154-Garden Savvy Shopping Tips for Healthy Plants

| Podcast, Prepare

These past few months have been difficult for many of us, but one bright side has been the re-ignited interest in gardening. I’ve heard from so many people who’ve never planted anything before but are eager to grow their own food. Gardeners of all experience levels have been able to spend more time with their hands in the soil too. It’s fair to say that most of us have been or plan to spend time shopping for more plants. But knowing some key garden savvy shopping tips for healthy plants can make all the difference when you plant them.

So this week, I’m sharing some savvy shopping tips to make sure the plants you bring home are the best they can be. Let’s face it – even if we are able to get out to a big box store or garden center, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of being surrounded by new plants and happy people. Too often, we impulse buy. We come to purchase an item or two and leave with a car full of plants. I’m sure guilty of that!

Yet as we all strive to take more control over the food on our table and seize this opportunity to reconnect with nature, I recommend that we each remember to pause and do this the smart way, because it will pay off big time in the long run. When you know what to look for, you’ll save yourself money and time, and your garden will be more successful.


seedlings at a nursery

The interest in gardening is stronger than it has been in decades. If you’re growing for the first time or adding plants to your landscape, take time to make smart choices.


Online Shopping

We have more shopping options available to us than ever before. Convenience is often king, and so, the online marketplace has been experiencing a big boom in garden-related sales. That’s especially true this year.

Seed companies have been selling out, and online retailers are running low on inventory too. Amazon reported that their 2017 plant sales shot up 25% over 2016. That translated to $2 billion (yes, that’s a “b”) in gardening sales. Imagine what those figures must be now – three years later and in the midst of this confluence of growing interest and available time while being stuck at home.

Depending on the type of plant you need, purchasing via your wi-fi connection can be a great option. For seeds, unusual varieties or bare-root plants; an online supplier can be just the ticket, but be sure you do a little homework before you hit that “Complete your purchase” button. Don’t assume that what you get will look like the picture. Find out what guarantees the company makes that the plant will arrive healthy. Look into reviews to see if other gardeners have been happy with what they’ve received.

I love shopping online, but when it comes to plants, I really value the opportunity to scrutinize before I buy. There are key things to look for (more on those in a minute) that can only be discovered by having the plant at your fingertips. For that, we need to turn to a brick and mortar supplier.

Buying at the Garden Center

No matter where you live, you probably have at least one big box store within half an hour’s drive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone in for something like a box of nails or a can of paint and been lured into the garden area “just to look around.” Next thing I know, I’m driving home with a dozen plants, and I’ve forgotten all about the paint. It seems like our budget always has room for a few more plants, right?

It sure is convenient, but there are a few problems to be aware of when you shop for plants at the big box store. One of which is that, sometimes, you’re not even sure what you’re buying. Plant tags can be vague or even wrong. And even though there’s a huge sea of plants, the amount of diversity available to you is limited. Plants are stocked for sale with turnover in mind. Quality and regional requirements aren’t top priority. It’s not uncommon to find known invasive species on those big-box store racks too.


shopping for plants

With so many plants on the shelves, it’s wise to scrutinize the candidates to find the healthiest option.


Those are just a few of the reasons that I like to shop at and support independent garden centers and nurseries. They tend to offer a wider variety of plants and pay closer attention to the health of what they sell. There are small, regional garden center chains in states across the country, and they will be more attuned to which plants are appropriate to their area.

More often than not, your local independent garden center will be a single location – a mom-and-pop shop. Oftentimes, the owners of these nurseries will be working onsite with a small staff of dedicated gardeners. They tend to be very hands-on and more willing to accommodate your needs. If they don’t have a variety you’re looking for, they can probably special order it for you.

I was almost a nursery owner myself. As someone who was always growing plants and who loved spending free time wandering the green jungles of every garden center I passed, I nearly jumped at the opportunity to buy a well-established shop several years ago. The quality I saw at many nurseries wasn’t great back then, so I envisioned creating a destination garden center that would set a new bar for high-quality plants.

Here’s the thing – they don’t call it a nursery for nothing. It’s hard work babysitting all those plants – all the time. I’ve never been one to shy away from hard work, that’s for sure. Still, I realized the nursery business wasn’t for me, and I hope you’re as glad about that as I am. That said, I have an enormous amount of respect for those who run quality garden centers.

These businesses appreciate knowing what their customers want. Consumers have plenty of other options, so local nurseries understand that quality and customer service can make all the difference. They’re also one of your best assets for success. The big-box store clerk might never have heard the term “hardiness zone,” but the nursery employee will have the experience and knowledge to answer just about any garden question.

There are an increasing number of specialty plant boutiques too. These small independent businesses are also very motivated to understand their product, to get to know their customers, and to provide top quality.

For all of these reasons, I always recommend supporting these types of local plant suppliers.


independent garden center

Staff at independent garden centers will usually have the expertise to answer your questions, and they’ll usually be willing to special order the variety of plant you’re looking for.


Be Prepared

Remember that pause I suggested that we all take before buying plants? Take 30-60 minutes to pause and prepare, and you will save yourself hours of heartache and some hard-earned cash.


I know it might sound obvious, but start with making a list of what would be most useful or interesting to you. What do you like to eat? If you aren’t a fan of tomatoes, don’t plant tomatoes just because that’s what everyone does (but seriously – who doesn’t love tomatoes?).

What colors do you love? How much space do you want to fill? Do you want something that is green all year or that turns color in fall and sheds its leaves? Which fragrances make you happy?

It’s human nature to buy what’s immediately available to us. If what we had in mind isn’t right in front of us, we acquiesce to what is. Have a plan before you shop. Make a list to keep you focused when you get to the garden center (or online). You’ll be less likely to add something to your cart that never really fulfilled your need.

Consider calling ahead to make sure what you’re looking for is available. Otherwise, you’ll probably walk out with a compromise.

Don’t settle. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, ask. Buy what you will enjoy. You’ll be more likely to be successful in growing it.


Once you have your list, do a little homework before you buy. I know. Homework is never fun, but then again, you’ll be learning about plants. That makes everything better.

Here’s your plant-shopping homework assignment: Educate yourself with some online research before you buy. Understand the requirements and limitations of the plants you’re interested in and how they align with the environment you can provide. Get to know which plants will do best in your area.


shopping for plants

Before you ever head out for the garden center or browse online retailers, consider which plants you’ll enjoy most and learn which varieties best suit your growing conditions.


Sure, you can try to accommodate plant needs when the requirements don’t quite match what your property has to offer, but the plant will be less likely to thrive. So, it will also be more susceptible to pests and diseases. That will translate to more maintenance work from you and could even cause the loss of the plant – and the money you’ve spent on it.

Horticulturists everywhere know that the best plan is to pick the right plant for the right place. The closer your growing conditions match up with what the plant needs, the healthier that plant will be (and the better it will look or produce in your garden).

What to Look For

You can’t judge a plant by looking at a picture. You need to get your hands on it. Don’t be shy. Garden centers expect savvy shoppers to handle the merchandise. While the pursuit of perfection is a waste of time – especially when it comes to plants, just don’t settle for plants that are giving you these warning signs:

Keep Moving

There are some plants that you don’t need to waste your time looking over at all. If a plant on the shelf looks unhealthy, don’t bring it home – even if it’s on the sale rack. You want your plants to start strong.

If the plant looks spindly, has yellowing foliage, has brown spots on the leaves, etc. – that can be due to any number of reasons. The plant may be receiving too much or too little water, light or nutrients. Those issues are correctable, but it may not be worth the time or money it will take to restore the plant to health. That distressed plant is also more susceptible to pests and diseases.

Sometimes, those issues are the result of disease already in or on the plant, and you definitely don’t want that. It can be difficult to diagnose why a plant isn’t healthy, but if disease is the culprit, it puts the rest of your garden at risk.


checking plants for pests

Insects tend to hide under the leaves, so a quick scan there can identify trouble before you bring it home.


Check for Pests

It might look healthy, but there can be other trouble lurking. Brush your hand across the top of any plant you’re considering – or pick it up and give it a gentle shake. You’ll quickly see if the plant is infested with flying pests. Whiteflies are common in garden center plants, and you do not want to bring those home.

Look under the leaves of the plant for signs of other insects. That’s where they love to hide. You might see the insect, but look for eggs or brown leaf spots. Those are also indicators that the plant has a pest problem. Now sometimes, the insect is beneficial, but unless you’re sure, leave the plant on the shelf.

Consider Size

We tend to think bigger is better. However, smaller plants will often establish much more quickly than a plant 2-3 times larger. Once they are in the garden, small plants can catch up to larger plants fairly quickly. You can save quite a bit of money – and have a healthier plant long term – when you start small. That’s what I usually do, and I’ve never been disappointed.

Before a plant ever reaches store shelves, it’s often been repotted several times. It’s not uncommon to see plants for sale which have just been potted into a larger container to increase its sale price. So, don’t assume that the plant is as mature as the container would lead you to believe.


container plants

This is two shrubs side-by-side in a container. These close quarters have set both plants in competition for space, water, light, and nutrients. Neither will be as healthy as it should be.


Check the Base

You might never have noticed, but sometimes, there are two or more plants in one container. Those multiple plants can create the illusion of a larger, healthier single plant; but don’t be fooled. How can you tell? Check the base of the plant.

Look for the point at which the stem meets the surface of the soil. You might be surprised how often you’ll see two or three stems packed together.

Sometimes, multiple plants is a bonanza. If I’m shopping for a variety that’s a little more expensive or difficult to find, I love finding multiple plants in a single pot. When I get them home, I carefully divide them up and plant them out.

That said, two or three plants squeezed into close proximity means that none of those plants are meeting their potential. Plants need space. Close confines create stress, and stress puts the plants’ health at risk. So if you have plenty of single plant options, those are the better choice.

Check the Roots

What’s inside the container is just as important as what’s above the container. You can’t truly judge a plant’s health until you take it out of the pot and look at the roots. Again, remember that garden centers expect this from shoppers who are buying wisely.

When I remove a plant from the container, the most important thing I’m looking for is root density and health. Once the mass runs out of room to develop properly, roots continue to grow and become tightly bound. Roots on the perimeter begin to circle the inside of the container. This rootbound condition can be so severe that it chokes the plant.

Compacted roots lose the ability to take up water and nutrients. Roots can continue circling and eventually girdle the plant, effectively strangling it.

Hopefully, you can find a plant that’s not rootbound, but if you don’t have a better option, you can take steps to correct the issue once you get the plant home. Liberate a rootbound plant by teasing apart the roots with your hand. Roots can take some tough love, so I don’t shy away from bringing my soil knife or pruning saw to their rescue either.


shopping for plants - rootbound

The roots on the right are healthy and will adapt quickly to a new environment. Notice the circular pattern of the rootbound mass on the left. Unless they are pulled apart or cut, the roots will continue to grow in the same pattern – even after you place the plant in your garden.


For severely bound roots, I’ll run my saw or knife along the sides of the root mass. It’s called a “box cut” and by making the cuts, you’re essentially pruning the roots. It will encourage them to grow outward from the point of each cut, and the plant will recover nicely.

One other root issue I look for before I buy is color. Regardless of species or variety, plant roots should be white or lighter in color. If they are brown or squishy, something is wrong. Sometimes, roots can even smell bad. Pass those plants by and look for healthy light roots.

Avoid the Showstopper

Finally, one mistake that plenty of gardeners make all the time is buying the plant that is full of blooms or fruit. It’s so enticing to buy that immediate gratification in a pot, but don’t take the bait. Remember that those plants are just about to fade or, at best, are expending most of their energy toward flower or fruit.

Look for the plants that haven’t quite reached that stage yet. When you put that plant into the soil in your garden, you want it to devote energy to root development. It will ensure that the plant will establish more quickly and will be better off long term.

When a specimen in full bloom or fruit is transplanted into the garden, it can experience a setback. It won’t have the extra energy to support the show-stopping glory above ground and new roots below ground, simultaneously. This is especially true of annual plants.

I make a point to pick the plant that hasn’t quite reached its full potential. I want that explosion of color or fruit to happen once I get it into my garden. You should too.

Next Steps

Once you’ve taken all the right steps to bring home those healthy plants, there’s one more tip that you should keep in mind. How deeply you plant matters – big time. There are a few annual species which can be planted deeply – like tomatoes. However, most of what you buy should be planted at or, usually above, the depth of the container.

Trees and shrubs are particularly sensitive to depth. For trees, the key factor is the depth of their root flare in relation to the soil surface.

The root flare is the point at which the stem or trunk flares out into roots. Sometimes, the flare is buried under the surface in the container. If you don’t see the flare when you get the plant home, gently pull the soil away from the base until the flare is exposed. Then, be sure to keep the flare higher than the surface of the soil when you transplant it into your garden.

I like to plant at a depth that keeps the point where the flare meets the roots about 25% higher than the soil surface. I mound soil up slightly and protect the roots with a layer of mulch. The mounded soil will keep water flowing away from the very base of the plant, and that’s a good thing. When water remains near the trunk or stem, it promotes disease and can actually rot the base. It’s always better to plant a little too high than a little too low.


shopping for plants

Although this plant is alive and the top doesn’t look terrible, the roots are very unhealthy. If you’re looking at a plant with a soil-less mass of brown roots like these, pass it up.


Now, does all of this have you chomping at the bit to grow a little more green in your world? What’s on your plant wish list? Hopefully, you feel a little better equipped to be savvy about your shopping. Your garden will thank you for it.

You can listen in to this episode by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. You’ll hear about my childhood and early adult wandering through garden centers and a little more about my own plant purchasing problems.

Links & Resources

Episode 003: Growing Epic Tomatoes with Craig LeHoullier

Episode 049: When Good Bugs Eat Bad Bugs: The Business of Beneficial Insects

Episode 126: The Scentual Garden: Exploring Botanical Fragrance With Ken Druse

joegardener Blog: How to Plant A Tree the Right Way Guide – 7 Steps for Getting it Right Every Time

joegardenerTV YouTube: The Best Ways to Plant a Tomato

joegardenerTV YouTube: Shopping for Plants: Plant Shopping – What to Look for When Buying Plants

joegardener Online Academy  Three popular online courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!

joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Academy: Master Seed Starting – My newest online course teaching you how to master the art of starting your own plants from seed and seeding care! Registration closing soon, so don’t miss out!

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Growing a Greener World® Episode 110: Annie’s Annuals and Urban Tilth

GGW Episode 314: Just Because It’s Organic

GGW Episode 412 – Independent Garden Centers

GGW Episode 904: Waking Up the GardenFarm™


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About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

0 Responses to “154-Garden Savvy Shopping Tips for Healthy Plants”

  • John Longard says:

    The other day I went to a big box store (with the 1st letter being L) to get my blood meal for my straw bales and I was saddened to see not only about 1/2 of the employees not wearing protective gear but I saw vendors bring flowers to them and not one was wearing protective gear. There also wasn’t curbside delivery. When they didn’t have the blood meal, I went just a short distance to an independent store. They had a sign that only 4 could be there at one time. The young man went and grabbed the bags without any protective gear and handed them to me. I also had to sign for my purchase with the “community” pen.Now with mother’s day coming I generally get flowers for hanging baskets, but I’m reluctant to do this. Should I carry disinfectant wipes with me to wipe down containers or find another location?

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