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With the imminent arrival of fall, I can’t wait to get to the nursery to choose 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. 
 
 
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
 
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.
 

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.
 
 

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

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.
 
This blog post contains affiliate links.
 
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.
 
 

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.
 

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A few days ago, you may remember my post about my uncontrolled container plants.

Well, I pulled out some of my excess Trailing Lantana, which can be used in other areas of my garden.
Then I cut back the remaining Lantana and my Sweet Potato vine.
At this point, things were looking much neater, if a little bare.
I only bought a few new plants since I decided to keep much of my existing perennials.
I purchased Alyssum because I love their sweet fragrance.
I also bought Johnny-Jump-Ups, which are little Violas that are native to Spain.
I remember growing them in my little garden as a child and I loved how easily they grew for me.
Lastly, I purchased two Lavender.  They make great container plants and I love their flowers.
And so I began….
First, I dug a hole for my Lavender and then as I was removing the container, I discovered that they were extremely root bound.
Root-bound plants aren’t uncommon and are a result of being in the container too long.  The roots start growing round and round since they can’t grow outward.
If you find yourself with a root-bound plant, it is easy to fix.
Here’s how…
You simply make cuts to the roots.  This forces the roots to stop growing around and around and makes them grow outward into the surrounding soil.
I used my hand pruners to make the cuts, but you can use strong scissors or even a box cutter.
After you make the cuts, you need to ‘work’ the root ball.  What I mean by this is give it a ‘massage’.  This helps to further loosen the root ball and will help your plant to transplant much more easily….
Now my Lavender is ready to plant.
So, you may be wondering what happens if you don’t cut and loosen the roots of a root-bound plant?  Well, the roots will tend not to grow out into the soil, where there is moisture and nutrients and you plant will not do all that well.
After I was finished planting, my containers looked nice a neat – but a bit bare.  It will take a couple of weeks for my plants to grow and cover the bare spots.
In my purple container, I planted a mixture of Johnny-Jump-Ups and Alyssum.
In my yellow container.  I planted one of my Lavender and pruned back my Sweet Potato Vine, which will grow back quickly.
My blue container has a Lavender and White Trailing Lantana growing.  I pruned the Lantana back but like the vine, it will grow fast.
**Although both the Sweet Potato Vine and my Trailing Lantana are susceptible to frost damage – they are protected because my containers are located underneath the overhang of my house.
 
You may be wondering why I don’t fill my pots with colorful cool-season annuals such as Petunias, Pansies, Snapdragons and Stock?
I was thinking about this the other day and I think it is because when I managed landscapes, I was responsible for thousands of colorful annuals being planted twice a year, keeping them alive, fertilizing them often and trying to keep them from being eaten by Javelina and rabbits.
I also know a designer who creates beautiful containers filled with both annuals and perennials every year…
Her name is Maggie and someday, I may even try to recreate one of her beautiful container designs in my own containers.
But for now, I am happy with my humble containers.
I will show you some good ideas for cool-season container plantings with lots of color in the next week.  (Just because I didn’t plant that many in my own garden doesn’t mean I don’t know how 😉
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Baby watch update:
Two days overdue.
I have a feeling it might come today, but then, I have been known to be wrong 😉
I’ll let you know!