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Gardening | Examine nursery plants before you buy

Tulips bloom in Brookgreen Gardens.
Tulips bloom in Brookgreen Gardens. The Sun News file

We all know to put the right plant in the right place. However, a not necessarily spoken caveat that goes with that dictum: Buy strong healthy plants.

Most of the plants we find in a garden center are container-grown. They are potted up to successively larger containers as they grow. The cost of the plant is directly related to the size of the pot. The larger the pot, the bigger the plant, the more the pot-plus-plant costs.

Pick plants with a good root system. Pull plants out of their pots and look at the roots. If they don’t reach the bottom of the pot or a clump of soil falls off the bottom of the root ball, the roots haven’t grown to fill the size of the pot. It’s not a good buy. You’re paying for a larger pot, not a larger plant, and the roots are not as well developed as you expect.

Buy flowering plants when they are in bud, not full bloom. You’ll get a glimpse of the flower color, but enjoy the blooms in your yard. This is not as much an issue with repeat bloomers; however, for perennials that bloom once per season, you definitely want the blooms in your yard, not the store.

Set the plants you pick out on a nursery cart. They will look different when separated from a mass display. The shape of the plants will be clear, so will the size, shape and texture of the leaves and flowers. You’ll also see how colors combine. By grouping your selections and isolating them from the rest of the nursery stock, you set up a preview of how the plants will work together in your garden.

Read plant tags. In addition to sun exposure and moisture needs, the tag tells you variety name, mature size and other information specific to that plant. Take the tag home and keep it for reference. Don’t rely on your memory; the variety name, for example, will be invaluable in the future when you try to buy more of the same plant.

Plants from the bargain rack can be a good buy. Perennials with spent blooms are often a good investment for next year’s garden.

Don’t buy diseased or unhealthy plants. Check the leaves, including the underside, for insects. Hold the plant up so the leaves are backlighted. Look for the fine webbing from spider mites. Make sure leaves are not curled or diseased.

Wilted plants are not necessarily a problem. If a plant is wilted and the roots are white and fleshy, it should do fine after a good soak to revive it. However, brown leaf edges, limp green-yellow leaves and leaf loss are typical when a plant has been stressed from lack of moisture. A plant in a pot filled with encircling roots and little soil has been nutrient deprived. Either way, the plant will be slow to come back and, indeed, may not recover its full vigor.

Often larger trees and shrubs are balled-and-burlapped. When buying large balled-and-burlapped or big container-grown plants, check that the roots hold the plant stable in the soil. Shake the trunk gently; if it moves within the soil, roots have broken away from the plant. Look for a plant firmly seated so the root ball moves with the plant. Avoid a dried-out root ball with disintegrating burlap and exposed roots.

Check the plant’s shape and branch structure. Look for symmetry. If most of the branches are on one side, don’t expect the bare side to fill out to match the other. It will remain lopsided. Also, if the branches are heavy at the top of a tree, it is unlikely to fill out underneath.

Sometimes the trunk of a tree is wrapped to prevent damage. Before you buy it, unwrap the trunk and check for hidden damage.

As with small container plants, make sure leaves are healthy and there are signs of new growth.

It will take you a bit longer in the garden center to thoroughly examine your plants, but it’s worth the investment.

Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at dmgha3@aol.com.

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