Getting the best plant for your money

By Helen Newling Lawson

Shopping for new plants is fun, but it can also be costly. Luckily, there are a few simple guidelines that can help you buy wisely and make the most of your plant dollars. 

A quality locally owned nursery is your best bet for finding top-quality plants. Knowledgeable staffers love to answer questions! Photo by Helen Newling Lawson.

First: Find a reputable nursery. They will do a lot of the work for you by demanding healthy plants from their suppliers, keeping them watered, and watching for signs of diseases. 

Next, take a bottom-up approach to picking a healthy plant. “The root of the problem,” isn’t just a figure of speech when it comes to plants. This means looking past the colorfully branded pot and bright blooms and tipping the plant out to have a look at the roots before you buy (yes, we promise it’s okay). Healthy roots are generally white or light brown. Dark brown, smelly, or rotten-looking roots are a sure sign of potential problems. Roots that are circled or packed into the pot are not necessarily a problem if you can untangle and spread them before planting. If the roots seem too thick to be straightened, or are too packed into drainage holes to pull the plant out of the pot, move on. On the other hand, if half the soil in the pot falls away, the plant may have just been “moved up” to a larger container and you are paying more without the benefit of a developed root system.

While you’re at it, feel the soil to make sure it’s not excessively dry. A plant stressed by lack of water can take longer to recover. Look for weeds growing in the soil to avoid bringing hitchhikers home.  

Don’t overlook obvious problems on leaves, such as yellowing, leaf spot, or wilting. Examine the undersides of leaves and along stems for insects such as scale, whitefly larvae, or leaf miners. 

Learn what common pests look like so you can avoid bringing them home. Scale insects, shown here, don’t crawl or look much like bugs in their adult stage, and some species are brown or gray, making them harder to spot. Photo by Plutarco Echegoyen,

You want woody plants to have even, undamaged branches. Depending on the plant or specific cultivar, look for the desired form, whether it is compact growth, straight trunks, or even a leggy look, such as crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) or chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus). Legginess is, of course, not always a desirable characteristic; shrubs will rarely fill out at the base. 

Don’t be afraid to take the plant out of the pot and examine the roots. Healthy roots are usually white or light brown and should not have any type of unpleasant odor. Photo by Erika Jensen.

If you’re in the market for trees, extension agent Tim Daly recommends looking at the caliper ratio, which is the relation of the circumference of the trunk to the height of the tree. He says it can vary by species, but a good rule of thumb is a 4-inch caliper (diameter):10-14 feet tall. Another good rule of thumb to know is that each inch of trunk thickness needs 10-12 inches of root ball diameter. Measure 6 inches above the soil line.

Finally, thoroughly research before you buy to know the mature size and all growing requirements. The plant tags do have some useful information, but are not your best resource. A healthy plant in the wrong place is still a problem waiting to happen.

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