Annuals and Vegetable Plants
  • Think small. Short stocky plants will survive transplanting better than tall, lanky ones.
  • For the same reason, it's best to select plants that are slightly underfed. Pass over those in full bloom. Better to choose plants that are still putting energy into leaf and root growth. They will grow better after transplanting and will bloom more in the long run.
  • Check the roots. Peek through the drainage holes. Look for a light-colored root mass in the soil, but there shouldn't be enough roots to completely fill the pack.
  • Count the plants in the plastic tray. You'd be surprised at the number of people who walk out of the nursery a few plants short of a full pack. If there's a blank, that means a plant has died, probably from disease or poor care.
Potted Perennials
  • Check the roots and make sure they're not wound around each other. You don't want a perennial that has been kept in the same pot for more than one season. Crowded and root-bound, they won't thrive when transplanted to the garden.
  • Examine top growth carefully. You should see more green than brown. A woody plant is an old plant. Be wary of plants that have died back in the center. That means they've gone too long without being divided.
  • Check the rules for "Annuals and Vegetable Plants" -- most apply to potted perennials as well.
Tree and Shrubs
Spending $1.90 for pack of petunias is one thing, but when you drop $100 or more for a tree or shrub, you'd better be sure it's in good shape.
  • Check the trunk and branches. Look for nicks or cuts in the bark. They are signs of rough treatment and possible entry points for insects and disease. Thin and weak branches or those with black tips indicate poor care, especially too little or too much water. If most of the leaves have spots or streaks, it is a sign of disease or a nutrient imbalance.
  • Examine the roots. Carefully remove the plant from its container or, better yet, have an employee do it for you. You should see a thick mass of light-colored fibrous roots throughout the soil. But if the roots are thick, brown and wrapped around each other, the plant is root-bound. Its growth will be restricted, and you shouldn't buy it. On the other hand, if you see more soil than roots, or if the soil falls away from the roots, that means it's only been recently potted. It might not have enough roots to survive transplanting. Pass on that plant as well.
  • Keep your eye on the "ball." You don't see as many balled-and-burlapped plants as you once did, but some nurseries still sell them. You can't unwrap the roots at the store, but if the wrapping is ripped or torn, the roots inside could be damaged. Gently squeeze the root ball -- you should be able to feel a firm root mass inside. If the burlap feels soft and empty, this may also be a bare-root plant that was recently packaged. Again, it may not have enough healthy roots to withstand transplant shock.
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