How to Choose a Healthy Plant

Spring Garden

Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding Heart) is one of the perennials that goes dormant in mid-summer. Shop for this plant early in the season.

Recently, I was helping a customer who wanted to purchase a shrub. “Choose a good one for me,” she requested. “Well,” I said as I pulled some plants aside, “I think this one looks nice, and this one…but not that plant.” The woman was surprised. “That was the very one I would have bought!” she said. “It’s so much bigger. Why don’t you like it?”

I pointed out to her that although the shrub in question was larger, it showed very little new growth. In early summer, most plants are actively growing, and a strong, healthy plant should be covered with attractive new foliage. The shrubs I chose were smaller, but they were filled with fresh stems and leaves.

Size isn’t the only reason that people will pick a weak plant over one that’s more vigorous. Most people are seduced by flowers; time after time I see someone reach for the plant with a bloom on it, bypassing its stronger, but flower-less, neighbor.

Mixed Garden

Look for plants that have nice looking foliage as well as beautiful flowers. Foliage color and texture will be in the garden before and after the blossoms, and using a variety of leaf types will add interest to the garden all season.

Now I’m not telling you to ignore a flowering plant. I’m saying, look at the overall condition of the stems and foliage first and then consider the blossoms. A plant that’s thriving will have strong stems and green leaves unless, of course, the foliage has been bred to be variegated, purple or golden.

Japanese Fern

Some plants are small when they are in pots, and many people pass them by in favor of larger plants with showy blooms. Finding the right plant for your location, and being willing to wait a couple of years for it to come into its full glory, will give you a more beautiful garden in the long run.

A few yellowed leaves at the base of the plant are usually not of concern if the tips are healthy and growing. Most plants will shed their older leaves as they put their resources into the new foliage and stems. If the majority of the leaves are pale and falling away, however, something is wrong.

Just as a couple of pale leaves are not a problem, a hole or two in the foliage is usually not a concern. The plants in your garden have a few imperfections, and those in the nursery and garden center will too.

When shopping for your garden, choose vigorous plants that have a good shape, and are sturdy in their pots. Look for perennials with a good crown size (the crown is where the stems of the plant come out of the soil) and six-pack annuals that are not too root bound. Trees and shrubs should have a pleasing shape and few, if any, wounds to the branches and trunk. Avoid potentially girdling roots – a large root wrapped around the base of the trunk – on trees and large shrubs, because these can stunt or kill the plant in years to come.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “The first wealth is health” and although I don’t think he was referring to nursery stock, it is true that abundance in the garden starts with healthy plants.

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