Key things to look out for

When you are selecting your plant there are a few key things you can check to make sure you’re getting the best value for money. As a general rule the plant should look healthy, clean and pest/disease free – if you look for this you’ll get a plant which should survive being transplanted into your garden and establish quickly, without introducing any nasty bugs or pathogens into your garden. Here are a few things to check for:

  • Are there signs of disease? This includes looking for any discolouration of the leaves (more than the odd one or two yellow ones), any signs of fungal infection such as pustules or powdery coverings on the leaves, die back of any stems or general wilting/withering of leaves or stems.
  • Are there signs of pests? In particular any holes in the leaves, traces of honeydew or eggs on leaves or the suface of the soil.
  • What’s going on in the pot? Yes, you need to take the plant out of the pot to check it’s health. Make sure that most of the roots are a healthy colour (not all browned), that there’s no sign of them rotting or being eaten and that there aren’t any pests (especially eggs or larvae) around the roots.
  • Do the roots fill the pot OK? When you take the plant out of the pot to inspect the roots, also check how they fill the pot. The roots system should be substantial and hold most of the potting compost in place when you lift the plant out. However, it should not be pot bound (as this can discourage the roots from spreading out when the plant is planted out). Signs of a plant being pot bound include a siginificant growth of roots out of the base of the pot, roots growing out of the top surface of the soil and the roots circling around the edge of the pot.
  • Is the soil moist? Well cared for plants should have moist soil, if it’s dry then the plant may have already been damaged by the drought, even if there are no outward signs of it. Equally, waterlogged plants may fare poorly (although if you’re shopping first thing in the morning they may be slightly wetter due to morning watering).
  • Is the pot clean? It sounds pedantic, but the cleanliness of the pot can often say a lot about the hygiene conditions where it’s grown. Make sure that it’s neat and tidy with no moss or liverworts growing on the soil surface.

Remember that herbaceous perennials being sold in the winter or early spring may not appear above the soil surface at all – this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy them! Just make sure you check inside the pot to ensure the plant is healthy.

Having said all of this, many stores will sell plants which are past their best or are ‘looking unhappy’ at a significantly reduced price. If you’re willing to risk it, these can often be great buys. Just make sure that you keep the plant in isolation for a few weeks until it’s looking healthier, before you plant it out with your other plants – that way if it does have a disease you’ll have time to identify and deal with it rather than accidentally introducing it to your existing plants.