Buying Nursery Plants

Nursery plants have several attractions. Skilled nursery operators, with a lifetime of seed-germinating and propagation skills, can usually do a better job getting plants started than a beginning gardener. And local nurseries have plants available when it’s appropriate to plant them in your area.

Buying plants in a local nursery allows you to see the plant you are buying. This not only shows you exactly what you are getting in terms of size and condition, but shows you flower color and other subtleties in ways that often can’t be seen in photos.

A good way to plant a perennial garden is to visit a local nursery regularly—once a month, for example—and select blooming flowers in the colors you want. This method is simple and pleasant, gives you season-long bloom in exactly the right colors, and give instant gratification.

Look for strong, stocky plants with a good green color. Avoid plants with signs of heavy recent pruning, broken branches, or too many broken roots (on bare-root plants). Inspect the plants for signs of insects and diseases. The table below lists some of the most common problems.

Symptom Problem Notes
Oldest leaves yellow Nitrogen deficiency The plant hasn’t been fertilized, and perhaps watered, enough. Although a problem that can be fixed with feeding, it is a symptom of neglect. The plant may be slow to start growing if it has been neglected too long.
White or gray powdery blotches on leaves Powdery mildew Common, moderately severe disease. Can be cured fairly easily, but returns frequently.
Scales or bumps stuck to leaves or stems. Can be picked off with fingernail or knife blade. Scale insects These insects cover themselves with a hard wax shell. They can be difficult to control, and can spread to other plants. Avoid bringing any home.
White, fluffy material like cotton litters plant Mealybugs or adelgids These related insects are covered with wax filaments. They can be difficult to control, and can spread to other plants. Avoid bringing any home.
Plant too large for container Potbound “Potbound” plants have been left too long in one container, and will be slow to begin growth again. If either the whole plant or the trunk diameter seems too large for the container it’s in, knock it out of the container and look at the root ball. If the root ball seems to be all roots, with little soil showing, and the roots are brown and woody rather than white and succulent, the plant is potbound.
Tiny white moth-like insects flutter around plant when disturbed Whiteflies This common insect can be difficult to control. Although you may shake all the adults off the plant before purchasing, the larvae, which look like little flakes of cellophane on leaf bottoms, are still there.
Yellow, brown, or black spots on leaves Leaf spot diseases Dozens of different fungi and bacteria can cause this plant disease. Most are not severe diseases, but disfigure the plant.
Dying or dead sections or branches Several causes If the cause of a dead branch is obvious, such as a break or wound, it won’t hurt the parts not affected. But if you can’t tell why parts are dying, it may indicate a serious problem.