on your sunny kitchen windowsill or one of any shape that fits in a small spot near your doorway. You'll need potting soil with extra perlite for good drainage and six to eight hours of sunshine per day. Buy small starter plants of your favorite herbs, such as chive, parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, and mint, and combine them attractively in the planter. Set each plant as deeply as it was growing in its pot. Water the container, firm the planting medium, add more planting medium if necessary, and grow.

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    Buying Annuals, Trees, and Landscape Plants

    Young annuals are tender. If these plants will sit for a few days before you have time to plant them, be sure to attend to their needs for light, warmth, and water. Keep them outside in bright light but protect them from the strong afternoon sun and from high wind. Check the soil moisture daily; bedding plants dry out quickly and require regular watering. Each time bedding plants wilt, some of their strength is lost.

    Picture of white magnolia buds.
    Magnolia trees are very popular due
    to their delicate spring blossoms.

    Trees, shrubs, and vines that have been grown in containers may be purchased and planted any time the ground isn't frozen. Moving a plant from a container to the garden does not shock the plant as does digging it up from a nursery row. Look for plants with vigorous growth that are well rooted but not crowded in the container and have no visible signs of pests or damage.

    Landscape plants that have been dug from the nursery and have had their root ball wrapped in fabric are referred to as "balled and burlapped" (B&B). Purchase B&B plants only during spring and fall -- their root systems are most actively growing at those times and are able to overcome the shock of disturbance. Pick plants that appear to have been freshly dug. A loose ball of roots indicates damage -- choose another specimen. Choose trees carefully. By the time they are big enough to purchase, their trunk shape and branching habit have been determined. If there is a problem, it may not be correctable.

    Annuals are some of the most popular and decorative plants in the summer garden. On the next page, you'll find some great tips for selecting quality annuals that will endure and grow well in your garden.

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    Selecting Annuals

    Once you've determined which annuals you'd like to plant, you'll want to find the best quality plants and seeds possible. Fortunately, seeds and boxed bedding plants available in the United States are generally of high quality. The tips outlined below will also help.

    Delphinium is an annual of both great beauty and height.
    Delphinium is an annual of both
    great beauty and height.

    Whether you make your purchases through a local greenhouse or nursery, a chain store, or a roadside stand, you'll usually find fresh, high-quality seeds and vigorous, insect- and disease-free plants. What's more, with very rare exceptions, these offerings can be relied upon
    to be correctly labeled.

    Because of this consistently good quality, it's possible to buy plants wherever you find the best price on the variety you want. However, before buying, be sure that it really is the lowest price. That is, one retailer may sell a "box" for $3.99 and another sell a "box" of the same variety for only $3.50. But if the first box contains eight plants and the second contains six, the higher-priced box is the better buy.

    When possible, purchase boxed plants early in the season, especially if the store you buy them from is not a nursery or garden shop. Too often, the plants arrive at the store in vigorous condition but then are tended by personnel who know nothing about plants. As a result, watering is frequently haphazard and inadequate.

    Added to the problem is the fact that boxed plants are usually displayed in a hot and brightly sunlit outdoor location where the sun and wind dry them out. Unfortunately, each time the plants wilt down some of their strength is lost. Bedding plants that suffer from these conditions will be slow to recover when they're put in the garden. Here are some things to look for:

    • Leaf color: The foliage of naturally green-leafed plants should be bright green, not faded yellow or scorched bronze or brown.

    • Plant shape: The sturdiest seedlings will be compact, with short stretches of stem between sets of leaves. A lanky, skinny seedling is weaker and less desirable than a short, stocky one.

    • Pests: If you shake the plant, no insects should come fluttering off. Inspect the stem tips and flower buds for aphids, small pear-shape sap suckers. Look for hidden pests by turning the plant upside down and looking under the leaves and along the stem.

    • Roots: An annual with ideal roots will have filled out its potting soil without growing cramped. When roots are overcrowded, the plant is root-bound -- the roots have consumed all soil space and grown tangled. The best way to judge root quality is to pop a plant out of its container (or ask a salesperson to do this) and check to see how matted the roots have become.

    If the last frost date isn't yet passed, or your planting bed isn't fully prepared, it still makes sense to buy plants when they first arrive at the retailer's. Bring them home where you can care for them properly until you can plant them out.

    When purchasing packets of seeds, there are two things to check on. First, be sure the seeds are fresh. Somewhere on the label it should read "Packed for sale in 20--." Make sure it's the current year.

    Second, when deciding between several sources for the same kind of seed, look at the number of seeds each company offers in its packet. As with the boxed plants, the lower-priced packet is not always the best buy.

    All of the large seed houses supply reliable, fresh, high-quality seeds. In addition, you'll find there are many small specialty seed companies sending out catalogs. Little is known about these suppliers; they may or may not be reputable. When dealing with a seed company you haven't ordered from before, it's a good idea to buy only two or three packets the first season. How well those seeds perform will determine whether or not you want to order more from that company in the future.

    Unlike annuals and most other plants, bare-root plants come "naked" with no soil and just a bit of moist packing. Read about buying and transplanting bare-root material on the next page.

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    Buying Bare-Root Plants

    The term bare root refers to a plant that has no soil around its roots when you unpack it, though there is often a bit of moist packing. Plants sent by mail order are often packed bare-root. You can occasionally find perennials in garden centers that are packed this way. They should be dormant but ready to grow new leaves when planted.

    Bare-root packing works perfectly well and is in no way harmful to the plants, as long as the roots have remained moist in transit. The plants should have well-branched roots, including the smaller feeder hairs. If you find the roots are bone-dry when you receive your shipment, there is some cause for concern. If this happens, thoroughly soak the plant roots in a container of water for about an hour. Plant them outdoors, and most will revitalize. Report any plants that do not show signs of new growth after three weeks, explaining that they arrived in dry condition. Plant supply houses are so experienced in packing bare-root plants that there is seldom a problem. When there is, it's usually because the shipment was somehow delayed in transit.

    Ideally, bare-root plants should be planted immediately after arrival. If that's impossible, unpack them right away and place their roots in a container of water (do not submerge the tops). This will hold them a day or two at most. To hold them longer, plant them in a temporary garden spot in loose, moist soil mixed with builders' sand or perlite; be sure to plant them in their permanent spaces within a week or two. If you must delay planting longer than that, pot the plants in containers and grow them as potted plants until you are ready to plant them in the ground.

    Most perennials are best transplanted in the spring or, as a second choice, in the fall. Bearded irises, oriental poppies, and peonies usually fare better if moved only in the fall.

    Place bare-root plants at the same depth as in the nursery -- look for the soil line on the stem as a guide. Those that arrive as dormant roots have no stems or top growth as indicators. In these cases, specific planting instructions will usually accompany your shipment.

    When planting bare-root plants, don't just dig a small hole and jam the roots into it. Thorough preparation at planting time is a guaranteed timesaver. Make the hole large enough so you can carefully spread the roots out in all directions. You may need to place a pyramid of soil at the bottom of the hole, under the center of the plant, to have it at the right depth, with the roots spread down and around the mound. Then fill in the hole carefully, getting rid of all air pockets, which can cause the death of roots.

    Unlike bare-root plants, potted plants come in containers. Some plants are small and young, while others can be older and quite large. On the next page, learn how to get the best results when buying and transplanting potted material.

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    Buying Plants in Pots

    Many garden shops and nurseries offer an extensive variety of perennials planted in containers. It is possible to find a diverse array in nearby places and an even wider selection by mail order. When you shop locally, you can choose the individual plants you prefer and see their condition before you buy. Plant societies and garden clubs (the Rhododendron Society, for instance) often have plant sales where you can find unusual varieties.

    Potted chrysanthemums at a nursery.
    Potted chrysanthemums at
    a nursery await planting before
    becoming root-bound.

    Potted perennials are offered in a number of sizes, from small plants in three- to four-inch pots to mature plants in large metal or plastic containers. The small plants are usually only a few months old. In most instances, these will not produce blooms the first season. Those in large containers (often a gallon or more) may be in bloom at the time of purchase and can be expected to quickly become established in their new sites. Smaller plants usually cost less than larger ones; when small plants are priced high, it's because they are rare or exceedingly slow or difficult to propagate.

    Container plants should be planted outdoors as soon as possible after purchase. The longer they're kept in containers, the more likely they are to become pot-bound and dry out. If you must hold plants for a long time prior to planting, place them where they'll be under light shade and be sure to water them.

    When you are ready to plant your potted perennials, thoroughly moisten the soil before knocking them out of the pot. You can do this by plunging the container into a pail of water (to above the pot's rim) for a few minutes. Remove the container, and cut off any roots sticking out of the pot bottom. Tap the pot on the sides, and then slide the plant out into your hand. If it is stuck, cut the pot open (assuming it is plastic) and peel it off, to avoid damaging to the roots.

    Loosen and remove excess soil from around the roots. Most soilless potting mixes will fall away on their own. If the mix adheres to the roots, take away only what comes off easily or you could damage the feeder root hairs. Soilless mixes dry out faster than garden soil, so eliminate what you can without disturbing the root ball.

    Always place the plant in the ground at the same depth as it was in the nursery pot. Pack the soil well around the root ball, eliminating air pockets. At the surface, provide a soil dam to hold water near the root area by making a mound of soil in a ring around the plant.

    Another way of buying your plants is to order them from mail order catalogs. It may seem a little risky, as you will not be able to see and assess your plants first-hand, but you can learn the best methods for choosing and caring for plants that arrive by mail with the tips on the next page.

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    Ordering Plants

    When you unpack a box of plants that have arrived by mail, handle them gently. You'll find they are packed tightly together; this is done to prevent shifting in transit.

    It is important to get your mail order plants in the ground as soon as possible.
    It is important to get mail order plants
    in the ground as soon as possible.

    Check the plants' condition. Are they dormant
    or growing? Are the roots wet or dry? Are there any rotten spots on the foliage? Are the stems broken? It is amazing what a good job the packers do, but sometimes problems are evident. If so, contact the supplier for a refund or replacement plant.

    Even in the best of conditions, plants that have gone through the mail need a period of adjustment. Because the plants have not had
    a normal amount of light for a few days, they'll need partial shading at first. You can gradually increase the light over a few days. Plant and water them as soon as possible, and make
    sure they get extra care to harden them off.

    Finally it is time to plant. Keeping a few easy rules about transplanting and hardening off in mind, will help you get your plants off to the
    best possible start. Learn to help your plants make the transition from the nursery to the garden with the information on the next page.

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    Getting Plants Home

    Whether your new plant is coming from your own seedlings or the garden center, care is needed when it's time to plant it in the garden. Transplant in the evening or on a cloudy day to keep the sun from causing too much water loss in the plants and burning tender roots or leaves. Otherwise, provide shade for three to four days while the plant adjusts by setting an overturned box or newspaper cone over each plant. Mulch the plant, and water it well for its first growing season.

    Seedlings ready to be transplanted.
    Seedlings ready to be transplanted.

    Hardening Off

    "Harden off" seedlings and cuttings before they go out into the garden. When growing in the protection of a windowsill, light garden, or greenhouse, young plants are tender and can be easily damaged by strong winds or sun. Toughen them up (a process called "hardening off") to make the transition from indoors to outdoors successful.

    • Days 1 and 2: Put well-watered young plants outdoors in a shady location for several hours, then bring them back indoors.
    • Days 3 and 4: Increase the length of time seedlings stay outdoors in the shade.
    • Days 5 to 7: When well adjusted to shade, gradually move sun-loving plants into brighter light, starting with an hour of sun the first day.
    • Days 8 and beyond: When seedlings can stay out all day without burning or wilting, they are ready for transplanting.

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