A Healthy Start: Learn How to Recognize Thriving Plants

Spotting the difference between healthy plants and failing plants will set your garden up for success.
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Choose Plants Carefully for Landscaping Design

Choose Plants Carefully for Landscaping Design

Compare plants before deciding which to buy, and avoid those in full flower unless you are looking for a specific color.

©2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2011, Dorling Kindersley Limited

Compare plants before deciding which to buy, and avoid those in full flower unless you are looking for a specific color.

The starting point to a successful garden is to buy strong, healthy plants that establish quickly and give a good display. Shop around for the best plants, and check them over first to find the healthiest specimens. 

How to Spot Healthy Plants

To find the healthiest specimens, compare several examples of the same plant at garden centers and nurseries. Avoid any with obvious problems, such as broken stems, sparse growth, or signs of pests and disease. Also steer clear of plants that don’t appear fresh, with old growth, tired-looking compost, and faded or missing labels. Inspect the plants fully, and ease them from their pots to check the condition of the root system. 

The best time to buy and plant perennials, shrubs, and trees is while they are dormant from fall to spring. ` you might prefer to wait until spring when new growth shows. Evergreen perennials should be planted in mid-to late spring so that they can toughen up before the following winter. (Container-grown types can be planted at any time, as long as you keep them well watered.) 

For healthy perennials, look for plants with plenty of stems emerging from the compost. You can plant perennials and shrubs in full flower, but they will be slower to establish. It is preferable to pick plants in bud or those that have finished flowering. When deciding between new trees and shrubs, look out for balanced, well-branched plants with plenty of new growth or buds. 

Check Plant Labels 

It is easy to be tempted into buying attractive looking plants on impulse at garden centers, but check the label to make sure they are suitable for your soil and site. Check the plant’s eventual height and spread too, to be sure it will fit your space. Any questions? If you’re still not sure about a plant after reading the label, ask an employee for advice.

Storing Plants 

It is best to plant new plants within a few days of buying them to help them establish quickly. That might not always be possible however, especially if the weather is wet or you are in the middle of a garden project. Container-grown plants will be fine for a few days if kept well watered. If you need to store them for longer, move them to a sheltered spot so they don’t blow over, and keep them out of full sun, or they will dry out too quickly. For longer-term storage, it may be a good idea to re-pot them into large containers. This will also avoid checking their growth. 

Bare root plants sold in fall or winter are at a greater risk of drying out and frost damage than container-grown plants and need protection. As a temporary measure, “heel” plants into the soil, which involves burying the roots in a trench or hole. Choose a sheltered site in free-draining soil, and keep the plants well watered. Plant them out into their final positions before new growth appears in the spring. 

If you are unsure when you will be able to plant out bare root plants, consider potting them and standing them in a sheltered spot. Keep well watered and fed, and they will survive into summer.

Checklist for Choosing Container-Grown Plants

When buying any new container-grown plants, it’s a good idea to give them a quick check before taking them home. It will only take a few minutes for each plant and is a useful way to avoid potential problems or costly disappointments. 

Don’t feel awkward doing this in garden centers and nurseries, since they only want to sell healthy plants anyway. Most reputable stores guarantee their plants for at least 12 months, so keep your receipt as proof of purchase in case of any problems. 

  1. Signs of care are a good guide to how well a plant has been looked after. Look for plants that have been well supported with neat, tied-in growth and fresh compost. Avoid any plants that are tangled, straggly, or scruffy.
  2. Reject pots with mature weeds, because this suggests plants have not been well maintained; you will also avoid introducing weed species to your garden. Moss-covered pots should be rejected for the same reason.
  3. Look under the pot to see if there are roots growing through the drainage holes. Just a few suggests a healthy root system; lots of roots  indicate the plant is pot-bound and should be avoided. Remove the pot to check.
  4. Check the roots to see if they are healthy. Look for pale, plump roots and clear signs of new growth. Avoid plants with dead, black, or hollow roots that fall away from the compost. Also avoid plants with congested roots. 
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