VIU Milner Gardens and Woodland

How do I choose the best plants at a nursery?

by Vancouver Island Master Gardeners Association

Question: How do I choose the best plants at a nursery or garden sale, and get them established in my garden?

Answer: Well before going to the nursery to purchase a plant, it is important to determine what type of plant you want, and which plants are most likely to succeed in a particular spot in your garden.

At the nursery with wish list in hand, pick out the best plant from the selection available:

1) Check for healthy new growth with leaves that are a bright, even colour (or depending on variety: bright and variegated leaves.) Plants with pale coloured leaves, yellowing leaves, and leaves with brown edges are not a good choice.

2) Look for bushy growth, rather than a spindly, leggy specimen.

leggy tomato Photo of a spindly, leggy tomato.

3) Look for signs of pests such as aphids, spider mites, scale and mealy bugs that can influence the health of your plant, or introduce the pests into your garden. Look for damaged or chewed leaves.

4) Check the condition of the root ball. A nursery will generally agree to have the plant taken out of the container to check on the health of the root. Roots coming out of the drainage hole are a sign of the plant being pot bound. Roots should show at the periphery, but should not be a solid mat girdling and choking each other. There should be no black, or spongy sections in the roots.

pot bound rootballs pot bound rootballs

Photos above displaying pot bound rootballs.

Action:  Once you have selected a healthy plant and are ready to plant in your garden:

  • Dig a hole deeper and wider than the plant container,
  • Make a mix of 1/3 of the soil removed from the planting hole and 2/3 good compost plus some bone-meal to get good root and stem growth,
  • Remove container and loosen external roots gently,
  • Hold plant into the hole and fill the area around the plant with soil mix ensuring that the planting level matches the original soil level from the pot,
  • Gently firm soil around the plant and water in well.

Season:  Any time, but generally spring.

Reference: 'Signs Of A Root Bound Plant: How Do I Know If A Plant Is Root Bound?'

Photos courtesy: Dorothee Kieser. 

For gardening questions in the growing season, contact the Gardening Advice Line.