5 Tips for Choosing Plants From the Nursery

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With the imminent arrival of fall, I can’t wait to get to the nursery to select plants for some empty spots in my landscape. Each year, I do an inventory or audit of my garden and look at plants that are struggling or just not adding much to my outdoor space.

If you are like me, you may be thinking of adding plants this fall too.   

select plants from nursery

In my career as a horticulturist, I’ve designed, planted and overseen the installation of thousands of plants over the years.

As you can imagine, I have accrued tips along the way of how-to and how NOT to select the best plants for the landscape.

Plant nursery at The Living Desert Museum in Palm Desert, CA

Plant nursery at The Living Desert Museum in Palm Desert, CA

In my online course, Desert Gardening 101, one of the very first sections deals with how to best choose plants from the nursery. Today, I’d like to share with you some of my favorite tips on how to select the best plants at the nursery that will save you money and future problems.

Earlier this month, I wrote about how important it is to research plants before buying. This is a crucial step to make sure that you are select a plant that will thrive in your climate.

I encourage you to take a few minutes to read these tips, which could save you from buyer’s remorse and a dead plant.  

Foxglove for sale in front of an Arizona big box store nursery.  This lovely perennial is not the easiest plant to grow in the desert garden.

Foxglove for sale in front of an Arizona big box store nursery.  This lovely perennial is not the easiest plant to grow in the desert garden.

1. Avoid impulse buys.

Believe it or not, some nurseries carry plants that will NOT grow well in your area. There are many times I have seen hydrangeas offered at my local big box store. While I would LOVE to be able to grow hydrangea in my Southwest garden, I know that within a few weeks of planting – it will soon languish and die.

Don’t assume that just because your local nursery sells a certain type of plant, that it will grow in your climate. Sadly, this is particularly true of big box stores.

Why do the stores stock plants that won’t grow in the local climate? The answer is simple – most people are drawn to these plants because they are colorful and beautiful.  So, they inevitably purchase them assuming that they will grow in their garden. A few weeks later, they are dismayed when their new plant becomes sickly and dies. This leads to many people believing that they have a black thumb.

smaller-sized container

2. Smaller sizes can be better.

In many cases, skipping over the larger-sized plant in favor of one in a smaller-sized container is the better choice.

Of course, there is the amount of money you will save, but did you know that the smaller plants have an easier time becoming established?

Smaller plants are younger and are better able to handle the shock of being transplanted than older plants. In addition, they have less upper growth (branches, leaves & stems) to support, so they can focus on growing roots, which is vital to its growth rate.

Bigger and older plants aren’t as adaptable and take an extended length of time to grow.

Planting smaller plants works best with those that have a moderate to fast growth rate. For plants that take have a slow rate of growth, you may want to select a larger plant size.

Another bonus is that in addition to saving money, you don’t have to dig as large a hole!

Root-bound plant

Root-bound plant

3. Avoid plants that have been in their containers too long.

  Sometimes, nurseries don’t sell plants as quickly as they’d like. So what happens when a plant sits in a container too long?

The roots start growing around and around each other causing the plant to become root-bound. Once roots grow this way, they have a hard time growing outward into the soil as they should. Eventually, the plant will can decline and even die.

How can you tell if a plant has been in its container too long?

– Look for signs such as weeds growing in the pot, which indicates that it may have been in the nursery for a while.

– Are there any dead leaves inside the pot? This is also an indicator that it may have been sitting in the nursery for a long time.

– See if roots are growing through the drainage holes – if so, that is a clear indication of a plant that has been its container too long.

Root-bound plant

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If you have brought a plant that turns out to be root bound, you can help it out. Take a box cutter or ‘hori-hori’ garden knife which is a soil knife that is useful for cutting and digging. I use it to make a series of vertical cuts around the root ball so that you are cutting through the circled roots. Do this on the bottom too.

By cutting the roots, you are disrupting the circular growth pattern, and they should be able to grow out into the surrounding soil.


4. Select healthy plants.

While most plants at the nursery are usually healthy and in good shape, this isn’t always the case.

Avoid plants with yellow leaves, which can be a sign of incorrect watering. Look for signs of any yellow or brown spots on the leaves as well, which can be a sign of disease. Also, check for signs of disease such as insects or the presence of webs or chewed leaves.

Bringing any plants home with a disease or damaging insects can inadvertently infect your existing plants.

Check the soil in the pot and if appears overly moist or has a funny odor, walk away. Overwatered plants rarely do well.

select plants from nursery

5. Select plants that are grown locally whenever possible.

In Arizona, where I live, many plants found in our nurseries are grown in California. (I don’t have anything against things from California – I grew up there 😉

However, plants that are grown in a different climate and then brought over to another one can have a tough time adapting to the new climate unless they have had time to ‘harden off’ and adjust to the weather conditions.

When possible, choose plants grown by local growers. Not only will the plants have an easier time becoming established, but you will also be supporting your local economy.

Do you have any plant-buying tips? Please share them in the comments.

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
13 replies
  1. Aaron Dalton
    Aaron Dalton says:

    Great post, Noelle!

    Lots of good advice here.

    I've had good results (so far) with plenty of rootbound plants following the suggestion you give — cutting the circling roots.

    And I think you're right about small plants often settling in better than larger ones. (Although there may be a sweet spot — sometimes very small / very young plants have a hard time surviving difficult conditions. For instance, I've had some bad results with quart-size or even 1-gallon plants. Maybe 3-5 gallons is the ideal size to get started? (I've gone much larger for some trees and shrubs – 7-gallon or even 15-gallon or balled and burlapped. Some of those plants do well, but others have really struggled.

  2. Olivia Nelson
    Olivia Nelson says:

    I like your idea on how a smaller plant can be better. I would imagine that finding a plant from a nursery that has time to grow would be really beneficial. I’m looking for some plants for my garden so I’ll have to choose smaller, younger ones so they will grow more.

  3. Jen Pack
    Jen Pack says:

    I love have plants in my home on the exterior as well as the interior. I like the tip you give of going to a local plant store and making sure you research possible plants you want to buy in depth so that you don’t end up buying something that won’t grow in the local climate. I imagine that it would also be a good idea to go around with an employee so that those kinds of questions can easily be answered. Perhaps we will talk to other people that live around us and see where they would recommend we go.

  4. Yilliang Peng
    Yilliang Peng says:

    I never knew that getting a plant that has been in a pot for too long is a bad idea. I figured that once the plant was planted in your yard that the roots would spread out a bit more, but I guess that they do not live as long as others. My wife and I recently moved into a new home and so we are looking to plant some greenery, so this information is really helpful — thank you!

  5. Tomas Killington
    Tomas Killington says:

    My wife and I have recently moved into home that has a large yard. We are wanting to choose some plants we can put into our flower beds and garden. I didn’t realize that smaller plants have an easier time establishing themselves after planting has occurred. That’s really cool information I’ll remember next time we go to the nursery.

  6. Annika Larson
    Annika Larson says:

    I am looking to buy some plants and flowers to add some color to our yard. At the nursery, I want to make sure I choose the right ones. As you said, plants grown locally are better acclimated to the environment. We’ll be sure to buy locally.

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