Friday, June 24, 2011

How To Select Quality Plants

On the occasions when I do purchase new plants at the greenhouse – or anywhere else – there are certain steps I take to ensure that I take home healthy and thriving specimens. These steps should be taken by everyone. Selecting quality plants is not as obvious as you might think - especially if you are a beginner. It takes knowledge and experience to easily and effortlessly pick out the ‘cream of the crop’. If anything, you will make mistakes along the way, taking home plants that are not quite up to par. But the more you practice, the easier the selection process will become, guaranteeing you first-rate plants. In the meantime, until you gather all the experience needed, I’d like to offer you some advice from the experience I’ve gathered over the years to help you make the best possible houseplant choices.

I will start by saying that it’s important to do your homework before you even consider heading out to buy a new houseplant. Compiling a list of plants that will happily grow in your home environment under your personal growing style - and learning how to care for them before you take them home - is always step one into growing healthy flora. Examine each plant carefully before purchasing it. Never leave a store without a full inspection, especially to rule out insect infestations. I’ve listed some handy guidelines when it comes to shopping for plants below.

How To Select Quality Plants

- Steer clear of plants with physical damage: broken, ripped, scarred or damaged leaves and stems. If it doesn’t look healthy, it isn’t. Leave it behind.

- Select plants with stems and leaves that are firm and balanced; pass up any wilted or distorted specimens.

- Try to avoid taking home greenery in dried out soil; the plant has been neglected and its health may have been compromised.

- Do not take home a plant growing in saturated soil. If it has been over-watered extensively, it may already have started to develop root rot. The soil should be moderately moist for best results, not flooded.

- Choose specimens that display lush, full development, good colour and evident, vigorous new growth.

- Smell the soil. It should have that rich, earthy scent not a rotten one.

- Inspect the soil carefully for worms, centipedes, millipedes and any other soil-dwelling pests.

- Check for any signs of disease and poor health. Don’t buy plants with yellow, discolored, pale, brown, faded, mottled, withered or mushy foliage. Making sympathy purchases is not practical. Stressed out houseplants may or may not recover. Why take a chance?

- Ensure that there are no signs of roots dangling out of the drainage holes at the base of the pot. Roots should not be growing out of the bottom. If there are a lot of roots exposed, don’t make a purchase, make another selection. If you notice very little root exposure, the plant may still be salvageable.

- Check the top of the pot for roots growing on the surface. Just like the previous suggestion on roots growing out of the bottom of the pot, don’t buy a plant with too many exposed roots growing on top of the soil either.

- Choose flowering plants that are not in full bloom. Plants with numerous, unopened buds will last longer than plants in full bloom that will fade quickly. An opened flower has already been exhausted whereas one that is still closed has yet to be enjoyed. This rule does not apply to all flowering plants so take the time to learn about the plants you want to buy. For example: The flowers of an Anthurium last for several months so you can purchase this particular plant in full bloom.

- Inspect plants thoroughly for pest and insect infestations. Check the leaf axils, up and down stems, underneath the leaves, in bud clusters and every examinable nook and cranny. While inspecting, watch for sticky secretions or fine webbing – telltale signs of infestation. Never buy a bug-ridden plant convinced you’ll nurse it back to health. Infestations can be difficult to eradicate and they can spread rapidly into a major problem – into your other plants.

- Although not always possible, try to pick plants that are labeled properly, which will explain how to care for them. At the very least, ask the staff on hand for helpful advice and information; they are usually happy to oblige. Make sure you also inquire about the correct name of your plant.

When choosing a houseplant, remember these three words:

Performance – Are these signs of new growth?
Appearance – Does it look good overall?
Health – Are there any signs of disease or infestation?

Where Can I Get Me Some Of That Healthy Flora?

Now that you’re equipped with handy tips and tricks on choosing healthy houseplants, there is one more thing to consider: where to shop for plants.

These days, there are houseplants available for purchase far and wide – greenhouses, florists, home improvement centers, supermarkets, convenience stores and so on. There is no shortage of ‘plant-selling’ retail stores. But even though you can make a purchase almost anywhere, you can’t make a quality purchase everywhere. Your local supermarket might stack houseplants regularly near the fresh produce but I can assure you that the plants being sold there are not as meticulously cared for as the plants taken care of by personnel that specialize in that area. Professional florists and greenhouse staff – just to name a couple - are far more knowledgeable in plant care than a clerk in a supermarket.

My personal recommendation is to try and purchase plants from reputable stores where they are taken care of properly. This is extremely important when you are a beginner; the last thing on earth you need when you’re just starting out is unhealthy greenery that will discourage you from growing plants if they expire rapidly after you’ve taken them home. A garden center, nursery or florist usually has healthier plants and better selection than a local department store. The well-informed staff in specialized retail stores is able to provide you with all the information required for your plants to thrive under your care. The prices may be higher at these places but don’t forget that ‘you get what you pay for’.

Not all ‘specialty’ shops are made equal so make sure you inspect a potential place carefully before you hand over your money. Sadly, I’ve visited greenhouses that were shameful, offering some of the most neglected plants I’ve ever seen. So snoop around wherever you’re considering shopping, ask questions and examine the area before you buy anything.

Some questions you can consider:

- Does the staff sound knowledgeable?
- Do they answer your questions effortlessly?
- Is the nursery/greenhouse clean?
- Are there cuttings, leaves or particles of soil on the floor?
- Are the display racks visually pleasing or disorganized?
- Is the selection of plants impressive or mediocre?
- Have you spotted insect-ridden specimens?
- Are there bugs flying around the plants?

Take a good look around for signs of expertise - healthy greenery. If the plants in the store are in good shape, the one you walk out with will be too. A well-maintained greenhouse section of a retail store will leave you feeling confident that any living flora you buy from there will last a long, long time – longer than just the ride home.

If you’re searching for something unusual or less common than what your local shops have to offer, you may want to consider ordering plants via the internet or through catalogs with snail mail. Because you can’t physically inspect mail order plants or examine the greenhouses they are grown in, I would suggest ordering from companies that have been referred to you by someone you know. You can also gather references from online gardening and houseplant forums. There are a lot of members on these websites that are always more than happy to provide you with suitable mail order nurseries. These same members will also enlighten you about which companies to avoid.

If you do decide to have plants shipped to you, make purchases from companies that offer money-back guarantees or reasonable exchanges. Ordering plants through the mail can be risky - they can get damaged in transit – but a reputable company will stand behind the quality of their plants and replace any damaged, dry, diseased, infested or poor quality shipments. Ultimately, a company prefers to have satisfied customers who will continue to order more products as well as refer them to others.

If you are an experienced grower, you’ll tend to take more risks, make sympathy purchases from local shops and buy plants anywhere you can find them. By doing so, you go home with some incredible deals sometimes. And that’s fine when you are an experienced grower. If you are not, please remember to choose your houseplants carefully and leave behind anything that you are doubtful about. You want to bring home healthy greenery that you can enjoy for many years.


  1. Great advice :) I caught a good sale & was planting perennials all afternoon yesterday - wiped out. It's practically as effective as a workout!

    I broke the 'rules' with a few of my puchases, but by this time in the season, you have to expect a few stressed plants - they've been hanging around the garden center too long and there's still plenty of time for them to perk up with enough babying :)

  2. Thank you! A timely post, I'm heading out to pick up some flowers today:)

  3. Great post, Martha! Very informative and comprehensive.

  4. Thanks, Jane. I break the rules, too, sometimes. Especially if it's something I really want and it's at a terrific price. Temptation, temptation...

    And planting perennials is definitely a great workout. Whenever I spend a lot of time in the garden, I crawl back in when I'm done. And love it! :)


    Lael, Shine, you're welcome. I hope you picked up something really nice.


    Thanks, Liza. Coming from you, it's a great compliment.