How to Buy Healthy Plants

Not every plant is created equal, and some won’t survive in your garden. Here are signs that a plant will fail, and tips on how to spot a healthy grower.

Make sure you know your hardiness zone before buying plants. Image: Danie van der Merwe/Flickr

Everybody’s selling plants these days — nurseries, big box stores, even your local grocer. But not all plants are healthy, and some will die quickly or look sickly in your garden. How do you know which plants you should pass over? So glad you asked.

Jon Feldman, landscape designer and president of G. biloba Gardens in New York, reveals signs of a struggling plant. Here’s what to watch for:

Tall and Leggy

When it comes to plants, fat is good; skinny is bad. Oh, to be a plant.

Overcrowded, hothouse-raised plants must stretch for sun, becoming leggy and stressed and less likely to thrive in your garden. Instead, look for short, stocky plants with multiple stems, which probably grew in more light and in richer soil.

Potting Problems

Like Goldilocks, plants want pots that are just right for their size. 

  • Too small: Roots become tangled. Turn the pot over; if you see roots trying to escape through the bottom of the pot, then the plant has become pot-bound. The good news is that you’re paying for, say, a 2-gallon plant that should have been in a 5-gallon pot. The bad news: The more mature plant hasn’t been getting the soil nutrients it needs, stressing it out. 
  • Too big: Roots aren’t big enough to slurp up all the water in the pot, which keeps the soil perpetually moist and promotes disease. You’ll know if the plant seems floppy in the pot.
  • Just right: A properly potted plant is snug, but not suffocated in its pot. Roots should hold it securely in the soil, but not pop out of the bottom.

Veggie Plants with Yellow-Green Leaves

Chlorophyll, the molecule that traps the sun’s energy, makes green plants green. Although healthy perennials can thrive in all shades of green, healthy vegetable seedlings should be a dark green, like the color of spinach. This says the plant has been able to produce enough chlorophyll to create enough energy for it to grow. Seedlings that are pale or yellowy green have a poor prognosis.

Lackluster Leaves

Curled, droopy, drab-looking leaves means the plant is stressed. The cause?

  • not enough water
  • insect infestation
  • lacking nutrients

Plants with sickly leaves will likely struggle in your garden. Instead, pick plants with shiny, erect, and colorful leaves.

Plant Selection Tips

  • Buy perennials later in spring when you can see three or four buds — instead of just one — popping up from the pot. 
  • Only buy plants with planting and care labels.
  • Know your hardiness zone (they changed this year) and pick plants appropriate for your zone.
  • If you’re on a limited budget, buy fewer but bigger plants, rather than twice the number of younger and smaller plants. Bigger plants have more mature root systems, which will help them survive and thrive.

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