How to Buy the Best Perennials

Learn how to get the best deal on perennials—including tips on choosing healthy plants.

Native Plant Sale

Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Sale

Fund-raiser plant sales are a great way to find perennial bargains.

Photo by: Missouri Botanical Garden at

Missouri Botanical Garden at

Fund-raiser plant sales are a great way to find perennial bargains.

Make your landscaping dollars count by learning how to choose the best and brightest perennials at the garden center. With a simple inspection, you can quickly and reliably select plants that are rarin’ to grow—and avoid potential problems.

Start your pre-purchase inspection by looking at the plant itself. Look for healthy leaves that don’t have dead sections or weird spots—and that aren’t half-chewed. If you spot a leaf that’s missing a section, chances are there’s a slug, snail or caterpillar already hanging out in the pot.

It’s also important to check roots. To do this, gently squeeze the pot. While cradling stems and soil with one hand, upend the pot with the other hand and slide the plant at least half-way out of the pot. 

Examine the roots. Healthy roots are whitish. The soil should smell musty and wet. If you see roots that are black or indistinguishable from soil, don’t buy that plant. If soil has a sewer gas odor, that plant has been waterlogged and may be suffering from root rot. Don’t buy it.

Another root red flag is when there are so many roots that you can’t see any soil. The roots may also be growing in circles around the inside bottom of the pot. These are signs that a plant is root-bound. The plant may emerge from this condition after planting, provided you slice through roots and gently tease them loose. But if you have a choice, a non-root-bound plant is better.

If possible, steer clear of pots sprouting a host of small weeds on the soil surface. If you must buy plants like this, pull or clip weeds before leaving the garden center to avoid taking home any mature weed seedpods. Large weeds indicate a plant may have been in inventory since last year, which makes it a candidate for being root-bound. Definitely check the roots.

A perennial that has a tiny plant in a larger pot may have been recently transplanted by the grower. If you try to check roots, the plant may even fall out of the soil into your hand. Save money by buying the same perennial in a smaller pot—you’ll basically be getting the same plant and save some money, too.

Should you spring for larger pot sizes? That depends on your goals. If you’re hosting an event and need a lush, full garden immediately, pay for bigger plants. These are usually sold in black pots that are quart- or gallon-size. If you’re willing to wait, small perennials in 6- and even 4-inch pots catch up to the larger sizes after just one growing season.

Sometimes it’s more cost-efficient to buy a larger fibrous-rooted perennial, like a daylily or hosta, that has multiple crowns in the same pot. Before planting, separate the crowns and roots into separate chunks. No matter what size pot you buy, always choose ones that have multiple crowns to enjoy lusher, fatter clumps faster.

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